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Not long after winning his first national title, last spring, Gators coach Billy Donovan bent the ears of two friends who have led teams to back-to-back championships: the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick and the Miami Heat's Pat Riley. Florida is the first NCAA champ since Arizona in 1997--98 to have all five of its starters return--those Wildcats made it to the West Regional final--and no team has repeated since Duke in '91--92. "We talked about dealing with outside distractions and hype," Donovan says. "They came back to this: You have to go with your gut."
So Billy D followed his instincts. He asked his players to spend the summer in Gainesville, the better to elude the clutches of agents. He organized a preseason exhibition trip to Canada to resume the daily grind of practice. And he preached the value of actively attacking a new title instead of passively defending last season's. Yet Donovan realizes he can only control so much. "In March we could be a better team than a year ago," he says, "or we may not get as far as we did last season. We can't worry about that. We just have to find a way to get better."
It's hard to improve when you already have three likely first-round NBA draft picks (forwards Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer and center Al Horford ) and remarkable team chemistry, but it's possible. Florida (10--6 in SEC play last year) was "a mediocre team in a mediocre league," says assistant coach Larry Shyatt. Even the Gators' glorious NCAA tournament run had its shortcomings, Donovan says, noting the 16 offensive rebounds Florida allowed in the first half of the Minneapolis regional final against Villanova. And while Donovan acknowledges that his backcourt of point guard Taurean Green and shooting guard Lee Humphrey "is probably underrated" compared with headliner big men Noah and Horford, there's room for improvement there too. "Taurean had a really good year," says Donovan, citing Green's 38.4% three-point shooting and a sterling nine-assist, one-turnover performance in the national title game. "But he has to finish better and become a better shooter inside the three-point line." Green made only 33.3% of his two-pointers last season.
Still, the Gators' biggest challenge will be dealing with their rock-star treatment off the court. "It's definitely changed," says Green. "We get people asking for autographs and handing us their phones so we can say hi to their mom or dad."
By March it will be clear how well they've handled the distractions. While they're the nation's most accomplished outfit, the Gators understand as well as anyone that the best team doesn't always win the title.
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Can the Gators keep their edge now that NBA futures are set and one title has been won? ... Will Noah's newfound celebrity harm team chemistry? ... Will a home court slipup like last year's to South Carolina and Tennessee hurt them?
Nov. 10 Samford