Four years ago, Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan felt like he was starting over. Four years later, he has lost his big guys again. But the transition to a new year should be smoother. “In 2007, we lost three lottery picks and our entire starting five,” he says. “We’ve got some good players coming back for this next season.”
Florida struggled after the back-to-back national championship teams, and it wasn’t until last season that it was able to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. But the frontcourt that helped UF reach the Elite Eight last season was wiped out because of graduation.
This will be a guard-heavy team that has to have some younger players develop if it is to compete for a second straight SEC Championship.
“We’ll be a better shooting team than we were a year ago,” Donovan says. “But the big question is going to be our frontcourt depth. We’ve got to find some guys who can go and get some rebounds.”
Donovan lost not only his frontcourt starters but also his entire coaching staff. Larry Shyatt, a big factor in Florida’s success over the last seven seasons, is back at Wyoming as the head coach. Rob Lanier went to Texas as an assistant, and Richard Pitino returned to Louisville to coach with his father.
Donovan brought in John Pelphrey, the former UF assistant who was let go by Arkansas; Norm Roberts, who has head coaching experience at St. John’s; and Matt McCall, a former director of operations at Florida.
“I like the guys we brought in because we have guys who have been in the fire as head coaches,” Donovan says. “John certainly gives me a comfort level having worked with him in the past.”
Gators Key Stat: 25
The Gators have enjoyed 25 NCAA Tournament wins under Billy Donovan. The school had seven NCAA wins before his arrival in Gainesville.
Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus are gone. They combined to average 32.0 points and 19.4 rebounds a year ago.
Now, the Gators will lean on center Patric Young and forward Erik Murphy to produce down low. Young was often the first guy off the bench for the Gators a year ago and led the team in blocked shots.
He spent the summer playing for the USA U19 team and needs to develop more moves around the basket to be effective. He also needs to stay out of foul trouble given Florida’s lack of depth. Murphy saw limited action as a sophomore — he played 10-plus minutes in only seven SEC games — but had some nice moments. He showed a nice touch from outside, shooting 40.0 percent from 3-point range.
Florida hopes that sophomores Casey Prather and Will Yeguete can provide quality minutes at small forward. The two combined to average 13.8 minutes per game a year ago. Depth may also come from Cody Larson, a 6'8" forward who redshirted last year, and incoming 6'10" freshman Walter Pitchford.
Florida returns its two leading scorers from a year ago in guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. Boynton is a streaky shooter but a lock-down defender. Walker earned the nickname “Big Shot Erv” after making so many clutch shots during Florida’s run a year ago. Together they averaged 28.8 points per game, and either one could play the point or shooting guard.
The talent on the perimeter doesn’t stop with those two, however. Mike Rosario averaged 16.5 points per game at Rutgers in two seasons before transferring and sitting out last year. Scottie Wilbekin enrolled in school a year early and played an important role off the bench. And incoming freshman Brad Beal has already been projected as potential 2011 NBA Lottery pick. The Missouri native can drive it to the basket and is an excellent 3-point shooter.
“We’re going to play some three-guard sets,” Donovan says. “We’ve got some guys who can really shoot it. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to work them all in.”
This will be a different team than the one that lost in overtime to Butler in the Elite Eight a year ago. That was an inside-out team. This group will be more perimeter-oriented. Still, the Gators will go only as far as their big men take them.
In the rugged SEC, the Gators will have plenty of firepower, but if they can’t rebound or defend inside, it’s not going to matter. Young may be the answer inside. If he takes a big step forward, Florida will be back as an SEC contender.
SEC Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16