Starting over next season

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With the departure of all four juniors from Florida’s back-to-back championship teams, fans will need to accept 2007-08 as a rebuilding year. Mind you, there’s enough talent left to make the NCAA Tournament. Getting out of the first weekend, though, could prove difficult unless a young, inexperienced group comes together quicker than expected.

Here’s my projected Florida starting lineup for 2007-08:

Marreese Speights, center – Showed the most promise of Florida’s four freshmen last season, with his ability to rebound and finish around the basket. Excellent vertical leap for a big man. Still gets lost defensively, but will have a summer to improve and grasp defensive concepts.

Jonathan Mitchell, forward – A bit undersized at power forward, but what Mitchell lacks in height (a modest 6-foot-7), he makes up for in strength and toughness. As a high school player, Mitchell was an excellent free-throw shooter, which could translate into points if he can draw fouls going to the basket.

Dan Werner, forward – Werner was the freshman Florida coach Billy Donovan had the most faith in last season. But it was clear as the season progressed, Werner lost confidence in his shot. A 41-percent shooter from 3-point range in his senior year in high school, Werner missed all 10 of his 3-point attempts during the SEC regular-season and finished his freshman year shooting 22.4 percent from beyond the arc. More playing time should give Werner a chance to get into a better rhythm as a shooter, and his passing from the high post is a plus. But Werner also will need to become a better defender in order for Florida to have success next season.

Walter Hodge, guard – It’s clear that Hodge will start in the backcourt for Florida next season. The question is whether it’s at the point or the shooting guard spot. Hodge is quick to the basket and an excellent shooter, but his ability to handle the ball in pressure situations remains shaky. Still, expect Hodge to get the nod at the point because of his experience. Also, Hodge is an excellent defender on a team that will have issues guarding the perimeter next season.

Nick Calathes, guard – The last McDonald’s All-American to arrive on campus, Corey Brewer, started his first game as a true freshman. Expect current burger boy Calathes to follow in that tradition. Calathes might not start at point guard right away because Donovan views the responsibility of the position as a challenge for an incoming freshman to handle. But Calathes has shown instincts beyond his years at the point during his years on the summer travel circuit. The 6-foot-5 Calathes can pass, shoot and handles the ball with a combination of flash and efficiency. The main questions remain on the defensive end, where Calathes will be forced to guard more experienced wing players in the SEC.

* If Florida signs Patrick Patterson and/or Jai Lucas this spring, there’s a chance the lineup could change, with Patterson having an opportunity to beat out Mitchell or Werner at one of the forward spots next season.