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With the 2010-11 college basketball season over after a lackluster national title game Monday night, fans of Florida Gators hoops can look back at the year gone by as one of success and redemption.
Could Florida have advanced further in the 2011 NCAA Tournament? Undoubtedly.
Was it equally possible that they could have failed to get out of the Sweet 16? Of course.
The greatest takeaway from a hard-fought season and the departure of three senior frontcourt starters is that Billy Donovan proved, once again, why he is one of the nation's elite coaches.
Forget how the Gators ended their tournament run. Different plays could have been called, better shots certainly could have been taken and the team could have been in a position of power going into the final seconds of both regulation and overtime. Coaching decisions - and/or how players disregarded instructions - can be debated until kingdom come. Standing on its own is the fact that Donovan may have done his best coaching job when Florida needed it the most.
"I'm so happy for those guys. It has been so rewarding for me to see them making the journey they've made to this point right now," said Donovan of his seniors after defeating Brigham Young in the Sweet 16. "It's been very rewarding and fulfilling for me, and I hope in some way I've been able to give them as much as they've given me."
Not only did he help send three players who worked their respective tails off for him out on a good note, Donovan put the Gators back in the national spotlight after a variety of factors derailed Florida from competing at a high level following back-to-back national championships. From early departures and transfers to injuries and coaching shakeups, it took Donovan four years to get his team back to respectable form - but he succeeded in the end.
"It's been somewhat amazing and extremely rewarding," he said of the journey. "When you lose, for the first time in the history of college basketball, three players who got drafted off one team in the top 10 picks of the NBA Draft - and that's not considering two second-round draft picks in Chris Richard and Taurean Green, and it's also not talking about Lee Humphrey, who is the all-time three-point maker in NCAA Tournament history. When you lose those [six] guys…"
Shaking his head at the thought, Donovan noted that with great success on the court came a relative failure in replacing those players and their collective talent right away. "We, because [the Oh Fours] came back, had a real hard time recruiting," he said. "When I say that, a lot of kids said, 'Jeez, they came back for their junior year to repeat, maybe they're going to come back for their senior year.' We probably didn't do a good enough job having enough players there."
The two top-notch players he did have - who were supposed to be the backbone of the "new generation" of Gators - ended their college careers early and created an even deeper void for him to fill.
"When [Chandler] Parsons and [Nick] Calathes and those guys came in, we were starting off at ground zero. It was almost like I just took the job," he said. "The thing that really hurt us in terms of making that next step was the next year [Marreese] Speights leaves - a first-round draft pick at 6'11". [Al] Horford, [Joakim] Noah and [Corey] Brewer stayed for three years; I thought we'd get another year out of [Speights]. After his sophomore year the next year, Nick Calathes leaves."
There were others, too. Guys who didn't stick around because there was not immediate playing time available, others who thought different systems would be a better fit, and some who simply did not live up to their billing and couldn't deal with the exceedingly high expectations Donovan has for his players on a daily basis.
Spurning the Orlando Magic to return to college coaching, he knew it would be a difficult rebuilding process. Did he think it would be as tough as it actually ended up being? Probably not. However, Donovan looks at the back-to-back seasons of NIT appearances in a different light.
"The one thing that didn't happen to our program, that has happened to a lot of great programs when you lost that amount of people, people have had losing records and don't even go to postseason play," he said. "Those guys have won over 20 games [every year], they went to the NIT. I think they actually did a heck of a job. It was just that the standard was set so high for those two years that we had to take a dip."
The stains of that dip have been washed away over the last two seasons and may become a distant memory if Florida continues its upward climb in 2012. There is reason to believe that will be the case.
Though the Gators are losing their entire starting frontcourt, they are gaining two lights-out scorers in transfer guard Mike Rosario and the Gatorade National Player of the Year, five-star guard Brad Beal. Florida will probably play small, running with three guards in the starting lineup and likely using another as the sixth man. Center Patric Young will be forced to step up his offensive game while becoming more disciplined defensively in order to make an even bigger impact down low. Development of the bench, especially when it comes to the inexperienced frontcourt, will provide Donovan with yet another obstacle to overcome.
It would be worth your hard-earned money to bet that he will figure out a way to get over that one, too.