Billy Donovan won’t be holding his breath during every play of practice this fall. For what seems like an eternity, his Florida teams have been thin without much depth coming off the bench. One injury to the backcourt in recent years could’ve ended the team’s chances at a successful season. This season, that won’t be the case.
“This is the first time in the last few years that we’ve had some significant depth going into the start of practice,” Billy Donovan said. “We feel that from having the bodies to get better and playing how we like to play. We are in a better position to do that.”
With the added depth comes a team that has more bodies in the frontcourt. The Gators struggled to defend dominant centers last season because of a lack of depth. When center Vernon Macklin got into foul trouble last season, Erik Murphy and Alex Tyus were forced to play the center spot, even though they are both undersized.
Opposing teams used that time to feast on the Gators inside. Donovan hopes his improved depth this season doesn’t allow that to happen.
“I think the one thing that definitely stands out right away is that we’re much more of a physical team,” Donovan said. “We’re a tougher team than we may have been the last couple of years. A lot has to do with Vernon (Macklin), Alex (Tyus) and Chandler (Parsons) being seniors, which helps. I also think Patric Young and Cody Larson, just instinctively, are physical players.”
The improved depth won’t just help keep players fresh when the season begins. It helps the team once they start practice on Friday. The intensity of scrimmages will amp up because of more players. Walk-ons and team managers aren’t needed to play in scrimmages because of the added depth, meaning the level of competition for the starters will be improved.
“In a highly competitive environment, your team has the best opportunity and the best chance to grow and get better,” Donovan said. “I think one of the things we did lack last year was that I felt Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton certainly logged a lot of minutes, but I never really thought they had the type of competiveness in practice that they needed to really continue to get better. I think with Rosario and Scottie Wilbekin competing here, that’s going to happen. I think Vernon Macklin at certain times during practice last year could get away with things just physically because there was really nobody else that can match with him. I think Patric Young provides for that kind of ability to make Vernon better.”
Donovan also talked about an expanded role this season for Murphy. He played near the basket as a freshman last year, but he will be trusted to step out and shoot three-pointers this season.
On paper, it has the makings of a solid team. As preseason rankings begin to trickle out, the players will see the team’s name likely in the top half of the polls.
The expectations haven’t been handled well in recent years. Donovan is reminding his team that they haven’t accomplished anything yet. Returning a majority of the roster from last season will help their ranking, but the credentials from last season aren’t overly impressive.
“There is a lot of excitement with this group because of what’s returning and what’s coming back in, but the reality is that this group has a lot to prove, a lot to accomplish, and a lot to get done. I think that if they’re going to rest their laurels on the fact on what preseason rankings say, then I think we’d be making a mistake.”
Donovan specifically pointed out buzzer-beating shots by Chandler Parsons to steal victories from North Carolina State and South Carolina. Erving Walker had some late game heroics of his own against Alabama. Without those three wins, it’s up for debate if the Gators even make the tournament.
“I was certainly very proud of the stride and progress they made a year ago,” Donovan said, “but the reality is that we’re a team that got knocked out in the second round of the SEC tournament, first round in the NCAA tournament, and clearly Kentucky, Tennessee and Vanderbilt were clearly the better teams (in the SEC East).”
Florida’s depth will also give them a chance to use the full court press. Donovan didn’t use it much last season because of the numbers at guard. Walker, Kenny Boynton and Ray Shipman were the only scholarship players who contributed major minutes at guard. Shipman played some of the small forward, too.
While the three underclassmen would be forced to play big minutes, Donovan didn’t see a purpose to push them even more by pressing on defense. Now, the addition of Scottie Wilbekin will give a capable body at guard. Casey Prather could also see minutes as the shooting guard.
“I do think that we have a team, athletically, that can get back to playing the right way,” Donovan said about his press defense. “There’s no question being around the freshmen that they’re all going to be very good players, how quickly they can come into a role and be really reliable in the role is going to be really important to our style.”
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