GAINESVILLE (CBSMiami) – Florida head coach Billy Donovan returns seven of nine key contributors to his tenth-ranked Florida Gators team this season and they have one goal, a return trip to the Final Four.
Over the last two seasons, Florida gave up leads against Louisville (2012) and Butler (2011) in regional finals over the last two seasons. They’re losses that left a bad taste in the bad mouth of the Gators.
“There’s not a day that doesn’t go by that I still don’t think about it,” junior center Pat Young said. “I want to leave here with a championship. We know we have all the components necessary to get there.”
Florida’s road to the NCAA Tournament will be arguably the toughest non-conference schedule Donovan has ever faced as the top man of the Gators.
Florida will start November 9 with a game against Georgetown on the USS Bataan in Jacksonville. They will also play Wisconsin, Marquette, Florida State, Arizona, and Kansas State in the first two months of the regular season.
Still, Florida is considered to be one of the top three teams in the Southeastern Conference along with the Kentucky Wildcats and Missouri Tigers. Florida will have to replace a key contributor though in Bradley Beal who as a top NBA draft pick.
“The one thing that is clear from the get-go is we have incredible potential defensively,” Donovan said. “Last year, clearly the identity was we could really, really shoot 3s. I think we have a good shooting team, but we probably, with the loss of (Erving) Walker and (Bradley) Beal, don’t have the same depth shooting the ball as we did a year ago.”
The Gators return plenty of front-court depth including Young, who will have to stay out of foul trouble to help the young team out. Florida has up to four freshmen who could contribute to the lineup this season.
Still, Donovan believes this team could be special.
“We can actually end up being a better team than a year ago and not go as far,” Donovan said. “With that being said, there’s no guarantee that we’re even an NCAA Tournament team. You have to earn your way into that. You have to work your way into that. Our guys need to understand, and I think that they do, that there’s a process.”
The biggest challenge Florida will face again this season will be a loaded Kentucky Wildcats team. Kentucky head coach John Calipari has turned UK into a virtual NBA lottery pick farm team and has brought in another stellar recruiting class to fill out a totally new starting lineup this season.
Florida and the rest of the SEC will be gunning for Kentucky, but whether any team has the talent and teamwork to hang with the Wildcats remains to be seen.
(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)