HOOVER, Ala. — It would be unfair to call him the Anti-Cal, especially since Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari and his Florida counterpart Billy Donovan have nothing but the utmost respect for each other. But a quick glance down the rosters of both teams shows that the two men either have a different philosophy when it comes to building and maintaining a team, or they are on opposite ends of the “good luck” scale.
Cal and Kentucky will start a brand-new crop of fresh faces this season. Not a single one of last year’s starters has returned despite three of them having been freshmen at this time last year.
Meanwhile Florida will take the floor with the most experienced team in the SEC, a team that brings back two starters in the front court, Patric Young and Erik Murphy, and one in the back court, all-purpose guard Kenny Boynton. The Gators will also replace dynamic point guard Erving Walker, not with a wide-eyed freshman, but with junior Scottie Wilbekin, a player with more big-game SEC minutes than all of Kentucky’s starters combined.
“Your challenge is the same every year,” Donovan said of the way his 2012-2013 team is shaping up. “You’re trying to establish roles for your team, and get guys to buy into their roles. You want players to create an identity for your team that you, as a coach, hope gives us the best chance to win.”
Establishing roles is a lot easier when you don’t have to orient a new batch of starters to college life every year, and when you have enough guys returning from the season before to shepherd the youngsters through the opening days of life in the big league.
Is it a philosophy that allows a coach like Donovan to retain so many veterans in an era when juniors and seniors are an endangered species in college basketball?
“I think it’s the way the chips fall,” Donovan said. “Brad Beal (currently with the Washington Wizards) left after one year, but Patric Young had opportunities to leave and elected to come back. Kenny Boynton toyed with the idea of putting his name in the draft but didn’t. So, I think everybody is a little different. I try to recruit the kind of player that we are looking for, but when that opportunity to leave presents itself, the coach doesn’t have much control. The player and his family are going to make that decision. We could have lost Beal, Boynton and Young, and this would be a very different conversation.”
Instead the conversation centers on how Donovan will replace Beal and Walker, who allowed the Gators to shoot the ball anywhere beyond the half-court line.
“As a coach, you have to adjust your philosophy to your personnel,” he said. “Personnel dictate identity. We were a shooting team last year. We could really space the floor and shoot it well from all positions. And we had the potential to make 10, 11, 12 three-pointers a night. I’m not sure we have that potential now, but maybe we’re going to be a little more physical this year. And I think that this year, more so than last year, we have potential to be a very good defensive team.”
Like every year it will be up to Donovan to mold that team of individual players into a cohesive unit, but it will be up to the players to jell as a team.
With three seniors and six juniors on the roster, Donovan will have an easier job of that than most.
“There is not a philosophy of, ‘We’re going to recruit you and you have to stay here four years,'” Donovan said. “If the opportunities open up for these guys to go to the NBA, I’m all for it because that can change their lives financially.”
That might be a problem he has to deal with next year. But not now.