Every time Matt Walsh bumped into friends during Florida's second summer-school session, the Gators guard got the same question.
"When did you get back?" they would ask.
Actually, Walsh never left. Instead of hitting the clubs, Walsh hit the weights, banging out sets every morning under the watchful eye of strength coach Matt Herring. He also hit the court, playing pickup games whenever possible. And Walsh wasn't alone. Most of Florida's veterans stayed in Gainesville. And when the second summer session began, five freshmen joined their elders. To Walsh's pleasant surprise, coach Billy Donovan had brought in a passel of gym rats who always seemed up for a game.
The result, Walsh says, is a togetherness the 2003-04 Gators didn't feel until Christian Drejer's premature adios to play pro ball in Spain forced a young team to bond in March. Combine that with guard Anthony Roberson's decision to return for his junior season, and Donovan has every reason to believe this team can produce a seventh straight 20-win season.
The Gators haven't advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since reaching the NCAA title game in 2000. After last season's humiliating first-round loss to Manhattan, a frustrated Donovan swore he would find a way to toughen his team. In the offseason, he shook up his staff. He hired former Clemson head coach Larry Shyatt as an assistant, adding some 50-something wisdom to complement the rest of the staff's 30-something energy.
FRONTCOURTFlorida will have the rarest of rarities anchoring its front line -- a senior with all-conference credentials. David Lee never seriously considered a leap to the NBA, and the 6-foot-9 power forward worked in the offseason to play a more aggressive game.
The sophomore who Donovan hoped would play alongside Lee spent most of the summer healing. Chris Richard, a 6-8, 245-pound mound of potential, hoped rest would heal tendinitis in his knee, but he eventually required surgery, limiting him for much of the summer. While Donovan had hoped Richard could develop into a Udonis Haslem-type banger, Richard will enter preseason practice as a question mark. The same goes for fellow sophomore Mohamed Abukar, who had shoulder surgery a few days after the 2003-04 season and missed most of the summer program.
"They have not been able to do anything in the offseason," Donovan said in July. "That's a concern for me. Generally you see players make the biggest jump, at least for us, from their freshman year to their sophomore year. I don't know what kind of strides they've made in their games."
Adrian Moss made huge strides toward the end of last season, especially during the Gators' run to the finals of the SEC Tournament. With known commodities in Lee and Moss and potential improvement from a healthy Richard and Abukar, Donovan may not have to press freshmen Joakim Noah -- son of former pro tennis star Yannick Noah -- and Al Horford into action.
BACKCOURTWalsh says he never doubted Roberson would return, but all Gators likely exhaled when they learned the point guard had decided to come back to Gainesville. Roberson did not attend the summer program, but the news of his return bolstered his teammates' spirits.
First, Donovan did not have to worry about providing a crash course for freshman point guard Taurean Green. Second, Roberson (17.9 ppg) combines with Walsh (15.8 ppg) and sophomore Lee Humphrey to form one of the most explosive backcourts in the SEC.
FINAL ANALYSISThe Gators have proved they can win a ton of games and finish near the top of the SEC every season.
Now, they need to translate their regular-season success into NCAA tournament wins. Florida hasn't returned this much talent since 2000-01, when the Gators brought back Haslem, Brett Nelson and Teddy Dupay from a team that played for a national title. That team lost to Temple in the second round. This one will have to do better to prove Florida isn't guaranteed to wilt in the heat of March.