Florida “chased greatness” a season ago, ripping off a school-record 30 consecutive wins and a Final Four appearance.
The Gators’ senior core four — point guard Scottie Wilbekin, the reigning conference player of the year; center Patric Young, the SEC defensive player of the year; slasher Casey Prather, an all-conference forward; and forward Will Yeguete, a glue-guy — spearheaded a stifling defense and an efficient offense that keyed a 36-3 season.
But the historic quartet graduated, and nation’s consensus seventh-ranked team is left with plenty of unknowns.
“We’ve lost four players that were very consistent, experienced and knew what college basketball was all about,” said coach Billy Donovan, entering his 19th season at UF.
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“I think this year’s team, they haven’t faced adversity like this past group. We really haven’t.”
Junior sharpshooter Michael Frazier is the team’s lone returning starter, but Florida’s 2014 group doesn’t lack talent, just chemistry.
Frazier, one of the nation’s deadliest three-point shooters, is joined by former McDonald’s All-Americans point guard Kasey Hill (a speed, creative distributor) and 6-10 forward Chris Walker, as well as versatile forward Dorian Finney-Smith and five-star freshman swingman Devin Robinson. The Gators also added legacy newcomers Jon Horford, a Michigan transfer and younger brother of Al Horford, and Alex Murphy, a Duke transfer and Erik Murphy’s younger brother, as well as the return of former Rutgers star Eli Carter.
“This is probably the most talented team I’ve been on since I’ve been playing basketball, and I’ve been on some pretty good teams,” Frazier said.
Still, Florida’s retooled bunch — which must replace the nation’s third-ranked scoring defense and more than 50 percent of its offense — isn’t a weathered and warted group, and Donovan, notoriously cynical early in the season, isn’t sure this team knows how to win, yet.
“There is no level of consistency at all from our returning players, outside of Michael Frazier,” he said.
“We work really hard. We’ve got a pretty good chemistry. We’re unselfish as a team. But right now, we’re not committed to anything. And that’s not a good recipe.”
The Gators should be an explosive, high-octane offense with more three-point shooting and better ball movement, but their defensive concerns are legitimate with no true rim protector.
“We don’t have that defensive nastiness that we had a year ago, and we’re going to have to work hard to develop it,” Donovan said. “What kind of identity we can create on the defensive end of the floor remains to be seen.”
Walker, who is suspended for Friday’s season opener against William & Mary and Monday’s showdown with Miami, could be the team’s X-factor if his production lives up to his hype.
The forward’s freshman season was curtailed due to NCAA and academic issues, but despite averaging just 1.9 points and 1.3 rebounds in 18 games, the freakish athlete projects as a future NBA first-round pick.
“His biggest challenge this year, in my opinion, is his ability to manage expectations,” Donovan said. “Chris Walker played four minutes a game, and everybody thinks he’s this savior.”
With another brutal nonconference slate on deck (Miami, Georgetown, at Kansas, at Florida State, Connecticut), Donovan is concerned with Florida’s consistency and commitment in little things is takes to potentially reach a fifth consecutive Elite Eight.
“You have a bunch of guys that are moving into a lot of different roles. There’s more responsibilities, there’s more challenges, there’s more things they are dealing with right now,” he said. “But as a team you have to have a clue or an idea what goes into it. And I would say right now, we don’t, we don’t have that.”
UF men’s basketball at a glance
▪ Coach: Billy Donovan, 19th season at Florida
▪ Last season: 36-3, lost to Connecticut in the Final Four.
▪ Top players: Michael Frazier (6-4, Jr., G), Kasey Hill (6-1, Soph., G), Dorian Finney-Smith (6-8, Jr., F)
▪ Noteworthy: UF won a school-record 30 consecutive games, posting the first 21-0 mark in SEC history.