After winning back-to-back national championships, Florida went through a rebuilding process last season with mixed results.
Now, with a year of experience behind them, the No. 19 Gators begin this season on Friday against Toledo in the opener of the CBE Classic, looking to prove they are again among the nation’s elite.
Florida began last season with five new starters, including two freshman, after losing the core group that won national championships in 2006 and 2007. The Gators started strong despite the inexperience, but stumbled in conference play, finishing 24-12 and fourth in the Southeastern Conference’s East Division. They also failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time in 10 years, instead settling for the NIT.
“I’m hopeful it was a humbling experience for all of us last year,” coach Billy Donovan said. “There’s no way in their mind last year that they didn’t see themselves competing in the NCAA tournament. If you would’ve talked to them in January or February, they thought it was a foregone conclusion.”
The Gators return leading scorer Nick Calathes and two other starters from last season’s team, but they must make up for the losses of leading rebounder Marreese Speights, who left after his junior year for the NBA, and guard Jai Lucas, who decided to transfer earlier this month.
Florida’s other two returning starters, senior Walter Hodge and junior Dan Warner, are expected to help Calathes lead a very young team. The Gators have nine underclassmen on this season’s roster, with sophomores Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus expected to break into the starting lineup after coming off the bench last season.
“Last year was a good learning experience,” said Parsons, one of Florida’s top reserves last season, averaging 8.1 points and 4.0 rebounds. “We were a really young team and we learned from our mistakes. To start the year already knowing what we have to do in practice and the right ways to prepare for games is already a step above last year.”
Defense was a problem last season for the Gators, and improvement is needed if they are to develop into a national title contender. In 2007-08, Florida finished 10th in the SEC in field-goal defense, ninth in 3-point-defense and ninth in rebounding - areas it had excelled in during its two championship runs.
With conference play a few months off, Florida is focused on getting out to a fast start during the non-conference portion of its schedule. Even during last season’s disappointing campaign, the Gators still excelled against non-league opponents, going 13-2 during the regular season.
Florida is 26-2 in November the last five years, but Donovan said last season has taught his team not to make assumptions.
“I would say coming in that they’ve got a lot more appreciation of how hard it is (to win),” he said. “I don’t think they really understood how hard it was.”
The Gators face a Toledo team that went 11-19 last season and finished fourth in the Mid-American Conference’s West Division. The Rockets return three starters from that squad, including Tyrone Kent, the conference’s leading scorer (16.9).
Three other seniors are returning for Toledo, including Jonathan Amos, Anthony Byrd and Ridley Johnson. Byrd and Amos are both expected to start while first-year coach Gene Cross likely will to turn to redshirt freshman Terrance Tubbs and sophomore Justin Anyijong to round out the starting five.
Cross, an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Notre Dame the last two years, will look to improve on an offense that was 11th in the conference with 59.8 points and last with 39.6 percent shooting.
The Rockets have lost their last four games against ranked teams since beating No. 14 Michigan State in 2002.
This is the first meeting between these schools.