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Wednesday, October 10, 2007
Donovan begins rebuilding project with Gators

Associated Press

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida's rebuilding project began with a couple of relocations.

First, coach Billy Donovan returned to Gainesville after an awkward few days as head coach of the Orlando Magic. Then, Jonathan Mitchell, Marreese Speights and Dan Werner moved into the same on-campus apartment shared by Corey Brewer, Taurean Green, Al Horford and Joakim Noah the last two years.

The moves could be huge as the two-time defending national champions essentially start over.

Donovan's return give the Gators much-needed continuity after losing 85 percent of their offense and even more of their rebounding and shot-blocking. Mitchell, Speights and Werner hope their move will help them develop the kind of chemistry that made Brewer, Green, Horford and Noah best friends, unselfish teammates and repeat champions.

"It's kind of cool being in their room and (knowing) what they left here -- their legacy," Werner said Wednesday at the team's annual media day.

Brewer, Green, Horford and Noah lived together from the day they arrived on campus, spending their first year in a dorm and the two championship seasons in the apartment.

The foursome, along with sharpshooter Lee Humphrey and sixth-man Chris Richard, led the Gators to three straight Southeastern Conference tournament championships and 18 consecutive postseason victories.

Without them -- Humphrey is playing professionally in Greece and the other six are in the NBA -- the Gators hardly look the same.

"It's totally different," Mitchell said. "We have a whole different makeup and stuff, but that doesn't mean were not going to be good. We have a bunch of guys that can really shoot and know the game. We're going to have a lot more guys on the perimeter and we're going to utilize the 3-point line. On defense, we're going to have to play smart and play bigger than we actually are."

Junior guard Walter Hodge has the most experience of the group, having played 79 games with 11 starts. But everyone around him is unproven.

The Gators also have a highly touted recruiting class that includes guards Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas, the son of former NBA player and coach John Lucas.

Still, Florida's success could rest with the 6-foot-7 Mitchell, 6-10 Speights and 6-7 Werner. The Gators need the sophomores to step into expanded roles much like Brewer, Green, Horford and Noah did in 2005.

Maybe the apartment will at least provide some karma.

"I don't want to know what went on in there," Werner said. "But those guys are great guys. Just to have a part of where they stayed is cool."

Although Brewer, Green, Horford and Noah didn't leave the new tenants any furniture, Humphrey gave them a massage recliner that fits nicely in the living room. Humphrey also provided them with the fourth resident: his former roommate, swimmer Shaune Fraser.

Are the new living arrangements paying off?

"Definitely," Mitchell said. "We're together 24/7. If we see somebody sneaking off to the gym, the other two are going to go. We just get that bond and we're talking, playing video games, just hanging out, watching movies. We kind of took on what they did."

After helping the Gators become the first team in 15 years to repeat as national champions, Brewer, Green, Horford and Noah decided to leave school a year early and enter the draft.

Donovan briefly followed them to the NBA, accepting the job with the Magic in early June. But he wanted out almost immediately, and the Magic reluctantly released him from a five-year, $27.5 million contract a few days later.

"Any time you have to make a big decision, you always look at the regret part," Donovan said. "I never wanted to have regret. I didn't want to be sitting in Orlando saying, 'Why did I leave?' and I didn't want to be sitting here at Florida saying, 'Why didn't I go?'

"That's what I was battling with going back and forth. I wanted to make the right decision for myself and it was hard. But now that I've had a chance to go through what I went through, I have no regret. ... I know it was an uncomfortable situation for many people, but at the same time, I think I got to a point where I know what I did was best for all parties."

Especially for Florida, where Donovan spent the last 11 years turning a mediocre basketball program into a national power.

Now, can they stay there?

"This may sound off the wall, but their goal should be to be the type of team that we've had here the last two years," Donovan said. "And not that there's five pros on our team or anything like that, but how they played the game. These guys in this program have a great model to look at, and that should be the goal: to play the game like those guys played and let the chips fall where they may."