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November 4, 2007

Donovan back to lead the new-look Gators

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 storylines for the 2007-08 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 2 storyline takes a look at Billy Donovan'd decision to turn his back on the NBA and return to coach Florida.

One way or another, Billy Donovan was going to have to deal in magic this season.

Thankfully for the folks in Gainesville, it won't be Orlando Magic. Rather, Donovan will make sure the University of Florida basketball team doesn't disappear.

Donovan was introduced as the Magic coach on June 1, and received a deal that would pay him $27.5 million over five years. Six days later he was re-introduced as the Gators coach, reneging on the Orlando deal and calling it a "huge mistake."

"There were no words, there was no pressure by anyone to come back," Donovan said at the news conference in Gainesville on June 7. "It was what was in my heart. You realize you made a mistake and you go forward. I think sometimes people think, 'Well what happened? What was the reason?' There really wasn't one. It had nothing to do with the Magic, my wife, the University of Florida, it was a process I went through myself that I'm sorry for."

The Gators breathed a sigh of relief. After all, Donovan has won the past two national championships and compiled a 261-103 record at Florida. He also is 22-7 in the NCAA Tournament.

Donovan said at the Orlando news conference that he'd always been intrigued by the NBA. It certainly looked like a good time to bolt, too, because the Gators roster was decimated by the NBA Draft. Juniors Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green all departed early, and three of them were taken among the first nine picks. Florida also lost 3-point specialist Lee Humphrey and sixth man Chris Richard, who also was drafted, albeit in the second round like Green.

But Donovan had inked the nation's No. 1 recruiting class according to Rivals.com. It's a five-man class with three Florida products, including five-star high school teammates Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons. All of the recruits spent some anxious moments in the first week of June, but the guy to whom they committed to play ultimately stuck around.

Now the coach is faced with the daunting task of sending a very young team onto the floor to defend consecutive national titles. In fact, the elder statesman is junior point guard Walter Hodge. He's the only third-year player on the roster. Florida doesn't lack for talent, but Donovan said at the SEC Basketball Media Days that it lacks the intangibles of the previous group.

"We're certainly not the size or the athletic team we were," Donovan said. "Looking at our team now, there's a huge difference in seeing them in practice versus seeing what those guys did."

Donovan's patience is being tested with the youthful Gators.

"Do you coach this group differently? I think you have to," Donovan said. "I'm probably a lot more volatile in practice. Those guys (last year's team) knew when those guys got off kilter it took me getting a little bit upset and they got the train right back on the track. This group doesn't understand. When they get tired they don't know how to push through things yet. They want to learn how, but they don't know how. They don't understand how to take care of the basketball on a fast break. They don't understand how to physically compete yet. We have to do those things just to put ourselves in a position to be competitive."

Hodge finds himself in the unfamiliar role of leader. He's the bridge between where the program has been and where it's going.

"I have to teach and help my teammates," Hodge said. "In my freshman year, I looked up to Joakim Noah, Al Horford and all the other guys for advice. Now it is my turn to play that same role."

It may be dangerous to draw this comparison, but there are similarities to the situation Donovan faced heading into the 2005-06 season. The 2004-05 Gators had gone 24-8 but lost their three leading scorers, Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh and David Lee. Roberson and Walsh were early departures as well.

That team, though, started a pair of freshmen, Brewer and Horford. They came back in 2005-06 seasoned and ready to raise their games, and classmates Noah and Green joined the starting lineup just as prepared. The result was Florida's first national title.

This team has sophomores who will be counted on, chiefly big man Marreese Speights. There also is little doubt Calathes will play a major role, and most of the other freshmen will have a chance to garner serious minutes.

"When we lost Roberson, Walsh and David Lee, I was clearly able to see the commitment that Taurean Green showed when he knew that he had to take over the responsibility of the point guard spot," Donovan said. "I saw the sense of urgency from Joakim Noah when David Lee left.

"I think Marreese has worked hard. I think that Dan Werner has worked hard, and I think that Jonathan Mitchell has worked hard. But there's also an internal competitiveness that I haven't seen out of those guys yet. Marreese is a competitive kid, and he's made some great strides maturity wise. It's a different thing when you talk about a guy's will to win and when you go into a game to impact winning. I feel like guys in the past that we had on teams impacted winning. I hope that's what these guys look at and see what made them such a successful team."

They've got one important component back that should help them immensely the coach.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.

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