Billy Donovan might have made the understatement of not just the college basketball season, but of this millennium.
“I don’t know if there is a team anywhere in the country that has had to replace as much as we had to replace coming into this season,” the Florida coach said. “I can’t think of any.”
That is because there aren’t any. Few basketball programs have ever faced a bigger rebuilding task than Florida has this season.
The Gators lost their top six players from last year’s squad, the one that won a second straight national title. Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah were all lottery picks in the NBA Draft, while Taurean Green and Chris Richard were selected in the second round. Lee Humphrey graduated as the all-time leading three-point shooter in NCAA Tournament history.
When the Gators assembled for the first day of practice back in the fall, their 11-man roster consisted of no seniors, one junior, three sophomores and seven freshmen. Their players had an average of 0.6 seasons of college basketball experience, ranking 340th among 341 Division I teams, ahead of only The Citadel.
Yet, Florida finds itself with an overall record of 18-3 and a 5-1 mark in the Southeastern Conference. The Gators re-entered the Associated Press rankings this week, and sit at No. 30 in the Pomeroy Ratings.
While the Gators played a relatively soft non-conference schedule, they have beaten Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt inside the conference, with their only SEC loss coming by two points to Mississippi on the road.
In many respects, it seems Donovan is doing an even better coaching job this year than he did in the two championship seasons.
“I don’t look at it that way,” said Donovan, who originally agreed to jump to the NBA to coach the Orlando Magic last spring before having a change of heart and returning to Gainesville. "This is the team we had coming into the season and we knew there were going to be some growing pains. However, we’ve approached this season the same way we have every other season.
“We don’t talk about wins. Instead, we just concentrate on continuing to get better and we’re doing that. In fact, we’ve probably gotten better a little quicker than I thought we would.”
Florida has been led by freshman guard Nick Calathes, who is quickly turning into one of the best all-around players in the SEC. Calathes is averaging 16.0 points, 6.0 assists, 5.0 rebounds and 1.5 steals a game.
Sophomore forward Marreese Speights has also stepped up his game, averaging 14.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots. Junior guard Walter Hodge, the “old man” of the group, is averaging 10.1 points and 1.5 steals a game after being the Gators’ seventh-leading scorer last year with a 5.7 average.
“Nick is a very talented player and he is making the adjustment to the college game pretty quickly,” Donovan said. “But what I like about this team is that we have a balanced scoring attack. We don’t have one go-to guy, one person that the other team can key on defensively.
“Having that balance was really a big key in winning the back-to-back national championships. We always strive for balance.”
Make no mistake, though, Donovan isn’t about to compare this team to those teams. He realizes a three-peat is nothing more than a pipe dream.
“We’re not going to get too excited yet,” Donovan said. “This team has a lot of upside over the long haul, but we’re young and we still have a lot to learn.
“Our goal is to improve every day. The last two years, that mindset resulted in national championships. This year, it might not even help us be one of the best teams in the SEC. We’ll see. We’re going in the right direction but we have a long way to go.”
UMass Hangs Tough
Just when it looked like Massachusetts was ready to fall out of the Atlantic 10 race last Sunday with its home loss to Xavier, a game covered by Basketball Prospectus’ Caleb Peiffer, the Minutemen bounced back on Wednesday night with a 94-80 road win over surprising Duquesne.
“Our motto is ‘Backs Against The Wall,’ because our backs really are against the wall after that loss to Xavier if we want to win the conference and play in the postseason,” Massachusetts coach Travis Ford said. “That was a very disappointing loss and not one that was easy to put behind us because everyone knew we didn’t give the effort necessary to beat a team like Xavier. There were a lot of disappointed and upset guys in that locker room, and a coaching staff that spent 24 hours a day getting ready for Duquesne.
“We were determined we were not going to let our season end this soon. We’re going to keep fighting and we came out and played as hard as we have all year.”
Massachusetts is 14-6 overall, 3-3 in the Atlantic 10 and No. 64 in the Pomeroy Rankings.
Massachusetts tied Xavier for the regular-season conference title last season. However, the Minuteman did not receive a bid to the NCAA Tournament and had to settle for the NIT.
Massachusetts hasn’t been to the NCAAs since 1998 and that certainly seemed out of reach after the loss to Xavier.
“That loss really woke us up and made us realize we haven’t been playing as hard as we should be,” junior forward Tony Gaffney said. “I don’t think effort will be a problem again. We’ve learned our lesson about not playing hard.”
The Tigers Stand Alone
And then there was one--undefeated team, that is.
Memphis holds that distinction after beating Houston on Wednesday night while Kansas was losing for the first time this season at Kansas State. The Tigers are now 20-0 overall, 6-0 in Conference USA and No. 1 in both The AP media poll and USA Today coaches poll, though second behind Kansas in the Pomeroy Rankings.
However, Memphis coach John Calipari isn’t very fazed about being the last team with a zero in the loss column.
“It’s nice, I guess,” Calipari said following the win at Houston. “Are we getting better? We got better today.”
Memphis seemingly has a chance of finishing the regular season 31-0, as just six of its final 11 games are against teams in the Pomeroy Top 100--two against No. 54 UAB and one each against No. 13 Tennessee, No. 79 Houston, No. 92 Central Florida and No. 100 Texas-El Paso.
“They’re just a great team," Houston coach Tom Penders said of Memphis. “You’re going to have to play an extremely strong, efficient game, and hope they’re not playing at their highest level, to knock them off.”
Team to Watch
This week’s Team to Watch is Connecticut, which ran its winning streak to four games with a 69-67 victory over Louisville on Monday night. The Huskies are 15-5 overall, 5-3 in the Big East and No. 27 in the Pomeroy Rankings.
Balance has been the key for Connecticut, as it has five players scoring in double figures: suspended sophomore guard Jerome Dyson (14.3), junior guard A.J. Price (14.3), junior forward Jeff Adrien (14.1), sophomore center Hasheem Thabeet (11.1) and sophomore forward Stanley Robinson (10.5). Adrien and Thabeet are an effective inside duo as Adrien is averaging 9.2 rebounds a game while Thabeet is blocking 3.8 shots a game. Price is dishing out 6.1 assists a game.
Thabeet has been one of the most productive big men in the country as he is third in free throw rate (104.7), 15th in percentage of blocks (16.6) and 33rd in effective field goal percentage (63.2). Meanwhile, Price is 20th in assist rate (37.2) and Adrien is 48th in free throw rate (70.2).
As evidenced by the numbers of Thabeet and Adrien, the Huskies are extremely adept at getting to the foul line. They rank first in the country with a 35.9 free throw rate. They also lead the nation in two-point field goal percentage allowed (37.7) and are second in defensive block percentage (19.7).
Games of the Week
The top five games of the week from Feb. 1-7, according to the Pomeroy Rankings (through Wednesday). All times Eastern.
No. 14 Stanford at No. 10 Washington State, Saturday, Feb. 2, 3 p.m., Fox Sports Net Northwest
No. 18 Arizona at No. 4 UCLA, Saturday, Feb. 2, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 19 Louisville at No. 12 Marquette, Monday, Feb. 4, 7 p.m., ESPN
No. 3 Duke at No. 8 North Carolina, Wednesday, Feb. 6, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 4 UCLA at No. 10 Washington State, Thursday, Feb. 7, 10:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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