When Florida started the season ranked No. 10 in the nation, freshman Kasey Hill started at point guard over a suspended Scottie Wilbekin. Dorian Finney-Smith was working his way to play with the team, and Damontre Harris was hoping to just stay on it.
The Gators struggled with their lineup consistency due to injuries and suspensions, dropping as low as No. 19 in the national polls.
However, nearly three months after coach Billy Donovan and company opened the 2013-2014 campaign, Florida is back at No. 10 with a restructured squad in time for its Southeastern Conference opener against South Carolina on Wednesday.
Donovan said his team didn’t deserve the top-10 ranking in October, and although he wouldn’t say if the Gators earned the spot now, he did say he has seen growth both on and off the court.
"I do think we have a group of guys who are very, very coachable," Donovan said.
"They’ve accepted their roles. They want to play their roles to the best of their abilities. I think we’re an unselfish team. I think they care about one another. I think we have chemistry inside of our team."
Wilbekin and Hill, who both missed time on the floor earlier in the year, have now played five games in the backcourt together. Florida won all of those matchups.
Casey Prather has emerged as the Gators’ go-to offensive weapon after finishing the non-conference schedule with a team-high 17.3 points per game.
The senior forward averaged only 3.1 points per game during his previous three years at Florida.
If Chris Walker receives the go-ahead from the NCAA, he will join Finney-Smith and Patric Young, who averaged 15 points in UF’s last two games, in a flourishing frontcourt.
Donovan said with all the pieces finally coming together just before SEC competition begins, it’s like the Gators are starting from square one.
"Our team has kind of evolved with the addition of different players, but between suspensions and injuries, the first probably eight ... games we were never really playing with a full roster," Donovan said.
"I think our guys understand, as everybody does, it’s almost like, OK, now the season is starting.
"It’s two things. One, you’ve got the season starting somewhat new and fresh, but you build a resume in your first 12, 13, 14 games for some teams."
Will Yeguete said having the ups and downs of the non-conference schedule has helped the team find itself and become more prepared for the start of conference play.
He added that experience playing with each other during the first half of the season, as well as the experience of the four seniors, will give the Gators an advantage against their SEC foes.
"I think it helps a lot, knowing what to do to get ourselves started and get a win," Yeguete said. "It’s a different season now. We’re playing for something and we know it. I think it helps a lot having four seniors on the team."
"I think we’re a really good group. I think we can do something special."
With no more suspensions or current injuries to worry about, Donovan agreed that his team is poised to make a run as long as his team continues to gel and progress with its cohesiveness.
"The biggest thing for us is that we do have a full complement of players that maybe wasn’t the case in November and the beginning of December," Donovan said. "Although at certain points in time this season (some guys) hadn’t played a lot together, we’re getting back to maybe connecting and getting a little bit deeper as a basketball team and getting a little more consistent in the rotation."
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