Donovan, Gators optimistic about future

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just two years ago, the college basketball world seemed to revolve around Florida's Billy Donovan.

After guiding the Gators to consecutive national championships in 2006 and '07, Donovan was Kentucky's first choice to replace departed coach Tubby Smith after the 2006-07 season. Donovan turned down the tradition-rich Wildcats, but then signed a five-year, $27.5-million contract in June 2007 to coach the NBA's Orlando Magic.

Of course, Donovan changed his mind less than 24 hours later, and returned to the Gators with a new six-year contract that made him one of the highest-paid coaches in the country at $3.5 million per season.

But instead of picking up where the Gators left off, Donovan's teams have struggled the last two seasons. After playing in nine consecutive NCAA tournaments from 1999 to 2007, the Gators missed the 65-team field in each of the past two seasons.

In 2008, Florida became the first defending national champion to miss the NCAA tournament since Kansas in 1989, when the Jayhawks were ineligible for postseason play because of NCAA probation.

"Coming off back-to-back national titles, these guys really just thought, 'We're the next group that's going to do it,'" Donovan said. "I felt like after those guys left, I thought we were really going to be going through a real rebuilding mode. People ask me all the time, 'Were you frustrated?' I don't think the last two years were frustrating. I don't think anything happened the last two years that I didn't expect to see."

What Donovan lost after the 2006-07 season was the heart and soul of one of the greatest teams in college basketball history. The Gators became the first team in 15 years and only the seventh in NCAA history to win consecutive national championships.

After Florida beat Ohio State 84-75 in the 2007 national championship game, its four celebrated juniors -- forwards Corey Brewer, Joakim Noah and Al Horford and guard Taurean Green -- each turned pro. Senior guard Lee Humphrey and senior forward Chris Richard also left.

Horford, Brewer and Noah were among the first nine selections in the 2007 NBA draft, and Green and Richard were second-round choices.

"I knew what was in front of us because of what we were losing," Donovan said. "I thought the program was in really good shape. I thought the [roster] wasn't in really good shape because we lost four guys early and lost two seniors. I don't know if any program can recover from that."

Rebuilding certainly hasn't been easy for the Gators, who finished in the NIT the past two seasons. Florida went 24-12 in 2007-08 (8-8 SEC) and lost eight of 11 games before Selection Sunday. Last season, the Gators went 25-11 (9-7 SEC) after dropping seven of 12 games prior to Selection Sunday.

"Obviously, the last two years have been a disappointment," senior forward Dan Werner said. "My freshman year, I was part of a national championship team. But we can't worry about the past. When we walk into the gym every day, we don't feel any pressure. But the fans and everyone else expected us to be at the same level. We're not putting pressure on ourselves, but everybody outside the gym has those expectations."

Florida isn't expected to be much better this season, after sophomore guard Nick Calathes, who led the team with 17.2 points and 6.4 assists per game in 2008-09, left school for a $2 million pro contract in Greece.

The Gators were picked to finish fifth in the SEC East -- ahead of only rebuilding Georgia -- in voting by media at last week's SEC media days in Hoover, Ala.

But Donovan senses this Florida team might have better chemistry and maturity than his last two squads.

"I feel like there's a difference in our team this year as far as intensity," Donovan said. "I'm excited about that. There seems to be a better chemistry and a maturity level from growing up. I thought our team the last two years was immature."

Four starters are back from last season, each of whom averaged more than eight points per game in 2008-09. The addition of Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin, a 6-foot-10 forward, might be the key to Florida's rebuilding efforts.

Macklin, from Portsmouth, Va., was a McDonald's All-American after averaging 20 points and 15 rebounds as a senior at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. He spent two seasons at Georgetown, averaging 3.4 points and 2.1 rebounds in 12.8 minutes per game as a sophomore. Macklin sat out the 2008-09 season under NCAA transfer rules and has two years of eligibility left at Florida.

"He probably would have been a first-round pick out of high school," Donovan said. "When he went to Georgetown, he was hearing everybody say that he was probably going to be one-and-done. I do think he's humbled right now and has a better perspective."

More than anything else, Macklin's presence allows his teammates to move to their more natural positions. The Gators were forced to use a smaller lineup after sophomore forward Marreese Speights turned pro after the 2007-08 season.

Because of its small lineup, Florida ranked near the bottom of the SEC in every defensive statistic in 2008-09. The Gators were 11th in field-goal percentage defense (44.4 percent), ninth in 3-point field goal percentage defense (35.1 percent), ninth in rebounding margin (+0.4) and last in blocked shots (2.69 per game).

"We passed the ball and shared the ball and shot the ball well, but we couldn't guard," Werner said. "Obviously, it's one thing to say we're going to focus on defense, and it's another thing to go out and do it. We said we were going to focus on defense the last two years, but we didn't do it."

It might be easier to defend with Macklin on the court. Alex Tyus, a 6-foot-8 junior, will play power forward after playing mostly center last season. Werner will move to the wing after playing in the post in 2008-09.

But Donovan said he isn't counting on Macklin to fix all of Florida's woes on defense.

"If he was great, he would have played a lot more at Georgetown," Donovan said. "People see him physically and say, 'Wow, this guy is going to solve all the rebounding problems and all the shot-blocking problems, and Florida's defense is going to go through the roof.' He gives us a presence inside and makes us a little more physical. He's a piece that can help us, but I don't have all my eggs in one basket."

Another big addition is freshman guard Kenny Boynton, who is the 12th McDonald's All-American signed by Donovan at Florida. Boynton averaged 33 points per game as a senior at American Heritage High in Pompano Beach, Fla.

With Calathes leaving for Greece, sophomore Erving Walker takes over as the team's primary ballhandler. Calathes set school records for assists and assists per game as a freshman in 2007-08, and then led the SEC with 6.4 assists per game last season.

Walker, a 5-foot-8 native of New York, had an assist-to-turnover ratio of less than 2-to-1 last season.

"He's a tough kid," Donovan said. "For most of his career, people have doubted him because of his size. But he's a big shot-maker. I thought last year, Nick Calathes made the game a lot easier for him. I told Erving that this might be the most difficult season of his career because of the responsibility he has to assume."

Donovan can only hope this season isn't as difficult as the last two. He beefed up Florida's nonconference schedule with neutral-site games against Michigan State and Syracuse and a road game at NC State.

"I really downgraded the schedule [the last two seasons], and I think it was positive and negative," Donovan said. "I think it was good because it was good for a young team. I think it was a negative because our record probably looked better than it really was. The young guys probably thought we were better than we were. Our guys didn't realize Kentucky and Tennessee were coming on the back end. They didn't know what January was going to look like."

With a more experienced team on the floor, the Gators can only hope they're closer to where they once were.

"The pressure is there, but this is what we do," forward Chandler Parsons said. "We came here because we wanted to continue to do what they've done at Florida."

Donovan believes his team is close to doing it again.

"There are ebbs and flows and peaks and valleys," Donovan said. "Nobody stays on top forever. We're knocking on the door. I don't think we're too far away."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.