GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) - There’s two ways to look at No. 9 Florida: The way outsiders do and the way coach Billy Donovan does.
Most see the Gators as an NCAA tournament team that returns five starters and adds a talented freshman class led by forward Patric Young. Donovan views them as a squad that made the NCAA field because of two buzzer-beaters, lost in the opening round and has no clue how to handle high expectations.
Maybe the difference between which is perception and which is reality is somewhere in the middle.
Florida’s true identity will be revealed over the next few months, beginning with Friday’s season opener against North Carolina-Wilmington.
In the meantime, the Gators are enjoying a top-10 ranking and the kind of preseason attention the program has lacked since winning a second straight national title in 2007.
“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,” forward Chandler Parsons said.
Florida finished 21-13 last season and earned a No. 10 seed in the NCAA tournament, thanks mostly to Parsons’ last-second 3-pointers against North Carolina State and South Carolina, and partly because of early season wins over Florida State and Michigan State.
Even though Donovan’s team returned to the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years, it still had obvious problems: The Gators got handled in the post at times, struggled to defend the 3-point line and turned in some of the worst shooting performances in the coach’s tenure.
Florida shot 31 percent from behind the arc, making it Donovan’s poorest-shooting team in his 14 seasons in Gainesville.
The Gators will be better this season, but Donovan said they’re going to have to work at it.
“There’s a lot of excitement with this group because of what’s returning and what’s coming back, but the reality is that this group has a lot to prove, a lot to accomplish and a lot to get done,” Donovan said. “I think that if they’re going to rest their laurels on what preseason rankings say, then I think we’d be making a mistake.”
Donovan points out that even though Florida was picked to win the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division, it’s pretty much the same team that got swept by Kentucky and Vanderbilt and finished fourth in the division last year.
He also makes it clear that his starters - Parsons, guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, forward Alex Tyus and center Vernon Macklin - didn’t handle success very well last season.
Donovan’s message seems to be getting across.
“Coach told us there are going to be expectations out there, but as a group, we haven’t completed a mission or any of our goals yet, so there is no need for us to pay attention to what everyone else is saying,” Walker said. “We just have to focus on us.”
The Gators should have a good idea about themselves early. They host No. 4 Ohio State on Tuesday, then play at Florida State (Nov. 28) and against No. 3 Kansas State (Dec. 18). Throw in games against American, Xavier and Rhode Island, and Florida has a chance to raise expectations even higher before the conference slate begins in January.
Parsons, a 6-foot-10 senior and one of has league’s most versatile players, hasn’t been shy about his sky-high hopes.
When asked about his goals for the season, Parsons said, “national championship.”
“I don’t expect anything less,” he added. “That’s our goal. We want to be the best possible team that we can be. If that’s us getting to the Final Four, if that’s us winning the national championship, we just want to continue to work hard every day and improve.”
Florida certainly has its deepest team in years. Donovan has 11 scholarship players available, plus Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario helping out in practice while sitting out a year under NCAA rules.
Young, a 6-9, 245-pounder from nearby Jacksonville, heads Florida’s freshman class. He’s joined by guard Scottie Wilbekin, swingman Casey Prather and forwards Will Yeguete and Cody Larson.
Donovan believes the extra bodies will give him the ability to press more, play an up-tempo style and use various lineups.
He said he doesn’t really know what impact the freshmen will make.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got are guys at spots that can make each other better,” Donovan said. “I think that in a competitive environment, where you have that situation where someone is competing with someone else, I think your team has the chance to grow, get better and can develop from that.”
And maybe perception will become reality.