GAINESVILLE — With his team's frontcourt play increasingly coming under scrutiny and the Gator men's basketball team showing signs of fading down the stretch for the second straight season, coach Billy Donovan acknowledged Monday that the unexpected loss of Marreese Speights after last season changed the roster complexion and forced several players into roles they aren't well suited for.
Speights, a St. Petersburg native, was a first-round pick of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers and is averaging 8.1 points and 3.8 rebounds, earning praise from the team. The center left Florida after his sophomore season, creating a hole that has hindered the Gators all season.
"The one thing you can never forecast is guys leaving early," Donovan said. "I don't think that when the season started last year, people thought Marreese Speights would be gone. I haven't talked about Marreese because he is not here … but our frontcourt complexion this year would look totally different. Alex (Tyus), Dan (Werner) and (Kenny) Kadji, we would have more pieces.
"There is no question that the role we are in right now is definitely a different role than from what we envisioned when we signed them."
Wednesday night, Florida hosts Alabama and will try to rebound from Saturday's 88-86 loss to a Georgia team that was 0-9 in the SEC.
Florida (19-6, 6-4) fell out of a three-way tie for first place in the East and is fourth behind South Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee, who are all 7-3.
The Gators have lost three of their past four and still have some of their toughest games remaining. Florida's two most recent losses were by three points or fewer, and came down to the final play.
"It's not time to panic, but it's time to clamp down," freshman G Erving Walker said. "We've got to win. We can't have many more losses. Yes, we have to win these (next) two games. Our backs are against the wall, but we're going to work harder and I think we'll be all right."
Donovan knows people are starting to compare this team to last season's squad that lost eight of its last 11 before being selected for the NIT.
"I think sometimes we get worried and focused way too far down the road," he said. "Whenever that (selection) day comes, we'll find out whether we've performed or played well enough."
SPIKES' SACRIFICE: When junior LB Brandon Spikes decided last month to return for his senior season, various reports circulated that his decision might have been based on projections which had him slipping into the second round of the NFL draft. But ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said last week that Spikes gave up being a first-round pick by returning.
"Spikes surprised me by going back," Kiper said during a network teleconference last week. "I thought had he come out, he was the No. 1 middle linebacker in this draft. They moved him around, they got him outside in pass-rush situations. The big thing with him was what kind of speed he was going to show. If he ran well enough (at the NFL combine and in individual workouts), and showed the kind of speed you need to be an early- to mid-first rounder, I think he would have been in that discussion at (No.) 10 to 20. … Of all the juniors that went back, Spikes was probably one of the two or three that surprised me most."
AROUND THE SWAMP: Junior sprinter Calvin Smith, a former Freedom High standout, ran a season-best and NCAA provisional qualifying time of 47.03 seconds in the invitational round of the 400-meter dash at the Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Ark. Smith was the top collegiate finisher in a meet that included Nike and former LSU runner Xavier Carter and Adidas' Michael Tinsley. … Junior LF Francesca Enea was named SEC softball player of the week and sophomore Stephanie Brombacher was named SEC pitcher of the week. Enea had 11 hits in 18 at-bats, including two grand slams in one day, a UF first. Brombacher pitched a no-hitter against Coastal Carolina.
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.