GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Two weeks ago, while the Florida football team was preparing to play South Carolina, the Gators basketball team was barely into its first week of practice when Coach Billy Donovan put his players through a grueling four-day stretch.
Two practices on a Thursday, two practices Friday, three practices Saturday (including one during the football game against the Gamecocks) and a brutal scrimmage Sunday to wrap up the weekend.
Donovan wanted to see how his players would respond and for the most part he was pleased.
But he’s also seen of late how the preseason grind has taken a toll on the team mentally.
“The excitement has worn off for practice,” Donovan said Monday. “I think they’re tired, they’re sore, they’re going to doubles on the weekends. Right now, we’ve got to take that next step of getting there mentally and taking that next step.”
This week should help. Specifically, Thursday night when UF plays its lone exhibition game against Nebraska-Kearney (pronounced “Carney,” as in Art or chili con) at the O'Connell Center. Tipoff is 7 p.m.
Life after four-year starter Erving Walker -- not to mention one-and-doner Bradley Beal -- figures to be a lot different and a process that extends well into the season. The Gators return three starters in sharp-shooting senior guard Kenny Boynton, plus junior center Patric Young and senior forward Erik Murphy up front.
The new season means new roles for Scottie Wilbekin, who succeeds Walker at the point guard spot he manned for nearly four years, plus senior guard Mike Rosario (pictured right), who gets the first crack at the combo 2/3 wing spot Beal played so spectacularly as a freshman last season.
The early nod goes to Rosario over junior Casey Prather as a reward for nearly two months of exemplary work after basically two years of an inconsistent (oftentime unreliable) track record on and off the court since transferring from Rutgers.
“His behavior, accountability, being responsible,” Donovan said of Rosario, who average 6.6 points in 31 games off the bench last season. “He has a better understanding of the expectation level on him.”
The first-team lineup could change, Donovan cautioned, depending on teams, matchups and style of play, with Prather and junior forward Will Yeguete also figuring much into the mix.
“I think we have some flexibility,” Donovan said.
With sophomore center/forward Cody Larson quitting the team last week and Damontre Harris, the transfer from South Carolina, undergoing surgery for a torn labrum suffered in practice, the Gators are down in numbers.
If anything, the increased frontcourt bodies (throw in Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith) was supposed to be a huge plus for the Gators this season, especially for the next step in Young’s day-to-day development.
“It definitely hurts our depth there,” Donovan said.
Larson (pictured right) was taken off scholarship for this semester after failing to meet some guidelines laid down by the coaching staff given a series of indiscretions since coming to UF from Sioux Falls, S.D. Larson, who averaged less than a point and rebound in limited time last season, had planned to pay his own way and play as a walk-on this season, but changed his mind last week.
In a meeting with Donovan, Larson basically admitted his passion for the game is not where it should be to compete at a place like Florida.
“I think he’s in a great, great place mentally,” Donovan said. “I’m proud of the strides he’s made in his personal life.”
That said, Donovan was asked whether he’d take Larson back if the player had second thoughts about his decision.
“I would take him back,” he said. “If there’s anybody who knows anything about changing their mind, it’s me.”
The exhibition with Nebraska-Kearney will mark the debut of UF's four-man freshman class.
Look for 6-4 guard Michael Frazier (left), who starred at Tampa Plant (averaging 29.7 points and 9.7 rebounds) before transferring to Montverde Academy for his senior year, to be the first of the rookies off the bench. Frazier has shown to be a much more polished player and better defender than maybe even what the staff expected.
After that, Orlando First Academy 6-4 guard Dillon Graham could be next, with 6-foot Charlotte Braxton Ogbueze maybe getting a look at the two-guard spot; perhaps some point.
The coaching staff loves the early signs from DeVon Walker, a 6-6 swingman who signed late out of Winter Haven. Walker is a high-energy, high-ceiling kid who at just 191 pounds needs to develop physically. Given the frontcourt situation, though, the Gators may need to see if Walker can help them right away.
On the national college basketball beat, Jeff Goodman is as good as there is.
Here’s his preseason take on the Gators, who checked in at No. 14 in the CBSSports.com preseason rankings.
The Washington Post did a blowout piece today on Beal, who is living in suburban Arlington, Va., with his two brothers. The former Gators star -- and first freshman in program history to be named First-Team All-Southeastern Conference -- will make his NBA regular season debut tonight when his new team, the Washington Wizards, open the 2012-13 season at Cleveland. The Wiz made Beal the No. 3 overall pick in the draft last June, tying for the second-highest a UF player ever had been selected.