Florida cruised to the national championship last season. Considering who the Gators have returning, the expectations and pressure to repeat may be far more intense.
The preseason No. 1 team in the country begins defense of its title by hosting Samford on Friday night.
Trying to become the first team in 15 years to repeat as national champions, the Gators—the preseason No. 1 for the first time in school history—possess all the ingredients for another long run in March.
Florida is the first team since Arizona in 1997-98 and only the second in 40 years to return all five starters from its championship team. The top seven scorers are back, along with a recruiting class that could contribute right away.
That Arizona squad came up one victory short of the Final Four. If Florida plays anything like it did last March and April, a run that ended with a 73-57 win over UCLA in the championship game, it has a great shot at equaling Duke’s feat of back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992.
“I understand that there’s going to be a lot of expectations,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who guided his team to a 33-6 mark last season and needs 10 wins to break Norm Sloan’s school record of 235 career victories. “There’s going to be a lot of preseason hype around our team. People are going to talk about who’s going to repeat and everything else. But all that speculation of people guessing what’s going to happen six or seven months from now, for me to get caught up in that I would be wasting my time and my energy.
“I hope our team doesn’t get caught up in that. Being able to handle what’s in front of them now is totally different than what it was a year ago.”
The Gators began last season unranked, but won their first 17 games. A slump followed before Florida regrouped to win its last 11 contests, culminating with the victory over UCLA at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.
Anything less than a trip to Atlanta for this season’s Final Four may be viewed as a disappointment.
“We’re going to enjoy being at the top,” forward Corey Brewer said. “Everybody’s going to be talking about us. But we also got to enjoy the process of getting better and accomplishing more.”
The Gators won their six games in the NCAA tournament by an average of 16 points. With a potent inside-outside rotation, Florida figures to be just as tough to defend this season.
Joakim Noah, named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, is back after toying with entering the NBA draft. He blocked a tournament-record 29 shots, including six against the Bruins.
Teamed with center Al Horford, who averaged a double-double in the tournament, the pair can score and defend as well as any big men in the country.
Try to beat the Gators outside and they counter with Brewer, Lee Humphrey and Taurean Green. Brewer is one of the most complete players in the nation while Humphrey made 113 3-pointers last season, third-most in SEC history.
“We’ve always had a lot of swagger,” said Noah, the SEC preseason player of the year. “We believed even when nobody else believed. We can’t worry about expectations and pressures and this and that. We’ve got to keep attacking and running the floor and doing what we do best, and stay humble. As long as we stay humble, we’re always going to be a tough team to beat.”
Florida has won 15 straight season openers and went 20-0 against nonconference opponents last season. The Gators are 40-8 against non-SEC teams over the last three years.
Samford gets the first chance to test the national champs. The Bulldogs, 20-11 last season, were picked to win the Ohio Valley Conference this season after advancing to the championship game of the conference tournament in 2005-06.
Samford lost leading scorer and rebounder J. Robert Merritt, but returns four other starters as it attempts to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2000.
“While no one is indispensable, some people are irreplaceable and Merritt for us is that individual,” said Samford coach Jimmy Tillette, the school’s all-time wins leader, going 149-113 with two NCAA tournament appearances in nine seasons. “Basically our other veterans are just going to have to step up and fill that important role.”
Samford, which also plays top 10 teams Arizona and LSU, has lost five straight to ranked opponents.
Florida beat Samford 79-74 in 1970, the only meeting between the schools.