GAINESVILLE — Billy Donovan readily admits he has no idea what kind of season the Gators will have.
Florida returns three starters from a group that never seemed to find its identity last season, and last week, starting point guard Jai Lucas decided to transfer.
Yet, Donovan is much more optimistic about the upcoming season, which kicks off Friday, than he was at this same time last year.
"I feel totally different," he said. "I don't know how much better we are, but I feel better in terms of their focus on understanding and at least being a little bit bought into what we need to do to put ourselves in a position to win. And they are trying to do the things I'm asking them to do. I think a year ago, I felt like they never really bought in. The importance of defense never resonated with them. Now they have some things they can look at and realize they've got to do to get better. So I feel better about our team mentally."
The Gators find themselves in a similar situation as last season: short on players. Sophomore forward Adam Allen's sprained meniscus is taking longer than expected to heal, and he's doubtful for Friday's opener. Freshman Eloy Vargas had surgery to remove bone spurs in his ankle in June and is still recovering. And the loss of Lucas means the Gators will rely heavily on freshman Erving Walker at point guard, although sophomore Nick Calathes and senior Walter Hodge can also play the position.
"There's a lot that was lost with Jai, including experience," Donovan said. "There are some things we're going to have to do to find a way to continue to help Erv develop, and he'll have his ups and downs."
After the Gators failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years, the returning players are eager to prove they're a better team.
"Everyone from last year really wants it, including me," Calathes said. "We know what it feels like to go into the NIT and not to be in the NCAA Tournament. This year we are going to have our heads straight and take each game one at a time."
Several players, particularly forward Chandler Parsons, spent significant time working on strength and conditioning training, hoping to better hold their own defensively against the SEC's big men in the paint. Also counting on several newcomers, including forward Kenny Kadji, Donovan is hoping for marked improvement defensively. In his efforts to motivate the younger players to think defense first, he has consistently mentioned the names of Corey Brewer and Al Horford — the former Gators who started as freshmen — because of their "accountability and reliability" on defense.
"With Erving and Shipman on the perimeter, we are a little quicker and more athletic and we've got a little more speed back there," Donovan said. "And both guys have a chance to be good defenders if those guys are reliable on the defensive end of the floor. I've told Ray, for our team, he doesn't need to even really worry about scoring. He needs to focus and worry about finding a way to become a defensive stopper. That's got to be his goal."
Florida opened last season 18-3, with many of those early victories against overmatched teams. The Gators faltered down the stretch, losing seven of their last 10 regular-season games. This year, the Gators open with Toledo, Bradley, then an early tournament that includes Syracuse, Washington and Kansas.
"Last year, people kept asking, 'Do you feel like you're battle-tested enough,' " Donovan said. "I'm not going to say our schedule was terrible; it is what it is and you try to make the most of it. But we're going to find out a lot about our team very early, and maybe more so than we did a year ago. The first five games, we're in the thick of it and we're going to find out a lot about ourselves."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.