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November 16, 2010
Florida entered the season with a lofty ranking it didn't necessarily deserve.
The Gators haven't won a single NCAA tournament game in the past three seasons, yet they were ranked ninth by The Associated Press and 11th in the coaches' poll. The SEC media installed Florida as the preseason conference favorite.
Not bad for a team that spent the most recent "Selection Sunday" sweating out the possibility it would get excluded from the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive seasons.
The reason for optimism is understandable. Florida is one of four NCAA tournament teams from last season -- and the only one from a major conference -- to return all five starters. But his team's lack of recent postseason success has Gators coach Billy Donovan preaching caution amid all these high expectations.
"You have to have what I call a winning maturity," Donovan said. "With our guys, I can see some of that in them, but if they start getting wrapped up in thinking everyone thinks we're supposed to be good, well, let's go back to reality.
"The reality is we're a team sitting on the bubble [last season]. We finished fourth in the [SEC] East, we won one game in the SEC tournament and no games in the NCAA tournament. That's what you guys have done. That's the reality. Now what are we going to do to go forward, get better and try to improve?"
Florida can go a long way toward justifying all that preseason praise Tuesday when it plays host to Ohio State, which lost only one starter from a team that earned a No. 2 seed in last season's NCAA tournament. Granted, that one missing player is Wooden Award winner Evan Turner, but the Buckeyes still have plenty of talent.
Ohio State is ranked fourth by the AP and fifth in the coaches' poll. The Buckeyes also boast one of the nation's top freshmen in 6-foot-9 post player Jared Sullinger.
Then again, Florida also boasts plenty of firepower in the frontcourt. The Gators return 6-10 center Vernon Macklin and 6-8 forward Alex Tyus, seniors who averaged a combined 21.4 points and 12.4 rebounds last season. That frontcourt has received an energy boost with the arrival of 6-9 freshman Patric Young, whose energy and toughness make up for his inexperience.
"It's a huge advantage," said Macklin, who began his college career at Georgetown. "Two years ago, Alex was having to take all the banging. Last year, it was Alex and myself. This year, we can rotate fresh bodies in and out of the game."
Donovan's best frontcourt players always have benefited from the talent around them. Donovan noted that Joakim Noah became a better player from matching up against David Lee. Lee's game developed from practice sessions with Matt Bonner. Bonner grew from his daily battles with Udonis Haslem. Young's encounters with Macklin are making Florida a much tougher team.
"It's been good," Donovan said. "It's not that [type of] competitiveness that creates team dissension. It's been a competitiveness where they understand, 'I'm going to make you better. You're going to make me better.'
"We finally have that in practice. A year ago, Vernon Macklin was the biggest and strongest in practice, and there was nobody who could physically confront him. He didn't get the work he needed against somebody physical every day. He's getting it today."
That explains why Florida is the preseason SEC favorite. No other team in the conference has such an abundance of quality big men, particularly now that the NCAA has declared highly touted Kentucky freshman Enes Kanter permanently ineligible.
Florida won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and '07 largely because of a frontcourt that featured Noah and Al Horford, two NBA lottery picks. The Gators don't have a Noah or a Horford in the paint this season, but they do possess enough depth to control the paint against most conference foes.
"If you think about the national championships Florida won, they had tremendous advantages in the front line," Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl said. "Billy knows how to use those advantages. I see them as the team to beat in the SEC."
Florida still won't win the SEC without better perimeter shooting. The Gators ranked 11th in the SEC last season -- ahead of only LSU -- in 3-point field-goal percentage (just 31.3). Kenny Boynton arrived at Florida with a reputation as a great perimeter scorer, but he made just 29.4 percent (72-of-245) of his 3-point attempts last season.
Boynton came on strong late last season and scored 23 points in the Gators' double-overtime loss to BYU in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, but he missed all six of his 3-point attempts Friday in a season-opening 77-60 victory over UNC Wilmington. Assuming Boynton improves his marksmanship, he and senior point guard Erving Walker should give Florida one of the SEC's top guard tandems.
Florida also has one of the nation's best clutch shooters in senior Chandler Parsons, who made a 75-foot prayer to beat N.C. State and sank a 3-pointer at the buzzer in a victory over South Carolina last season.
The two participants in last season's NCAA championship game both featured tall players who could create problems with their perimeter skills -- Duke's Kyle Singler and Butler's Gordon Hayward. Parsons isn't the same caliber of player, but at 6-10, he still can cause opponents plenty of headaches with his shooting and ballhandling ability.
"Chandler has grown and developed as much as any player I've ever coached," Donovan said.
Parsons reflects the growth of Florida's entire program in the post-national championships era. He arrived on campus in the fall of 2007 weighing just 185 pounds and believing he would make annual NCAA tournament appearances since he was joining the two-time defending champions.
Three years later, he has added 30 pounds to his frame and has acquired the wisdom that comes from dealing with disappointment.
"No matter where you're ranked, we have to stay humble," Parsons said. "We have to stay hungry. Rankings really don't mean anything until you go out there and play. There's a lot of basketball to be played, a lot to be proven.
"We've been there before. We have a mature team. Making it to the tournament last year and the first round, we're not happy, not content or satisfied just getting there. We want to make noise and play and win as many games as possible. You can't let expectations get to your head."
Parsons and his teammates have learned their lesson in that regard.
In Parsons' freshman season, Florida followed up an 86-64 victory over a 13th-ranked Vanderbilt team by losing four of its next five games. Florida got off to a 19-4 start in the 2008-09 season before losing five of its next seven games to fall out of NCAA tournament contention. And just when it seemed as if the Gators had locked up an NCAA bid last season, they lost four of their last five, though the selection committee bailed them out by putting them in the bracket anyway as a No. 10 seed.
"There were times the last two or three years when we were ranked, and our guys, I could see they didn't handle it in the right way," Donovan said. "They didn't have the right perspective in dealing with it.
"It will be interesting to see how we deal with what's in front of us right now."