OCALA — Billy Donovan is well aware that the expectations for his 2006-2007 basketball team are going to be nothing short of unrealistic. Because he’s got his top seven players returning from the team that won the NCAA title back in April, most analysts are already making the Gators favorites to repeat and a certain element in Florida’s fan base won’t be happy with anything but another title.
Donovan told the Ocala Gator Tip-Off Club Tuesday night that it’s possible that the Gators could be a better team this season but still fail to repeat as the national champions or even make it to the Final Four.
“Everybody talks about repeating,” said Donovan. “Well, we could be a better team than we were last year and we could not even get back to the Final Four because the NCAA Tournament has got nothing to do with the best team in college basketball. It has to do with the team that is able to play the best basketball for six games. If you think about it, there are 65 teams in the NCAA tournament and we only played six of them and that means there are 59 teams that we didn’t even see.
“To sit there and say the NCAA tournament truly is a national championship for the best team in the country is totally untrue. What it does is give a championship to a team that can win six games. What we’ll really never know is that we were the best team in the country without playing all 65 teams and that’s not going to happen.”
Donovan isn’t belittling his team’s marvelous 33-6 record or its national championship. Those accomplishments are high notes for a program that Donovan has built into one of consistency and high expectations. What he does want is for fans to put it all in proper perspective this year while appreciating what was accomplished in 2006.
The Gators will return five starters (Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Taurean Green, Lee Humphrey and Corey Brewer), all who averaged in double figures and all of whom had more than 75 assists last year. Off the bench Chris Richard and Walter Hodge return, the first two guys off the bench last year. Added to the mix are four very talented freshmen that will give the Gators their deepest and most talented bench since the 2000 season when Florida made it all the way to the NCAA title game.
Not only are there five starters returning, but Noah, Horford and Green would have been first rounders in the NBA Draft. Noah would have probably been the first player chosen and Horford would have been a sure lottery pick. It’s possible that Brewer could have inched his way into the top 10. When you add these factors in, it brings expectations for the upcoming season to a higher level than at any point in Florida basketball history.
Donovan understands the expectations but he wants fans to appreciate what was accomplished last year, too.
“When you have the expectation level like we’re going to have this year you start to hear people say start talking about they’re not winning pretty enough, they’re not winning by a big enough margin, they’re not doing this, what’s wrong with him,” Donovan said. “I just hope that through the Gator Nation there is a level of appreciation and respect that these kids came back to play at the University of Florida because that’s really the story.
“You don’t get a chance many times as a fan or a coach to sit there every single day and deal with these kind of kids. We would be making a huge mistake as coaches, fans, boosters and alumni to sit there and say ‘let’s put the whole focus on March and what happens the last six games in March.’ I hope we all can enjoy what these kids are all about and I hope we can enjoy these images. As a coach I know I won’t have a lot of these guys much longer and I am going to cherish each practice, each game, every moment I can possibly have being with these guys because you don’t get a chance to coach guys like this all the time.”
Donovan said his challenge to the team is to work hard to be better than they were last year and to understand that they are held to a different level of accountability now. He said that the accomplishments of 2006 will only put his players under an unrealistic microscope where their every move will be recorded and everything they do on the basketball floor analyzed and rehashed far too many times.
“I want our team to be better than they were last year,” he said. “I don’t know where that will lead us but if every guy can be better than they were a year ago, then we’re moving in the right direction. The bottom line isn’t always about winning. It has to be what these guys are all about.”
What made the team great in 2006 was Florida’s ability to play unselfishly. The Gators were the total team, a real band of brothers that loved and cared about each other. Donovan said he is often asked what would happen if his national championship team could play his 2000 NCAA runner-up.
“There’s no question about it that the team in 2000 was deeper and more talented than this team,” he said. “Guys (Udonis) Haslem, Donnell Harvey and Mike Miller played had the same competitiveness and motivation that this team had but this team  was the consummate team as they played because as they played they did not care who got recognition, they played for one another and everything was based on winning and that’s what made this team so special.”
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This was a night to honor Billy Donovan but the Ocala Gator Tip-Off Club also took time to honor one of its own. A good portion of the meeting was devoted to longtime club president and founder Augie Greiner, who lettered four years for the Gators (1953-56). The club has endowed two basketball scholarships, all under the direction of Greiner.
Tuesday night, the club honored Greiner by announcing it is endowing a third scholarship and this one will be in the name of Greiner.
Donovan took time to praise the efforts of Greiner, who has been a friend and loyal supporter of the basketball program. Greiner was one of the first to embrace and befriend Donovan when he became Florida’s coach 11 years ago.
“He is somebody that really has done an unbelievable job with this group, with this club,” said Donovan, who added that Greiner is “very important” to the Florida program.
“I’m very thankful that there is somebody like this that has been able to put together a club and a group that started from nothing that built into the situation that it is,” said Donovan. “He’s the leader, he’s the one that takes charge.”
Donovan presented Greiner with a photo that was taken at Florida’s basketball practice last Wednesday when Greiner was there was his three sons to watch the Gators open their practices for a preseason exhibition trip to Canada. The framed photo was signed by all the players on the Florida team.
Greiner also received a plaque from the Ocala club in recognition for his many years of leadership.
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The Ocala club held several auctions throughout the evening that raised more than $20,000 that will go towards its annual scholarship drive. The hot item was a trip on the team plane to Lexington for Florida’s February 10 game with Kentucky at Rupp Arena. The package included two tickets to the game, hotel accommodations and meals, a suit from Greiner’s Ocala men’s clothing store and some other amenities. The winning bid for the trip was $11,000.
Also auctioned off were a week at an exclusive home in Highlands, North Carolina ($3,500) and week at another exclusive home, this one in Sun Valley, Idaho that brought a winning bid of ($3,000).
Ocala native Matt McCall, recently named to the Florida support staff, auctioned off a basketball for $751, edging Florida assistant Larry Shyatt, who got $750 for the ball he auctioned off.