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Friday October 11, 2013 Getting 'Connected' -- Notes from Hoops Practice Day 1

Practice Day 1 GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Connectivity.

That word and all variations of it, all the concepts associated with it, figures prominently  with the Florida Gators as they head into the 2013-14 basketball season.

“We need to be a closer team this season, a more connected team,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “We will be a closer team.”

The Gators rolled the balls out for the first practice of the season Friday, but the steps toward getting become a tighter, more cohesive group commenced during the offseason, continued into the preseason and figures to be an on-going theme in the weeks and months to come.

This UF team will not be cliquey. And there won’t be any individualists.

Donovan hopes intimate player talks and exercises to promote team-building will fortify a closeness that will fortify and bond the Gators over the course of a season and better prep them to take on the trials and tribulations of a long season.

“The better you know a person, the better you can help them deal with adversity,” Donovan said after Friday’s first practice. “Sometimes, when a guy is upset about something, what’s your first instinct? Probably to leave him alone, right? A lot of times, it’s no different in a practice or a game.”

It will be this year.

“Coach D has really done a good job of bringing us together as a team and making us get to know each other better and getting us better connected,” sophomore guard Dillon Graham said, echoing his coach’s top talking point. “I feel we understand each other, that we’ve learned about each other, and really love each other so much more than last year.”

A tighter team figures to be better prepared to deal with the sort of meltdown moments that so thoroughly aggravated the coaches and players last season. Does anyone remember Arizona. Or Missouri? Or Kentucky? Or Ole Miss?

Does anyone not?

“We want to be more focused and together, especially when it starts getting tough,” senior forward Will Yeguete said. “We fell short there last year because we didn’t stay connected as well when it got tough.”

There’s that word again.

Get used to it.

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Because my flight to Baton Rouge, La., wasn’t until Friday night (there’s a football game there Saturday, in case you had not heard), I was able to pop by the first practice. Here are some Day 1 items and observations:

> Though still not cleared for contact, Yeguete (knee) and guard Eli Carter (leg), the transfer from Rutgers, took part in UF’s non-contact drills. When it was time for the banging around, the two players took their turns shooting free throws. 

> Senior guard Scottie Wilbekin, reinstated from a suspension that lasted nearly the entire summer, practiced and was matched often against freshman point guard Kasey Hill. Like everyone else, Wilbekin took turns running with the blue (first unit) and orange (reserves) teams. Another name that needs to be mentioned in the point-guard contest is Billy Donovan, not the coach, but coach’s son and transfer from Division III Catholic University. While Wilbekin is out (however long that may be), somebody will have to back up Hill and the younger Donovan may very well be the Gators’ best option. By the way, young Billy D is neither “Junior” nor “III,” in addition to getting used to reading about “connections,” you might want to get used to reading about two Billy Donovans.

> Yeah, it’s early but sophomore guard Michael Frazier II looked terrific, having clearly taken advantage of the offseason to expand his game. He now has the ability (and confidence) to ball-fake and drive the lane, which will only make his 3-point shot -- and everyone around -- more dangerous. Plus, he’s a great free-throw point shooter, should he get hacked on the way to the rim. Frazier, like every other Gator, has altered his body significantly. Get this: He weighed an even 200 pounds when he arrived at UF in July 2012. On Friday, he weighed in at 202, but at 11.8-percent body fat versus 14.5 his freshman year. Take a bow, strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene.

> A couple times Friday, players who beat their man for layup attempts were surprised to find the out-stretched hand of junior center/forward Damontre Harris coming with weak-side help to swat the ball away. Harris, the 6-foot-10 transfer from South Carolina, finished second in the Southeastern Conference in blocked shots (2.3 per game) two years ago (only Kentucky’s Anthony Davis had more). Harris is a defense-first low post player and will give Donovan and his staff some interesting options (such as perhaps playing him with Patric Young, one of the best post defenders in the country).

>  Transfer Dorian “DoeDoe” Finney-Smith probably can play four positions (all but point guard), if the Gators want/need him to. He’s a threat (not great) from the 3-point arc and can do some things -- like finish -- around the basket due to his athleticism. He averaged 7.1 rebounds per game in the Atlantic Coast Conference at Virginia Tech two years ago. Last year, when Harris suffered a torn labrum in the season’s third practice and could not practice nearly his entire transfer year, Finney-Smith was forced to play mostly center for the scout team and got to know Young very well. “Too well,” he said. He can mix it up down there, though, and will be comfortable at either small or power forward spots.

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