UF basketball season preview: Gators back in spotlight
Published: Monday, November 8, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 6, 2010 at 10:06 p.m.
Florida coach Billy Donovan recalled the moment his current team core first thought they had arrived.
Gators at a glance
Last Season: 21-13
Who's Back: Chandler Parsons, sr., f; Alex Tyus, sr., f; Vernon Macklin, sr., c; Erving Walker, jr., g; Kenny Boynton, so., g; Erik Murphy, so., f; Kyle McClanahan, jr., g
Who's Gone: Dan Werner, f, (graduated); Kenny Kadji, c (transferred to Miami); Ray Shipman, g (transferred to UCF); Rod Tishman, g (left team); Hudson Fricke, g (left team)
Who's New: Patric Young, fr., f; Casey Prather, fr., f; Will Yeguete. fr., f; Cody Larson, fr., f; Scottie Wilbekin, fr., g; Mike Rosario, jr., g (transfer from Rutgers, not eligible til 2011-12 season).
Key non-conference Games: Nov. 16, Ohio State; Nov. 28, at Florida State; Dec. 18, vs. Kansas State (Orange Bowl Classic, Sunrise), Jan. 3, vs. Rhode Island.
Outlook: With five starters back, Florida has been picked to win the SEC and been ranked as high as 9th in preseason polls. But the Gators will need to manage high expectations while blending an inexperienced bench with an experienced starting core.
Senior forward Chandler Parsons was a freshman. So was senior forward Alex Tyus. The Gators started the 2007-08 season 18-3 and had just knocked off ranked Vanderbilt at home by 22 points.
What followed were back-to-back blowout losses at Arkansas and at Tennessee. That began an ugly stretch of basketball to close the season. Florida lost eight of its next 11 games, failing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
"This group," Donovan said, "hasn't always handled expectations well."
If Florida is to achieve the goals of returning to the NCAA Tournament and making a deep run in March, it will be about finding a way to manage high expectations. To ask 18- to 22-year-old kids to keep things in perspective isn't an easy task. But Donovan is hopeful his five returning starters, which include Parsons and Tyus, have been humbled enough in the past to learn from their mistakes.
"No matter what you are ranked, you've got to stay humble, you've got to stay hungry," Parsons said. "Rankings really don't mean anything until you go out there and play. There is a lot of basketball to play, there's a lot to be proven. We've been there before. We're a mature team."
Yet even last season, when Parsons and Tyus were juniors, Florida had issues handling success. After knocking off Florida State and Final Four-bound Michigan State in November, Florida failed to maintain its early positive momentum. In December, Richmond and South Alabama upset the Gators during a three-game UF losing streak.
"We just have to block it out," Florida sophomore guard Kenny Boynton said. "Last year we didn't have that preseason publicity so in the middle of the season we moved up to No. 11 and we got knocked back down. So really the rankings don't mean anything."
Florida will find out early how well it can block out preseason praise. The Gators were picked to win the Southeastern Conference in the league's preseason media poll. Florida has been ranked No. 9 in the preseason AP poll and No. 11 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches poll.
"We enjoy the fact that we're getting a little respect this year, but at the same time, we understand that it doesn't really mean anything until we go out on the court and perform," Parsons said.
There are reasons why analysts are high on Florida. All five returning starters averaged double figures in scoring last season. Freshman McDonald's All-American forward Patric Young adds depth and a physical element to a deep and experienced UF frontline.
But Donovan is quick to point out that his same group of starters needed three last-second, game-winning shots — including a 75-footer from Parsons against North Carolina State — just to make the NCAA Tournament.
Florida finished the season 21-13 after losing to BYU 99-92 in double-overtime. It was UF's first NCAA Tournament game since winning the second of its back-to-back national titles in 2007.
"There is, I think, a lot of excitement about this group because of what's returning, what's coming back in," Donovan said. "But the reality is this group still has a lot to prove, a lot to accomplish and a lot to get done, and I think if they are going to rest their laurels on the fact of what preseason rankings say and those things, I think they'd be making a mistake."
Boynton (14.0 ppg) and point guard Erving Walker (12.6 ppg) were UF's top two scorers last season. But Donovan is counting on better shot selection from both. Last season, UF finished 11th in the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage, averaging 31.3 percent from beyond the arc.
Up front, Florida made strides rebounding the basketball. Parsons and Tyus tied for the team lead at 6.9 per game. Senior center Vernon Macklin gained more confidence as the season progressed, averaging 10.6 points while shooting 60.7 percent from the field. Macklin scored 12.1 points per game in SEC play.
Donovan said the key to the season could rest on how quickly sophomore Erik Murphy and the rest of UF's bench adapt to their roles. At 245 pounds, Young has an SEC-ready body and projects to make an impact rebounding and blocking shots. Forward Casey Prather is an athletic wing player capable of finishing in transition and defending on the perimeter.
Freshmen forwards Will Yeguete and Cody Larson should add more insurance up front. Freshman point guard Scottie Wilbekin, a 17-year-old Gainesville native who skipped his senior year of high school, could add needed depth to a thin backcourt.
"We have depth," Donovan said. "We have bodies, we have numbers. But can we really carve out some roles? Can Erik Murphy really carve out a role for himself? Can Alex (Tyus)? Can our veteran guys? For us to be a better team, some of our veteran guys are going to have to take less."
That depth could be needed during a non-conference schedule that includes early tests against No. 4 Ohio State (Nov. 16, O'Connell Center) and No. 3 Kansas State (Dec. 18, BankAtlantic Center, Sunrise).
From there, Florida will head into a loaded SEC East that includes preseason Top 25-ranked teams Kentucky (No. 11) and Tennessee (No. 23). Two more SEC East teams, Georgia and Vanderbilt, also received preseason Top 25 votes.
Donovan wants the Gators to maintain the focus of getting better each day and blocking out thoughts of the NCAA Tournament. That was re-enforced during summer conditioning. Parsons described the offseason workouts with strength and conditioning coach Matt Herring as intense. That included the dreaded "jailhouse" workouts.
"I don't even like talking about it," Parsons said. "It's just lifting after lifting. No rest. Exercise bench to curls to shoulder press to squats. Repetitive stuff. It's really tough. ... I'm assuming that's what the guys do in jail."
The reward could come in March, provided the Gators keep expectations in check.
"Making it to the tournament last year in the first round, we're not happy, we're not content just getting there," Parsons said. "We want to make noise. We want to play as many games as possible. You can't let expectations get to your head."