South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches
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Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Billy Donovan (451-169, 19th season; 486-189, 21st season)
2013-14 record (SEC finish): 36-3 (18-0)
2013-14 postseason: Final Four
He’s outta here: Casey Prather (senior, 13.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg); Scottie Wilbekin (senior, 13.1 ppg, 2.4 rpg); Patric Young (senior, 11.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg); Will Yeguete (senior, 4.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-5 G Brandone Francis (academically ineligible, will sit out this year); 6-8 F Devin Robinson; 6-8 F Alex Murphy (transfer from Duke, eligible in December); 6-0 G Chris Chiozza; 6-11 C John Egbunu (transfer from USF, will sit out this year); 6-10 C Jon Horford (transfer from Michigan); 6-4 G Zach Hodskins
Top returners: 6-4 G Michael Frazier (12.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg); 6-8 F Dorian Finney-Smith (8.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg); 6-1 G Kasey Hill (5.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
Donovan sat at the table at SEC Media Days, looking rested and relaxed, like he could still get out on the court and scrimmage with his guys, the way he used to when he was first hired. OK, maybe the famous slicked-back widow’s peak has some gray at the temples and the moniker “Billy the Kid” wasn’t quite as fitting.
But it was still the same guy who has averaged 25 wins during his 18 years at Florida, which at age 49, puts him as a guy who just may win more games than anyone if he wants to stick with it long enough. Mike Krzyzewski should break 1,000 wins this year, but he’ll be 68 by season’s end. Jim Boeheim has less wins and is older than Coach K. If Billy D. were to coach as long or longer than K, with just the average of 25 wins, who knows?
That was a topic for another day. The topic on this one was how good Florida remains, despite losing four seniors who reached at least the Elite Eight in each of the past four years.
Donovan doesn’t regret the finish of last season for anything. He knew the team had the talent to go all the way. It nearly did. The Gators went undefeated in the SEC, and even won the SEC tournament, but ran into a Cinderella Connecticut team in the Final Four.
That UConn team handed Florida its second and third losses of the season, more than four months between them. Call it being just bad enough when it really had to be great, call it the curse of the long winning streak heading into the NCAA tournament, but Florida came up two games short when trying to give Donovan his third ring.
Outstanding team, but Donovan wasn’t going to accept having a couple of down years before getting back to that point. Simply, Florida expects to make deep tournament runs and although losing four seniors who played so much will hurt, the Gators replaced them.
Robinson is a five-star prospect. Horford and Murphy come from winning programs. Chiozza is an elite prep guard. The returning players outside of Frazier may not have much in statistics, but that’s because they were playing behind the four seniors.
Donovan has experience dealing with problem-child players (Wilbekin) so handling the mercurial Chris Walker shouldn’t be a problem. Walker missed the first semester last year due to academics and amateurism issues, averaged less than five minutes per game and is out the first two games of this year for flunking a drug test. He’s knocking on the door of Serial Knuckleheadedness.
Still, there’s no questioning his talent. With Frazier, Finney-Smith and Hill around him, the Gators are again formidable. Billy will win and keep winning, and maybe become the best of all time.
Even if he has to turn down Kentucky a third time.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Amanda Butler (140-95, eighth year; 180-117, 10th year)
2013-14 record (SEC finish): 20-13 (8-8)
2013-14 postseason: Second round, NCAA tournament
She’s outta here: Jaterra Bonds (senior, 15.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg); Christin Mercer (transferred to Jacksonville, 11.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg); Lily Svete (senior, 5.5 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 5-7 G Isis Young; 5-10 G Dyandria Anderson; 6-2 F Brooke Copeland; 6-3 F Haley Lorenzen; 5-10 G Carla Batchelor (transfer from Northwest Florida State College)
Top returners: 6-0 G Kayla Lewis (12.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg); 5-6 G Cassie Peoples (10.3 ppg, 2.7 rpg); 5-8 G January Miller (9.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
Butler will love this year. She’ll look down the bench and every seat will be filled.
“We went into LSU last year with seven players,” she said at SEC Media Days. “Seven, that’s it. Most of the year, it was eight.”
Injuries and unpredicted off-the-court issues (Mercer was charged with conspiracy to commit robbery) left Florida with the thinnest bench in the league last year, yet the Gators still managed to win their 20 and get back to the NCAA tournament. It was a Herculean performance, with Butler hoping during every minute of every day that nobody else got sick, hurt or fouled out, but they got through it.
Since then, they’ve reloaded with four freshmen and a JUCO transfer, and hope to finally get something out of Viktorija Dimaite, who’s a senior in the classroom but has never played a minute due to injuries. The Gators reeled in height with their recruiting class and are drawing on last year to inspire them – if they did that with such an undermanned roster, imagine what they can do with a full boat.
“It doesn’t faze us now,” Butler said. “I’d be lying if you said you don’t think of worst-case scenario, but at the same time, it was not what we were going to choose to dwell on. We couldn’t sit around thinking of what we didn’t have. We were going to make this work.”
Butler has won 20 games in four straight seasons, and has been to three NCAA tournaments. She’s never missed a postseason in her head-coaching career. After surviving last year, she has to feel as if she’s playing with house money. The league is deeper and more talented, and Florida may not win the overall skill battle every night – but fighting through a year like last year is invaluable.
The Gators were picked ninth. They’ll finish higher.
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