By: Chris Dortch
SEC Digital Network
Florida’s basketball team is in a rut, but 98 percent of the 345 or so Division I teams would gladly trade places with the Gators, whose ouster from the NCAA tournament at the hands of Michigan was their third straight loss in the Elite Eight.
Being stopped so tantalizingly short of the Final Four, college basketball’s Mecca, has been frustrating for Florida coach Billy Donovan, but he’s got the perfect antidote. He just looks over at his two national championship rings.
“It's not really about me,” Donovan said after the Michigan game. “I've been fortunate enough to [reach the Final Four] as a player and several times as a coach. I feel more upset for [Kenny] Boynton, [Mike] Rosario and [Erik] Murphy, who don't get a chance and have come so close. I've experienced the Final Four enough. I want our program to continue to experience it, and our players.”
Chances are good Donovan will have the Gators in the same position next season, regardless of whether junior Patric Young decides to take a shot at the NBA Draft. Florida’s returning nucleus includes point guard Scottie Wilbekin, forwards Will Yeguete and Casey Prather and shooting guard Michael Frazier. To that mix, Donovan and his staff have added five-star freshmen recruits Kasey Hill, a point guard, and Chris Walker, a power forward. Both are rated among the top five in the country at their positions.
Then there are Donovan’s two secret weapons—transfers Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech) and Damontre Harris (South Carolina) who will bolster the Gators’ front line. Finney-Smith is an aggressive rebounder who can also knock down 3-pointers. Harris was chosen to the SEC’s All-Defensive team last season after finishing tied for second in the league in blocked shots.
CATS’ ROSTER SHAPING UP: Freshman Alex Poythress’ announcement on Tuesday that he was returning to school means that Kentucky will have three solid returning players, along with freshman Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, to blend with an unprecedented array of talented incoming freshmen.
Earlier in the week, sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow decided to transfer to Georgia State to be closer to his ailing father, and freshman Archie Goodwin, despite his post-NIT proclamation that he and his fellow Kentucky freshmen would be “delusional” to put their names into the draft pool, did exactly that.
Center Nerlens Noel hasn’t made his decision public yet, but many draft analysts, citing Noel’s encouraging rehab from ACL surgery, still believe he’ll be the No. 1 overall pick.
Such personnel turnover has become the new normal at Kentucky. The Wildcats got caught short this season from a depth standpoint, especially after Noel’s injury, but depth won’t be a problem next season. Poythress alluded to it in the press release announcing his decision to stay.
“I want to develop more as a player,” Poythress said. “And the competition coming in next year should help me do that."
Count on that.
MARTIN COACHING NABC STARS: Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin is coaching the East team in the Reese’s Division I College All-Star game at the Georgia Dome on Friday.
Martin will have some talent at his disposal, including some solid big men—Wisconsin’s Jared Berggren, Jake Cohen of Davidson, Zeke Marshall of Akron and Gregory Echenique of Creighton.
Martin, known for extracting maximum effort from his players, won’t be too tough on this bunch.
"This is a game that is supposed to be fun for the players, so I'm just looking forward to keeping it light and making it a good time for everyone involved," Martin said.
"No weighted vests. Just playmakers doing what they do."
TALENT TRANSFUSION: More evidence that the strength of power conferences runs in cycles can be found by checking out the roster of the McDonald’s All-American game. Ten of the 24 players are headed to the SEC, which would portend better days ahead. Of course, six of them are bound for Kentucky, but Florida newcomers Hill and Walker are playing for the East team, and the West roster includes Jarell Martin (LSU) and Bobby Portis (Arkansas).
Martin and Portis are breakthrough recruits for their respective college coaches. LSU’s Johnny Jones told Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook last summer that he wouldn’t need a GPS to navigate his primary recruiting territory. Jones wants to keep Louisiana’s best players at home, and Martin, a long, athletic three man, is from Baton Rouge.
Likewise, Portis was a key instate recruit for Arkansas coach Mike Anderson. The 6-9, 225-pound Portis is from Little Rock. He’s an inside-outside player who will help the Hogs overcome the loss of Marshawn Powell, the fourth-year junior who has decided to put his name into the NBA draft pool.