There’s sure to be a point this season when Florida head coach Billy Donovan will wonder if the last two years really happened.
By Andy Glockner
Yes, he has the rings and the banners and the memories of the back-to-back national titles. He now also has vastly larger paychecks to remind him of what he and the now-legendary Oh-Fours accomplished. But now he’s in charge of Florida 2007-08. Same colors, same fans, but the players who established the legacy are gone. They say tradition never graduates; Donovan’s hoping it didn’t declare for early entry.
This rebuilding/reloading job really is unprecedented. No coach has ever repeated as national champ and then turned around to lead what amounts to an elite AAU team.
The closest proxy is North Carolina in 2005-06. The Tar Heels lost their top seven scorers off the 2005 national title team, but that was only one championship season. And even that team still had David Noel, who averaged about 17 minutes a game during the title run, and two other juniors in Wes Miller and Reyshawn Terry to help anchor the program. For what it’s worth, those Heels vastly surpassed expectations, landing a 3-seed in the NCAA Tournament before becoming the second of George Mason’s victims during its miracle run to Indy.
Where does all of this leave Donovan—who was tempted by Kentucky before he jilted the Orlando Magic before he landed back in Gainesville—a place that’s both completely familiar and completely new? He’s not even sure.
“This is a totally new experience,” he said. “It’s almost like I’m walking in as a brand-new coach because I’ve never coached any of these guys. The only guy who was in our rotation last year at all was Walter Hodge. And not because they weren’t ready or weren’t good enough, but Dan Werner and Jonathan Mitchell and Marreese Speights were behind Corey Brewer and Al Horford and Chris Richard and Joakim Noah, so the opportunity for significant minutes just was not there. … They were kind of fill-in guys, so they’ve never been on the floor in the heat of it where the game’s on the line in the last two, three minutes. They’ve never been in a game like that ever in their college careers, so in a lot of ways, they’re almost freshmen again. I just hope they’ve learned a lot from last year’s guys on our team. Now you add five freshmen who I think are all very good players, but I don’t know, that jump from high school to college, what kind of transition they’re going to have.”
Donovan expects to have only nine scholarship players this season. In fact, the Gators are so desperate for practice bodies that they have opened up an on-campus walk-on search for big men. Florida clearly doesn’t have the depth and experience of the last two seasons, but what matters most to Donovan is that the new Gators develop the same characteristics that fueled their forebearers.
“My main thing is right now that we have to become a team,” Donovan said. “We’re not a team. We share the same locker room, we wear the same jerseys, but that doesn’t make a team. It’s not their fault. It’s just we have guys from all different parts of the country and they’re all coming together, and now can we gel and mesh to become a team to become the best we can become?”
Donovan repeatedly emphasized that, in his mind, results on the court are somewhat random; what you can control is your team’s effort and its identity and the consistency it plays with. Still, Florida is so young and inexperienced that Donovan understands that even if these Gators reach that same level of togetherness, the on-court outcomes may differ.
That doesn’t mean Donovan expects—or accepts—a lack of success this season. Acknowledging youth and accepting limitations of it are two very different things.
“The thing we have to stay away from as a basketball team is using [youth] as a crutch or an excuse,” he said. “… It’s a lot more about your internal makeup. Do you understand how to impact winning? Do you understand what competitiveness is about? Do you understand what toughness is about? Do you understand what chemistry is about? Do you understand that sometimes giving less in a game means more for our team? Do you understand the passion and energy you have to play with? Those are the things that we have to look at ourselves. If we can answer those questions, then our team will reach its fullest potential. What that fullest potential is, I don’t know.”
When you have become one of the nation’s elite programs, an occasional down year may be unavoidable, but that doesn’t mean it is a downward trend. Florida is now established, even if this season’s Gators are not, and Donovan is rebuilding his program with much perspective.
“It’s very, very rare in life to be able to start something on the ground floor,” he said. “My first two seasons were losing seasons, and then be able to see it go all the way to the pinnacle and be able to go through that. A lot of times, a coach will inherit a team or a really great program. I can’t say Florida was a really great program when we took over, basketball-wise. I think it had a lot of pockets of success. … [But now] Florida will continue to be a success long after I’m gone.”
If his assessment of the institution is correct, that means these expectations will remain the norm—and will be Donovan’s legacy at the school. What it also means, heading into a season of complete uncertainty, is that SEC foes better get their shots in now. It might not be very long until Florida’s fully back.
Andy Glockner is a regular contributor to ESPN.com’s college basketball coverage and is the host of the ESPNU College Basketball Insider podcast.