When he was making out his schedule last year, Florida coach Billy Donovan thought having his players participate in the College Basketball Experience Classic would be a great opportunity.
Four of the past six NCAA champions were participating, including Syracuse and Kansas, and with the nucleus of his young team returning, Donovan thought it would be a great way to measure its early progress.
In hindsight, maybe not.
Because the team Donovan thought he would be putting in the tournament doesn't really exist right now.
Last season's starting point guard, Jai Lucas, abruptly transferred two weeks ago. Reserve, yet experienced, forward Adam Allen has a knee injury that will keep him out several more weeks. And touted freshman Eloy Vargas is still recuperating from offseason ankle surgery.
"We had kind of planned and hoped to be a deeper team this year, but we're almost back in the same situation we were in a year ago," said Donovan, whose No. 18 Gators are down to nine scholarship players — just as they were last season at this time. "So we felt like there was enough of a nucleus there that getting exposed to some real good competition in November would be really good for our team. But going into this weekend, we've had to make some adjustments as coaches dealing with all that.
"But I still think we have an opportunity to learn a lot here. Hindsight is 20-20. I have a choice that this is either a bad tournament for us or a good tournament, so I'm going to choose to say it's good."
This is the first meeting between Florida and Syracuse since the Gators won 75-70 in the 2005 Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. The unranked Orange returns four of five starters from last season, including All-Big East guard Jonny Flynn.
"There's no question that Flynn is as good as any guard in the country, and he's a great, great player," Donovan said. "I think (Eric) Devendorf coming off an injury gives them another experienced backcourt player who is very good on the dribble, very quick. And they've got size in their frontcourt. … So I think Syracuse is a team, maybe somewhat similar to us, on any given night can beat anybody in the country, but also probably there's a lot of teams that can beat the both of us. We're both trying to get better and improve."
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said having Devendorf and junior guard Andy Rautins back from injury has been a benefit, but his team is still very similar to the one that advanced to the NIT last season.
"I think we're about the same; maybe with the two veterans back and the experience our young guys had, we might be a little bit ahead this year," he said. "But not much difference. We're still figuring out how to get these guys back together, and we lost a first-round pick in the NBA draft (Donte Green), so that's not easy to do. But I would say we're at least where we were last year at this stage."
For the Gators, it's a chance to see just where they are — with what they have.
"We know this is going to be a big challenge for us, but that's what we're looking for," sophomore forward Chandler Parsons said. "Some of the other guys are going to have to step up, and I think they'll do that."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.