Florida Gators head basketball coach Billy Donovan met with the media on Wednesday for the first time since early July and discussed a number of pressing topics facing his team heading into its first fall practice on Friday, Oct. 11 and the start of the 2013-14 season on Friday, Nov. 8 against North Florida.
Indefinitely suspended on June 10 for an unspecified violation of team rules, the second disciplinary action handed down to him by Donovan in a seven-month span, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin will be permitted to start fall practice with his teammates.
“Scottie Wilbekin right now, at least the end of this week provided he can continue to do what he’s been doing, will start practicing on Friday with our team,” Donovan said on Wednesday. “I’m really, really proud of him and what he’s done and the way he’s handled and conducted himself.
“I think from the spring all the way ‘til now it’s been a long, long road for him just being disconnected from our team, not working out with our team, not really being around our team, and then slowly trying to work his way back. He’s done everything that I could ask of as a player in terms of taking responsibility and growing. But he’s still got, obviously, some things in front of him before he’s actually fully back on our team. But we will give him the opportunity to practice.”
Donovan, who just recently confirmed that Wilbekin will be suspended for games at the start of the 2013-14 season, did not offer a suspension length or any other specifics. He was not pressed for any additional details either.
He was, however, questioned about rumored suspensions for three other players and skirted around the issue without providing any form of direct denial. “Our guys right now – [everybody not announced as suspended or injured] – are ready to practice and going forward and on our team,” he said.
While Wilbekin will be joining the team for practice on Oct. 11, two of his teammates will be missing. Donovan reiterated Wednesday that neither senior forward Will Yeguete (knee) nor junior guard Eli Carter (leg) have been medically cleared to start practice.
Yeguete is still recovering from offseason knee surgery while Carter, who received an NCAA waiver last month to play immediately at Florida, is healing from a broken fibula he suffered during a game against DePaul on Feb. 16.
“Right now what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to go with the guys that are there. The guys that are there in practice right now, those are the guys you got to rely on and get prepared and get them ready to play,” Donovan explained.
“When does a guy like Will Yeguete get back? I’m not really sure. I feel bad for Eli Carter. I think any time you transfer in and you start your career at a different school on an injured note and not able to really go out there and prove yourself and play every day, I think that’s been difficult. Those two guys, in terms of when they’ll be back, I don’t know. All I know is that Friday they will not be available to practice. We’ll try to prepare like those guys are not going to be there ready to play.”
Even when Yeguete and Carter are eventually cleared, Donovan cautioned that the players will not be able to step right in and be big-time contributors immediately.
“Hopefully there will be a time where they can get themselves ready. But they’ll have to do a lot of things in terms of maintaining conditioning, picking up on what’s going on,” he said. “I have less of a worry about Will because this is obviously his senior year. He has an understanding. But for Eli, who is trying to pick up a new system, maybe a different style of play, everything is going to be different. When you can’t go through things on a regular basis, that’s always challenging for him. We’ll have to see the way he progresses. He has gotten better, but he’s just not ready to play.”
Donovan has a penchant for rising to the occasion when challenged, and he will have another opportunity to prove he is one of the best coaches in the nation once again this season considering the lot he has been dealt at the start of the 2013-14 campaign.
Not only is Donovan’s senior point guard suspended for the start of the season, his do-everything senior forward and spark-plug transfer guard are also out of action. He also lost his three top scorers from last season – Kenny Boynton, Mike Rosario, Erik Murphy – and will be working with a roster that suddenly looks very different from a year ago.
“We’re going to have some things philosophically that we’re always going to believe in, that we’re always going to do. But I feel like my responsibility on the offensive end of the floor is to put these guys in situations to take advantage of the skill set that they have,” he said. “I’m always trying to find ideas and ways to be creative and try to utilize our personnel to take advantage of things those guys can do well.”
Donovan is not new to this type of opposition. Arguably his best season as a coach came under similar circumstances, when he lost his three top scorers from the 2004-05 season and took a young, inexperienced team all the way to the national title.
“I’m not comparing this team to the same team. I think we’re in a similar situation. When you looked at, years ago, with [Matt] Walsh, [Anthony] Roberson and David Lee leaving, it was kind of like [Corey] Brewer was our leading scorer coming back at six points per game. Obviously that team turned out to be a whole lot better than maybe anybody thought they would be with the departures of those guys,” he said.
“I think we’re in a similar situation offensively. It’s not about really looking for one guy. We’ve got to be a team that’s balanced. And we’ve got to be really an unselfish team, an extra pass team. We really, really got to be great moving and passing the basketball.”
One five-star freshman has been working out with the team all summer and fall. Another has his nose in his books and hopes to join the team in December. That player is power forward Chris Walker, who was not deemed academically eligible to play for the Gators at the start of the season but hopes to be active for league play.
“I feel good. He’s working really, really hard. I’m optimistic that he’ll be back here,” Donovan said.
Asked how it would feel to put so much into recruiting Walker and gain a commitment from him but potentially never see him wear an orange and blue uniform, Donovan referred to a player who signed a National Letter of Intent to play for Florida before deciding instead to declare for the 2001 NBA Draft.
“Probably like recruiting Kwame Brown. You kind of get him and he never ends up here,” he said with a smile. “At least there’s some hope and some optimism that [Walker is] going to be here.”
One thing Donovan does have to consider if and when Walker shows up is how to work him into the rotation. That is just another obstacle he will have to overcome this season.
“That’s the challenge part there, him trying to play catch up for what he will have missed. We’ll have to see how much or how well he can pick it up. That’s the unknown right now for me,” he said. “You have a guy that could potentially be here in December. And if he is here, what kind of condition is he in? How quickly can he absorb what’s going on? Do you really kind of cut down what you’re doing, if he happens to be on the floor playing, to make it a little bit more simple for him? And we’ll probably need to do that for him with him being a freshman. If that opportunity presents itself for us, I think we’ll figure out a way to utilize him the best we can.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Sophomore G Michael Frazier III will move into a more demanding role, something Donovan is anxious to see but hopeful about.
» Donovan is excited for the opportunity to tinker with Florida’s lineup and mentioned playing both centers – senior Patric Young and redshirt junior Damontre Harris at the same time. Young would move to the four (power forward) in that scenario as Harris is more of a natural shot blocker.
» On Harris and his development: “He’s missed out on a whole year of growth. … He had a year where he probably didn’t improve at the level we would have liked him to improve because he was hurt.”
» On redshirt junior G/F Dorian Finney-Smith: “I like the idea of having a chance to use a guy like that and create different lineups with different sizes. And I like the fact that I can move him around to some different spots. … You can actually slide him back at the point a little bit and play with him back there as kind of a point forward. You can do a lot of different things with him. I don’t want to put pressure on him scoring because I don’t think that’s who he is. I do think he can facilitate, he can put it on the floor, and he can pass and he really can rebound. If he can make the game easier for other guys around him, that’s going to make our team better.”
» Donovan thinks senior G/F Casey Prather was most effective at power forward but is pleased with his play overall the last two seasons. Injuries have gotten in the way of his development. “I’m optimistic he can have a really good year for us,” he said.
» On sophomore G Dillon Graham: “Dillon has done a really good job. … I think Dillon’s made some good strides. He’s gotten better. He’s improved. I think the one thing he really brings to the table is he’s a very, very good athlete and he’s a really good passer and he’s got good vision. I think having a year in our program, generally guys make the biggest jump from their freshman to sophomore year. So I can see already that he’s definitely improved and has gotten better. We’re going to need him to step up and be a guy that we can rely on and utilize. Right now he’s going to have to be. I believe he can do that.”