GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The season may be over, but the so-called "process" never ends.
It starts again.
That’s where Billy Donovan and his Florida basketball program were when the sun came up Sunday in Dallas in the wake of the top-ranked Gators’ 63-53 loss to No. 18 Connecticut in the Final Four at AT&T Stadium. By mid-afternoon, the team’s traveling party arrived at Gainesville Regional Airport and Donovan’s was mentioning something about his recruiting schedule for the week before hopping off the team bus to thank a small group of well-wishers that showed up to greet the team.
All of it came, suddenly and sadly, came two days earlier than he wanted it.
"It’s never an easy exit out of this tournament because your an invested team [and] after every year’s over with I always take time to try and evaluate myself, our team," Donovan said Saturday night. "The number one question I ask is, ‘Did we play as close as possible to our potential?’ Maybe more so than any team that I’ve coached, based on the talent level, we played way beyond our potential as a team."
Minus any players of slam-dunk NBA caliber, the Gators won 30 straight games, swept the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament championships by going unbeaten in all 21 games against league opponents, then held the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament through the South Region bracket until losing to the same UConn team that handed UF its previous loss — back on Dec. 2 — before the school-record winning streak began.
"This team was so special, something I’m never going to forget for the rest of my life," senior center Patric Young said after scoring a season-best 19 points against the Huskies. "We accomplished a lot just by loving each other and being really committed and loving playing with one another. So I’m just really going to cherish everything that we had this year."
"We’re a great team [and] we accomplished a lot of things during the year," senior forward Will Yeguete added. "This game is not changing anything, regarding how I feel, of my relationship with them. They’re great guys. I love them, love to be around them. I just wish them the best. I know they’re going to be successful in life."
In the coming days, as the dust of the season settles, the UF coaching staff will meet and begin looking to the 2014-15 season when the Gators will take the floor for the first time in five years without Young and Yeguete, plus first-team All SEC forward Casey Prather and their point guard and 2014 SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin, a quartet that won 120 games, lost just 30 and combined to score 3,562 points.
[Worth noting: Florida will play host to UConn at the O’Connell Center next January, if anyone is interested]
Their farewell means UF ’14-15 must replace 58 percent of its out-going scoring, 51 percent of its rebounding and an incalculable leadership void, what with the lone returning senior expected back being seldom-used walk-on Jacob Kurtz.
Junior guard Michael Frazier, the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.3 points per game and SEC’s top 3-point shooter (44.7 percent) after setting a UF single-season record with 118 treys, will be the lone starter to return.
"These have been the best two years of my life," Frazier said after the UConn defeat. "It just [stinks] that it has to end this way. We wanted this. It felt like I was playing with my brothers out there. It hurts, but that’s the way it is."
It’ll be up to Frazier, who talks constantly in Donovan-speak about "the process," to take the lead role in walking the next batch of Gators down the path of connectivity. It won’t be easy. This out-going group was special when it came to togetherness. But like Frazier said, that’s the way it is.
He’ll need help getting the the Gators where they need to go.
Kasey Hill, who began his freshman season as the starting point guard while Wilbekin served a five-game suspension, is the heir apparent to UF’s playmaking spot. The coaching staff figures to use the offseason to hone Hill’s jumpshot and leadership responsibilities heading into his sophomore campaign.
Forward Dorian Finney-Smith was the team’s leading rebounder (6.7 per game) and SEC Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore. Put him down as the Gators’ power forward for next season. Swingman DeVon Walker averaged 12 minutes per game, but will need to develop more consistency in his shot (31 percent from the floor, 30 from the arc), ball-handling and passing. Walker already is a sound defensive player.
Kurtz is expected to be back for his yeoman role-player duties, while Billy Donovan, the son of the head coach, is scheduled to graduate this spring and may opt to bypass another walk-on season.
Two big roster questions marks surround UF’s two big men.
Sometime over the next few weeks, 6-foot-10 center Chris Walker will have to decide if he’ll return to Florida for his sophomore season or make himself available for the NBA draft as a underclassmen. While Walker only averaged 1.8 points, 1.3 rebounds and 4.8 minutes in just 18 games after joining the team in midseason, the NBA rates prospects on projected ceiling and Walker’s — with his athleticism, length and raw skill — is very high.
While Walker would definitely benefit from another year under the tutelage of the Florida staff — he likely would be a top-10 lottery selection in the 2015 draft — Donovan will get input from NBA officials and put all the facts to Walker and his legal guardian to make the best informed decision possible.
If Walker opts to return, the Gators would have 12 of 13 scholarships committed for next year, with the possibility of adding at least one more player; either a high school signee or perhaps a transfer.
That number includes 6-10 junior center Damontre Harris, the transfer from South Carolina, who was dismissed from the team in December due to accountability issues, then allowed to return in January with the understanding he would not play during the season. Harris was a first-team All-SEC Defensive Team selection for the Gamecocks in in 2012, but his return to the team next fall is anything but certain.
Guard Eli Carter, on the mend from a foot injury that shut him down for the season in December, could provide a big boost in the backcourt, assuming his rehab continues on its current pace. Carter, the junior transfer from Rutgers, never completely recovered from breaking his foot at the end of his sophomore season when he averaged 14.3 points per game over two years in the Big East Conference. UF has applied for a medical redshirt on Carter’s behalf after he played just 53 minutes in seven games.
Another guard, sophomore Dillon Graham, played just eight minutes of one game before a nagging hip injury (and subsequent surgery) sidelined him for the season. Graham also is in the rehab process and just where he fits into the UF plan will be determined over the next few months.
That’s not the case for forward Alex Murphy. The 6-8 brother of former Gators star and 1,000-point scorer Erik Murphy, transferred to Florida in midseason from Duke and will be eligible once the first semester ends next December. Though Alex Murphy is not the outside shooter his older brother was, he’s far more versatile and athletic, and will fill a prominent role in the frontcourt his first game in uniform.
Then come the newcomers.
UF’s three-man incoming freshman class is highlighted by Devin Robinson, a 6-foot-8, forward and top-20 national prospect from Chesterfield, Va., with a game the coaching has likened to Chandler Parson’s. Robinson averaged 25.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 3.7 blocks per game after taking an extra year of high school to play prep school ball.
Brandone Francis is a 6-5, 205-pound guard from Jacksonville and Chris Chiozza is a 5-10 point guard from Memphis, Tenn. Those two, along with Robinson, will arrive for the second summer semester.
That’s the road ahead.
Forgive the Gators — and their coach — if they take a few days to reflect on the journey they just completed.
"I got a chance to experience a lot of personal victories along the way off the court," Donovan said. "Their body of work on the court people will evaluate or judge themselves, but for me personally, where they were as individuals, where they were as a team to where they came from in terms of becoming a team, it was one of the most special experiences and group of guys I’ve been around since I’ve been in coaching."