GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The court looked similar. So did the uniforms. The guy who wears the moose head and holds women's panties while opposing players shoot free throws still sat behind the west basket. The band still played You Can Call Me Al at the under-eight timeout of the second half.
Still, Florida's O'Connell Center seemed so alien Wednesday. Has it really been only two years since the circus came to town once or twice a week and one of the most perfect teams assembled in the past two decades climbed toward its second consecutive national title?
Florida coach Billy Donovan knows everything has changed. Frankly, he's tired of everyone pointing it out. To paraphrase Donovan's mentor, Rick Pitino, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Taurean Green aren't walking through that door. Florida's class of 2004 took Donovan's program to the pinnacle, but the '04s' grand exit after their junior season also wreaked havoc on Florida's class balance. Add a few more early departures after last year's NIT season and a few recruiting mistakes, and you have the group that took the floor Wednesday needing a win against playing-out-the-string Alabama to stay on track to reach the NCAA tournament.
The Gators have exactly one certified star (guard Nick Calathes, who scored 22 in an 83-74 win Wednesday) and a group of role players mostly ill-suited for their roles. They lost two starters (center Mareese Speights and point guard Jai Lucas) from last year's team, and their eight-man rotation includes three freshmen and three sophomores. Yet thanks to a down year in the SEC, Florida (20-6, 7-4) sits in a four-way tie atop the SEC east and could, with three wins from a remaining schedule that includes Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Kentucky at home and LSU and Mississippi State on the road, sneak into the NCAA tournament.
"I see them really, really trying hard. You know what? They're not Noah, Horford, Brewer, Green and [Lee] Humphrey," Donovan said Wednesday. "They're not those guys. It's not even about them upholding the standard of what those guys did. It's about, right now, them creating their own legacy. … Our program is at a point right now where these guys have got to learn what goes into winning."
Basically, Donovan is back where he was in his second season at Florida (1997-98), which ended with a first-round NIT loss to Georgetown. Guard Kenny Boynton, a freshly minted McDonald's All-America who will arrive next season, is the new Mike Miller, the must-get recruit who can touch off a new string of NCAA tournament appearances. Of course, there was no equivalent of Calathes when Miller arrived.
Calathes has had to learn to lead with no real role model. According to Donovan, the Gators didn't even know how to practice last season. So he threw them out of their practice facility, made them do their own laundry. Now, they practice correctly.
Saturday brought another hard lesson. Georgia, which hadn't won an SEC game all season and may not win another, buried shot after shot when Florida came out flat and held on to hand the Gators the kind of bad loss that makes selection committee members pause. "That was on the starting five," Calathes said Wednesday.
So Donovan reached into his bag of tricks Wednesday, pulling a clip of Al Pacino's "inch-by-inch" speech from the otherwise forgettable Any Given Sunday and interspersing it with highlights and lowlights from this season. The speech pumped up the Gators just as it did Steamin' Willie Beamen and company. They avoided the mistakes they made Saturday in Athens and won one they needed.
Now, the hard part begins. As flawed as the SEC is, the Gators will have to fight through the best of it if they want to start a new string of NCAA tournament appearances to replace the nine-year one Florida snapped last year. Donovan has admitted this bunch still needs work, but a team thrown together by less-than-ideal circumstances could still wind up representing a less-than-ideal conference in the tournament a year earlier than its coach expected.