With five starters and two of last year’s top three reserves returning, there is a level of confident expectation for the number one ranked Florida Gators when they take the Stephen C. O’Connell Center floor for the first time tonight when they face Northwood University in the first of two exhibition games before their November 10 season opener with Samford University.
Coach Billy Donovan pretty much knows what to expect of a starting lineup of Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey. They all started and averaged in double figures for last year’s 33-6 Gators, winners of the NCAA basketball championship. Senior Chris Richard returns to bring strength and inside power off the bench and sophomore Walter Hodge should be more of a ball handler and not just a defender off the bench this year.
Those guys Donovan knows. It’s the four freshmen that he will get to see tonight in expanded roles since the two-day Canadian trip the Gators took back on Labor Day weekend. Donovan is eager to see how Marreese Speights, Jonathon Mitchell, Dan Werner and Brandon Powell fit in with the veterans in this first exhibition game.
“We’re going to be looking at different combinations of guys playing together and seeing how they can fit in,” said Donovan, who is starting his eleventh season as Florida’s head coach. “One of the things that we probably will not do which we did a lot of in Canada is to play the freshmen collectively as a group. We probably won’t have all those guys on the floor at one time together. We may be better off piecing them in with different veterans so there is a level of comfort and cohesiveness.”
Donovan wants his freshmen to understand that they are needed as contributors from day one, not just guys to occupy the end of the bench until it’s time for mop-up duty. It’s the only way the Gators are going to be better this year than last.
“I think for our basketball team we’re talking about trying to be better than we were a year ago,” said Donovan, who knows that because the Gators won the NCAA title last year, they’ll get everybody’s best game this year. “What we did last year won’t be good enough. Statistically we have to be better in every area. We have to be better in our field goal percentage offense, field goal percentage defense, what we shot from the free throw line, our assist to turnover ration, rebounding margin …. all those things I think are critical for us to make the strides that I think are necessary.”
And to improve, the freshmen must find their way into the mix.
“There are a lot of different pieces to it that they really have to look at to be able to help us,” said Donovan. “I don’t want our freshmen to defer and say this is not my time, this is these guys team and I’ll sit back and wait and if I can play a couple of minutes I’ll do it. They need to step up and act like they want more of an active role and a bigger role.
“I’m a little concerned about them taking that back seat and just kind of waiting for those other guys to do it. We’re going to need our entire team to help based on the way teams are playing us and we can’t be a seven-man team where it’s the four freshmen and the seven guys returning and that’s enough. We’re going to need those guys to contribute.”
Speights will be needed to be the fourth big guy in the rotation. He doesn’t have the experience and savvy that Adrian Moss brought to that position, but he’s an athletic, muscular 6-10 capable of doing more offensively than Moss ever could, plus he is another shot blocker off the bench. He’s benefited by having to go every day against three big men that are as good as any he’ll see in games this year.
“The best thing for him is having the chance to go every day against Chris Richard, Joakim Noah and Al Horford,” said Donovan. “I think that’s been very helpful for him understanding how far he has to come.”
In 6-7 Jonathon Mitchell and 6-8 Dan Werner, the Gators have two very versatile freshmen capable of playing inside or outside.
Mitchell can play the wing or the power forward and he’s quite comfortable roaming along the base line.
Donovan described Mitchell as “a mismatch guy that can play the small forward spot, can play the power forward spot, lefthanded, big strong physical kid, about 235 pounds, comes from a great high school program, inside-outside player.”
Werner can play the high post or low post but he has the shooting range to take a big man far away from the basket.
Donovan said that Werner “adds a different dimension to our team because this will give us somebody in the front court that can step out and really shoot the ball behind the three-point line. I think he has a chance like Jonathon Mitchell to play a couple of different positions.”
Powell is a very athletic 6-3 that could team with Corey Brewer in press situations to give the Gators a lethal 1-2 defensive punch.
“Defensively in practice the last two weeks here has shown the ability to be one of our better perimeter defenders with his athletic ability and his toughness,” said Donovan. “He’s also a very, very good three-point shooter.”
Because the freshmen have been learning the Florida system every day at practice, this and Sunday’s exhibition game against Barry University will force them to make a lot of sight adjustments.
“We’re in situations in practice every day where guys know the calls, the plays, the defenses and they can read and react to that,” said Donovan. “It will be good to play against guys where we don’t know what’s coming.”
Neither Northwood nor Barry will provide a whole lot of opposition for the Gators, whose first game against Sanford on November 10 will force them to play against a team that is well versed in the Princeton offense. The advantage of the exhibition games will be to let the freshmen get their feet wet and to start finding how all the pieces of this year’s team will fit together.
“It’s going to be a game where everybody gets a chance on Thursday to play but at least we’ll have a chance to look at where we’re at execution wise, where we’re at defensively some of our press, give our young guys a chance to play some and see how they handle the situation,” said Donovan. “I think Thursday and I think Sunday we’ll at least get our feet wet and get prepared because we really open up a week from this Friday night.”