Freshman guard Anthony Roberson stood in front of cameras and a throng of reporters during media day several weeks ago and spoke confidently about how he and his freshman teammates planned to do everything possible to help Florida return to the Final Four.
At the time it seemed like the usual preseason talk from a new player.
But after a recent string of injuries, the Gators might rely heavily on their highly-touted freshman class out of necessity.
Senior guard Brett Nelson is out with a possible stress fracture in his right foot, but could return as early as next week. An MRI was inconclusive on whether the foot is fractured. Freshman guard Christian Drejer is recovering from a high left ankle sprain and ligament damage. Drejer was readmitted to the hospital last weekend and is being treated for a fever and infection in his foot. And junior forward Bonell Colas is expected to miss 2-3 weeks with a groin injury.
Florida's roster includes seven freshmen, two of whom will start tonight. Roberson and forward Matt Walsh will become the first freshmen in Florida's starting lineup since 1999 (Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem).
"I think I can help this team and I'll do it any way Coach wants me to help," said Roberson, a 2002 McDonald's All-American. "Right now, the biggest thing I'm trying to do is fit in. I want to do whatever I can to be a team player and help this team win a national championship."
Coach Billy Donovan said that though this isn't the way he would have scripted the season, in the long run it could be a blessing in disguise.
"I think for our basketball team to really reach its full potential, these freshmen have got to step up and grow," Donovan said. "So when Christian and Brett get back, these (young) kids are going to have some unbelievable experiences in front of them. I think that down the road, that's going to make our team better."
Florida opens the season tonight against Louisiana Tech in the Preseason NIT.
"The freshmen are going to get a true taste of it," Donovan said. "It's the first game, on national TV and if we're fortunate enough to win, it's almost like an NCAA situation where you have a day off, then another game. I'm looking at it as their experience is going to be invaluable towards our growth as a team as we move forward."
The Gators are ranked No. 8. But according to its veterans, Florida's biggest motivation stems from last season. The Gators went 6-5 down the stretch and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in double overtime to Creighton.
Their motto is, "Unfinished business."
"The hard work we put into last season was basically all for nothing," senior guard Justin Hamilton said. "That's something we had to live with all summer. I think guys could use that as a motivational factor for this season."
Nelson considered leaving early for the NBA after last season but said the bitter ending was a factor in his return.
"One of the main reasons is I want to win a national title," Nelson said. "I didn't want to leave on a note like we did last year."
With early injuries, don't expect to see the up-tempo, pressing style that put Donovan and the Gators on the national map.
"I don't know if we can do that right now based on the personnel we have," Donovan said. "We've gone from having 13 scholarship players, but now with Bonell, Brett and Christian being out, you're talking about being down to eight guys. It becomes very difficult to do that for an entire basketball game. Two guys makes a huge difference.
"When you get to eight, with guys playing significant minutes, it starts to become taxing as well.
"I don't think that we're not going to press at all. I think that we can play our style of play, but I think we have to be smart as far as keeping guys on the court because of the lack of experience in certain areas."
Donovan also is relying on Hamilton, senior Matt Bonner and Nelson to offer strong leadership.
"That's something we have to do a great job of during this year, just provide strong leadership for this team," Hamilton said. "If they follow our lead, I think we'll be in good shape."