ATLANTA — When he walked into the Georgia Dome on Wednesday afternoon, nostalgia and reality hit Billy Donovan almost simultaneously.
There he was in a place where his Florida basketball teams have won two SEC tournament titles and repeated as national champion.
Memories were everywhere. Earlier in the day, Joakim Noah used his day off from the Chicago Bulls to address the team before it left Gainesville. Across the street from the Georgia Dome, Al Horford, another former Gator, was playing for the Atlanta Hawks.
And here stood Donovan facing the stark reality of what a difference a year can make. He has gone from a veteran, championship squad to a team full of freshmen who don't have a clue what to expect when the Gators play Alabama tonight in the first round of the SEC tournament.
"No question (I thought) how much things change from year to year to year," Donovan said. "Looking at all that happened here last year, but then coming in here today with this team, it's very, very clear in a lot of ways we're starting over."
In Donovan's eyes, the 2008-09 season unofficially begins today.
Though fans hang on to the idea that a deep run in the SEC tournament will earn the Gators their 10th consecutive NCAA Tournament bid, Donovan has his eyes on a much bigger prize: the future.
After losing five starters and the league's top sixth man from last season, this year's roller-coaster ride has not surprised him.
So while Donovan won't discount the importance of making it to the NCAA Tournament, he won't let that overshadow what he calls the bigger picture — gaining as much experience as possible from the tournament to make the team better next season.
"It's clear right now we've got to win some games," Donovan said. "& I feel like our guys really need to go through all these experiences to really grow and develop and get to where we want to go. The past reminds you of how far you've got to go. Our past reminds our team of how far we've got to go to get better. If we're throwing all our eggs in and we're going to sell ourselves out just to get to the (NCAA) Tournament, I think we're missing the point of where we're trying to get this group."
He's trying to get back to being a Top 10 program. For now, he's just trying to get a win. Florida has lost seven of its past 12 games and three straight.
"Last year, we were the No. 1 seed, we had a target on our back," forward Dan Werner said. "This year, we look at it like starting a new season.''
The Gators and Alabama met during the regular season with Florida rallying for a 90-83 win in the SEC opener for both. It has been so long, it's almost like preparing for a new opponent.
"I think we've gotten a lot better, but Alabama is a better team, too," junior guard Walter Hodge said. "I told our guys they have to come with the right mind-set. The season is over. This is a new season. You have to play like it's do or die."
According to Donovan, Noah attended practice on Wednesday in similar fashion as he practiced and played at UF: like a storm blowing in out of nowhere. He had a simple message.
"He talked to us about all the things that make it conducive to win a championship," said freshman guard Jai Lucas, who described the team as very loose and confident. "He told us to stay focused and play as hard as we can and everything else will take care of itself."
At the start of the week, Donovan seemed resigned to the Gators' non-NCAA fate, continuously talking about molding great teams for the future. On Wednesday, he said he believes the Gators have what it takes to make a deep run.
"When you're playing one-shot games like we are right now, if you lose, you go home, and I think anything can happen on a neutral site," he said. "In this tournament, anything can happen with any one of these teams because we're all familiar with each other, and everybody's good enough in this league, in my opinion to advance and move on."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]