MEYER: Thrilled for hoops, talks practice

After the Gator basketball team captured the national title last spring, the football team answered on the gridiron. But with the hoop team’s repeat last night, the pressure’s back on Urban Meyer and company to defend their BCS title.

It might not be as easy for Meyer, since he’s not returning all 22 starters from last year like Billy Donovan’s squad had the luxury of, but nonetheless, Meyer is happy for Donovan and the UF family.

“That was awesome,” Meyer said after Tuesday’s practice. “I’m so proud of that coach and that team. It was a weekend infomercial on the University of Florida.”

The university has certainly been in the spotlight during this unprecedented magical stretch. And despite all the success and the national attention it’s brought to Gainesville, Meyer criticized the marketing of the Gators.

“Our football team was No. 1 out of 56 bowl teams with an 80 percent graduation rate and our basketball team has 100 percent graduation rate,” Meyer said. “And it’s Ohio State that’s on the front of Sports Illustrated as the model program. We have to market our program a little better.”

Meyer was referring to the March 5, 2007 issue of Sports Illustrated that featured Ohio State’s athletic department. The article also mentioned the program at UF, but not as prominently as the Buckeyes who have become victim of the Gators’ title march.

Meyer also addressed the job that Donovan has done in coaching the Gators to back-to-back national championships.

“He’s the best coach in college basketball right now,” he said. “It’s not that he’s the basketball coach at Florida; it’s that he’s my friend. What has he meant to Gainesville? I’ve only been here for two years, but what he’s meant to Florida basketball – it was completely insignificant. Now it’s the seventh program to ever win back-to-back NCAA Championships.”

Donovan now finds himself in a similar position that Meyer was in just a few years ago. During his second season at Utah, Meyer’s name came up in numerous job openings just like Donovan’s name has come up as the leading candidate for Kentucky’s head job.

“I thought he handled it perfectly, like he handles most things,” Meyer said. “He had a very mature team. There’s only one way, everybody says they’re going to stay focused, but teams played in bowl games and they weren’t focused. If they didn’t they would of looked like a bunch of clowns in the tournament. That was one of the best basketball teams I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been a college basketball fan for a long time.”

A native of Ohio and admirer of the days of Woody Hayes at Ohio State, Meyer is not feeling too sorry for his former stomping grounds.

“It’s not tough on us, but I’ve lived in that state for 20 years and it’s real tough there because that’s a great school.”

The Gators had a lighter workout on Tuesday after canceling practice on Monday for the basketball game. Instead of working out in full pads, the Gators practiced in shorts, but tomorrow will be a more physical workout with a winner and loser.

The defensive line remains a concern for Meyer after losing three starters, but he said two sophomores are standing out led by defensive end Jermaine Cunningham.

“He’s had his best two days,” Meyer said. “He’s coming along a little bit and so is Brandon Antwine. Those guys are a little further ahead than the other young guys.”

Ironically, the defensive and offensive lines have switched roles this spring. Last year, the d-line had all the promise while the o-line was returning only one starter – Steve Rissler – and he was switching positions.

“It was a mess,” Meyer said. “Our offensive line has been erratic the last two years. It’s a much different role reversal, but we still have a long way to go on the offensive line.”

Also on defense, the news is brightening for the secondary. After starting the spring with nagging injuries, Markihe Anderson, Jacques Rickerson and Ahmad Black are now all practicing.

“They’re starting to come back, Wondy’s (Louis-Pierre) the only one that didn’t practice,” Meyer said.

With the corners getting more healthy, Meyer now needs to make a decision on Markus Manson who moved from the offensive backfield to defense and has done a solid job at corner.

“He graded out a champion in the first scrimmage, which is a tremendous accomplishment,” Meyer said. “He’ll lose a lot of weight if we keep him at corner. He’s 205, and you can’t play corner at 205. But at running back, we’re not exactly knocking them dead, so I haven’t’ made that decision yet.”

Someone who is lining up in the Gator backfield is James Smith. Smith is working out at fullback after persuading Meyer during the offseason.

“He begged me last year, and he’s a great kid,” he said. “I love him. He was on kickoff last year and he’s one of our better players now. With Billy Latsko leaving, that spot is open and he’s a tremendous player.”

Like Latsko, Smith graduated from Buchholz in Gainesville.

No decision has been made after the weekend arrest of sophomore linebacker Dustin Doe. Doe was arrested for his part in a brawl just off campus, but practiced today despite the incident.

Meyer trusts the Leadership Committee to handle the discipline of Doe.

“They met today, and we’ll meet with him tomorrow.”