Gators Tip It Off With Samford Tonight

A year ago, they were unknowns, so far under the radar that they were ranked number 75 in the nation in the preseason analysis of one major publication. So many of the so-called experts called them an NIT team or a one-and-done in the NCAA Tournament. It’s a year later and my, how the expectations have changed for Coach Billy Donovan and his Florida Gators.

They tip off the season tonight against Samford University (8 p.m., Stephen C. O’Connell Center, TV Sun Sports) with a far different set of expectations than last year. If last year’s preseason predictions were unrealistically low, then this year’s are the polar opposite. Even if the Gators repeat their NCAA championship this year, somebody’s going to be disappointed. That’s because the bar is set so high now that even one loss will be considered a huge disappointment and nothing is more unrealistic than the thought that you can run the table given the parity that we have in college basketball today.

Even though the Gators return five starters that averaged in double figures — five very unselfish kids that all had at least 70 assists in last season’s improbable run to the NCAA title — and their top two reserves are back from last year and they’ve added four very talented freshmen that can contribute, stars and planets have to align for a repeat performance. The Gators start the season ranked number one which is not an unfair assessment, but figure this to be a 35-40 game grind and a lot of things can throw them off track.

What makes Florida’s run to the title so remarkable last year is that this was not a particularly deep team but somehow they managed to survive injuries to Corey Brewer (ankle) and Lee Humphrey (shoulder) and somehow, Taurean Green neither got in serious foul trouble or so worn down by all the minutes he had to play that his game was diminished.

Other than Chris Richard, who is a solid low post scorer, the Gators didn’t have a single offensive threat off the bench and nobody, all season long, ever figured out that neither Al Horford or Joakim Noah could shoot effectively from 10-15 feet.

All things considered, it adds up to a remarkable coaching job by Billy Donovan and his staff. The Gators won a championship because they proved they could overcome injuries, adversity and their own deficiencies better than any other team in the tournament. That’s what winning the championship is all about. It’s not necessarily about the team that had the most talent — Texas and UConn had more than anybody last year but they didn’t even make the Final Four. It’s all about adapting to the situation and circumstances and finding a way to move on to play one more game. In the end, the Gators were the only one standing.

Even with a team that figures to be much stronger and far more experienced this year, the Gators will once again have to face adversity this year. Just because they have firepower off the bench doesn’t mean there aren’t some deficiencies, either. There’s no such thing as the perfect team. This one has the potential to be better than last year, but they’re a long way from perfect.

Noah and Horford will once again be the top 1-2 inside punch in the country and they’re both improved in so many ways from last year. Noah still runs the floor like a gazelle and Horford has added a nice looking jump shot to his game. Both of them have added another 10 pounds of muscle. Chris Richard, if you can believe it, is even stronger than he was last year and he’s added a couple new wrinkles to his low post game that should make him even more effective coming off the bench. Is there a better post player off the bench anywhere in the country?

Freshman Marreese Speights replaces Adrian Moss in the post rotation. He’s taller (almost 6-11, Moss was 6-9), more athletic and has better offensive skills than Moss. What he lacks, however, is experience and savvy. Moss made up for a lot of deficiencies with his know-how. Speights will have the chance to grow up quickly, however, because he goes against Noah, Horford and Richard every day in practice.

Corey Brewer has worked hard on his intermediate game in the offseason so he figures to be more effective. Last year, he could slash to the rack and he was a hot three-point shooter in the NCAA Tournament but he couldn’t hit that 15-foot mid-range shot consistently. He took 500 jump shots a day during the summer so he figures to be a more consistent scoring threat. He’s already the best lock down defender in the country.

Teams that want to sag in the lane and clog up the low blocks this year will have to abandon that ploy when Donovan puts freshmen Dan Werner and Jonathon Mitchell in the game. They’re both effective shooting that 15-foot straight on jumper and Werner can pop out to the wing and knock down threes. So consider this an area of improvement.

Humphrey and Green figure to be as effective as any backcourt tandem in the country. Green proved in the NCAA Tournament that he is the man in charge when it comes to setting the tempo of the game from the point guard position. He’s stronger than he was last year — a good 10 pounds of muscle have been added — so he won’t get knocked around quite as much. If he can regain his touch from three-point land, he will further stretch defenses and open things up for Humphrey, who might be the best pure shooter in the country. Humphrey is such a presence on the perimeter that it opens up passing lanes so that the ball can go into the post.

Walter Hodge was pretty much a defensive specialist off the bench last year, but he’s maybe the most improved player on the team this year. He can handle the ball well enough to spell Green at the point and he’s a more confident shooter. Freshman Brandon Powell figures to inherit the role Hodge played last year. He’ll come off the bench to play tough defense and any offense he gives the Gators will be a bonus.

So the team has better depth and fewer holes plus they’re experienced and they’re as good defensively as any team in the country. It all adds up to a repeat, right?

Well, not so fast my friend.

Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) did it in 1945-46, Kentucky did it 1948-49, San Francisco did it 1955-56, Cincinnati did it 1961-62, UCLA did it 1964-65 and then 1967-73. Since then only Duke (1991-92) has repeated. Nobody will ever put together a run like UCLA did from 1967-73, but repeats are possible, just not probable.

It’s good to wish and hope the Gators will repeat this year and you have to believe they have every capability of doing it, but remember, lots of teams do it once. Not many do it two times in a row and there are a lot of reasons, probably the biggest one the weight of expectations. When you win the previous year and you have the main cogs back, every win is expected and every loss is a storm the court game for an opponent. That means no nights off. You can’t bring your B game and figure you can get by, and in reality, there are nights you just don’t feel like playing. You can’t have one of those nights and expect to repeat.

How do you combat the weight of expectation? There’s one way and one way only, and it’s the way that Donovan got the Gators cranked up and running on their way to that 11-game winning streak that finished off last year’s remarkable 33-6 season. He got them to focus in on living in the moment, which means controlling the only thing you can control which is right now. The only thing the Gators can control is what they’re doing on this possession, whether it’s on offense or on defense. You don’t think ahead. You get the job done on this possession and move on to the next.

If you want to know what Billy Donovan’s chief goal will be this season, that’s it right there. If he can get that focus and maintain it through a long grind of a season that won’t end until April if the Gators make it all the way back to the Final Four, then there’s a chance that this team can live up to the expectations.

It all starts tonight against Samford at the O-Dome.

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Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.