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Florida still thriving

SPECIAL TO ESPN.COM

How many schools could lose their top six players from a season ago -- and then win 18 of their first 21 games? I am talking about a school in a major conference.

That's right, look at the Florida Gators. I know, I hear people talking about some of the creampuffs they faced early on, schools like North Carolina Central, North Florida, Florida A&M, North Dakota State and High Point.

To those critics, I say forget about it. You can talk all you want about cupcake city, just look at wins over Alabama (on the road), Kentucky and the most recent one, an impressive blowout over Vanderbilt by 22 points! Kevin Stallings' team is having a super season, and the Commodores were dominated as the Rowdy Reptiles were going bananas, baby!

The start of that game was brilliant for Billy Donovan and his Gators. Florida led 34-6 after the first 12 minutes of the contest.

It is time to salute Donovan for a job well done. The guys connects so well with his players. He has a magical touch with an ability to communicate his systems and concepts of the game. Donovan is a player's coach who understands relationships with his kids so much. He learned those lessons well from his dad, as well as his coach, Rick Pitino.

Donovan is a winner, who also does a great job in the community as well. Simply put, he cares about people.

Think about the talent Florida lost after winning back-to-back national titles. Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer, Lee Humphrey, Taurean Green, Chris Richard. Yet here are the Gators knocking on the door in the SEC. It is unbelievable to come back to put together a whole new club.

This year, the names are Nick Calathes, Marreese Speights, Walter Hodge, Jai Lucas, Dan Werner, Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus. Donovan has had great continuity in his starting lineup -- Calathes, Speights, Hodge and Lucas have started every game. Werner has started all but once, with Jonathan Mitchell getting to open one contest.

Speaking of Calathes, there have been so many freshmen getting publicity this season. We talk about Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, OJ Mayo and Eric Gordon, deservingly so. Calathes should be getting more ink because he is the real deal. He is playing almost 33 minutes a game, averaging 16 points, six assists and five rebounds per contest.

Calathes is the total package as a star in Gator Country. He wants the rock late in the game, makes big plays and understands how to compete.

How about a salute to Donovan and his Gators? They did not try to rebuild, they simply restructured. As long as Donovan is on the Gators sideline, they will prevail. Rowdy Reptile fans know they have a special, special coach, a terrific athletic director in Jeremy Foley. It is a great environment down at the O-Dome with a phenomenal fan base.

This is a special program once again.

Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in December 1979. Send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.