Uncertainty looms as Donovan begins 18th season

As he enters the 18th year of his collision course with the Basketball Hall of Fame, Billy Donovan (415-166 at Florida; 450-186 overall) is his usual uncertain self. It’s not confidence that he lacks. Donovan has plenty of that, reinforced by 17 years at Florida that include two national championships (2006-07), a trip to the NCAA title game (2000), three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and five Southeastern Conference championships (2000, 2001, 2007, 2001 and 2013). Donovan knows that this 2013-14 team is as talented and as deep as any he’s had in years. What he doesn’t know, however, is when all the pieces of the puzzle he’s assembling will finally fit together. That’s usually the way Donovan starts every season. A certain amount of trepidation always ensures that he dots every i and crosses every t, but this year is different than most.

When practice begins Friday, Donovan has to replace three scorers who combined for 36.3 points per game last year. Kenny Boynton, the second leading scorer in school history, is playing in Israel this year. Erik Murphy, who was one of the most effective three-point shooters in the country for a big man the last couple of years, is earning his way onto the Chicago Bulls’ roster. Mike Rosario, whose combined efforts at Rutgers and Florida produced more than 1,700 points, is playing in the Puerto Rican professional league.

“Those three guys started pretty much every single game,” Donovan said Wednesday at Florida’s basketball media day. “You had three big-time three-point shooters out there.”

Donovan has had to replace scorers before. He did it in 2005-06 when Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee left for the pros and again in 2007-08 when he had to replace the five starters from two straight national championship teams. Replacing scorers is what you do in college basketball. Kids graduate, transfer and leave for the pros all the time and coaches adjust every single year. When Roberson, Walsh and Lee departed, the leading returning scorer was Corey Brewer (7.1 points per game as a freshman), the MVP of the 2007 NCAA Tournament when the Gators earned their second straight national title.

If the uncertainty about who’s going to score the ball were the only problem, Donovan wouldn’t be so concerned but if the season began tomorrow, the Gators would have only eight scholarship players available. Will Yeguete (knee) and Rutgers transfer Eli Carter (broken leg) are still rehabbing and haven’t been cleared to practice. Scottie Wilbekin will miss the first month of the season while completing penance for violations of team rules that got him booted from the team back in the spring. McDonald’s All-American Chris Walker, who wasn’t allowed to enroll in August, won’t be around until December and that requires NCAA Clearinghouse approval.

Throw in some voids in the chain of leadership and Donovan doesn’t lack for anxiety. It wasn’t supposed to be that way with four returning seniors, an oddity in these days when going pro early is becoming more and more in vogue.

“When you’re dealing with two of the four seniors – one hurt (Yeguete) and one suspended (Wilbekin) as long as he’s been suspended – you don’t necessarily have all four seniors,” Donovan said, adding, “There is a lot of uncertainty in terms of our leadership moving forward. We’re anxious for Friday and to see how those guys can handle these situations.”

And what if reports are true that senior Casey Prather and junior transfers Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech) and Damontre Harris (South Carolina) will have to sit an undetermined number of games in November for a violation of team rules? Donovan was asked to confirm suspensions Wednesday but he artfully dodged the question.

“Our guys right now – everybody but Will Yeguete; everybody but Eli Carter is ready to practice to go forward and on our team,” Donovan said.

Okay, they will practice, but will they have to sit two or three games once the season cranks up with an exhibition game against Florida Southern on November 1? That will be determined at a later date.

For now, Donovan has to get a team ready to play its first game that counts in a little less than a month that won’t look anything like the team he will send out on the floor in January.

With Wilbekin out for the month of November, that leaves McDonald’s All-American Kasey Hill (6-1, 181) to run the point. Michael Frazier (6-4, 199), whose chief role was to break up zone defenses with his long range shooting as a freshman last year, will man one of the wings. Up front, senior Patric Young is a certain starter but Donovan will have to decide whether he wants to go big or athletic. If he goes big, he will pair Young (6-9, 240) with Harris (6-10, 228) at the post positions with Finney Smith (6-8, 214). If Donovan chooses to go athletic, he could insert Prather (6-6, 212) into front court lineup with Young and Finney-Smith. Both Prather and Finney-Smith have played effectively at the high post and both are capable of defending multiple positions.

That leaves a short bench of sophomores Dillion Graham (6-4, 186) and DeVon Walker (6-6, 195) along with walk-ons Billy Donovan III (6-2, 195), who transferred in from Catholic University, and Jacob Kurtz (6-6, 210), who has lettered two years.

The real concern is at the point where Hill will pretty much have to go it alone for awhile because Carter, a combo guard who is comfortable at the point or the wing, is out until he’s cleared to practice and play, and Wilbekin, last year’s starter and first team All-SEC Defensive Team, won’t play until December. Until they are able to play, Hill’s backup minutes will be shared by Graham, who played 3.5 minutes a game last year as a freshman, and Finney-Smith, a rare athlete who can play and defend all five positions on the court.

“There are things with Dorian,” Donovan said. “You can slide him back to the point a little bit and play with him back there as kind of a point forward and you can do a lot of different things with him. I don’t want to put pressure on him scoring, because I don’t think that’s who he is, but I do think he can facilitate, he can put it on the floor, he can pass and he really can rebound. If he can make the game easier for guys around him, that’s going to make our team better.”

Of course, when Donovan gets all his moving parts assembled including the addition of Walker, this Florida team will be talented and deep enough to break through that glass ceiling that has kept them stuck at the Elite Eight level the last three seasons. When Donovan has the total package put together, the Gators will have more size, depth, versatility and talent than they’ve had in several years.

“We can do some things that maybe we didn’t have the luxury of doing a year ago,” Donovan said.

The expectations will be high once again this year, but Donovan is used to that after winning 20 or more games for an SEC record 15 straight seasons. The challenges will be early on when he’s doing a mix and match to simply get through to the next game, but at some point Billy Donovan will have a full arsenal and a team that will have to be reckoned with.

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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.