The Florida Gators are back in familiar territory this year. They are pre-season favorites to make a good showing in the SEC East. Many feel they can win it. What does this mean for coach Billy Donovan? Pressure. And lots of it.
Florida is returning the entire starting lineup from last year's team. Despite another year on the NCAA bubble, the team last year was tough. It was miles ahead of the previous two seasons. Record wise it wasn't much better, but ask any of their opponents.
Florida was in every game they played. From powerhouses like Kentucky and Syracuse, to tough road venues like Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas, NC State, and Georgia, these Gators had a shot to win late. They would often get behind by double digits early, only to come storming back to make it a game.
The two missing ingredients on the team last year were experience and depth. Neither will be a problem this year. In addition to the entire starting five of Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin, Kenny Boynton, Alex Tyus, and Erving Walker, the Gators also have Eric Murphy and Kenny Kadji (who missed all of last year with a bad back) and have added a stellar class of incoming freshmen.
Many refer to Patric Young as a mini-Dwight Howard. He is a tall and very athletic forward who could do big things coming off the bench this year. Add in hard playing Casey Prather and Will Yeguette and also talented Cody Larson, and this steam is deep.
So what does this mean?
There are two camps in the Gator Nation when it comes to Donovan. There are those who think he can do no wrong. And there are those who think he can do no right. There doesn't seem to be much middle ground.
Camp No. 1, the "do no wrong" crowd was more than happy to give Donovan a pass in 2008. After all, the Gators lost more talent off of one team than any team in NCAA history. This year's Kentucky team may be right there with them now. But that Gator team was basically an expansion team. Nobody on that team had ever played significant minutes in a college basketball game.
But three straight years of life on the bubble, and even these people are starting to get impatient. Most of these people make up the older crowd, who are well aware that before Donovan, Florida basketball was nothing. The program had only one Final Four appearance in school history and only five trips to the NCAA Tournament. But Donovan has raised the expectations. And even his loyal fans want to see results this year.
Camp No. 2 is made up of the bandwagon fans and the younger crowd. To them Billy Donovan has always been the Gators coach and the Gators have always been an elite program. And they cannot understand what is taking so long. Some are going back into Donovan's past and trying to see if they can come up with anything.
This has created the perception that Donovan caught lightning in a bottle with the two championship teams. It's almost as if that team coached itself and Donovan just watched from a chair with his arms folded.
They point out that the five teams prior to those two were first weekend flame outs in the NCAA Tournament and now the three since have also failed to reach the Sweet Sixteen.
I haven't much use for these people, but that statement is true. Of course, they conveniently leave out the fact that the two teams prior to those five made the Sweet Sixteen.
They fail to mention that in 2000, the Gators made an incredible tourney run that saw them knock off both Duke and North Carolina on their way to the NCAA Championship Game. And they also fail to mention that the '04 and '05 teams also made the finals of the SEC Tournament with the '05 squad winning it for the first time in school history.
But, the reality is that Donovan has created a monster. The two title winners, along with the success of so many other teams at UF have created a spoiled fan base. And this year, Donovan will have to prove he can win again without Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, and Lee Humphrey.
Perception is often reality. And right now the perception is that the Gators were a flash in the pan. If this year's team tanks, it will only add fuel to that fire.