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Saturday, December 09, 2023

The championship celebration is over.

After raising its second banner in two years, the UF men's basketball team will begin a new era tonight at 8 when it hosts Flagler College in the first of two exhibition games.

After losing six players from last season's championship roster, UF will now feature seven freshmen on a team of 11 and return only one player who played significant minutes in junior Walter Hodge.

UF coach Billy Donovan has expressed a great deal of skepticism during the past weeks while he tried to make sense of his young squad. Looking ahead to tonight's game, Donovan said he can only ask his players to give their all.

"I want to see us, first of all, play with great energy and passion," he said. "Trying to get them to understand how hard they've got to compete and play, that'd be the first thing."

The proposed lineup for the Gators is set to feature three guards with Hodge and freshmen Jai Lucas and Nick Calathes. Sophomores Dan Werner and Marreese Speights seem likely to round out the frontcourt.

Donovan said the starting five might change before tonight's game.

Regardless, tonight marks the first time in UF history that the Gators enter the season without a returning starter to the lineup.

With the exception of Werner, the three-guard lineup was used in the scrimmage during the team's Fan Appreciation Day and has been featured extensively in practice.

"You still have some size with Nick being 6 foot 5, but probably small in the backcourt with Jai and with Walter, but I think you've got two fast guys back there playing," Donovan said. "I have played that lineup in practice some, but it's been a good lineup for us. I like it."

The small lineup means the team will likely focus on a "run and gun" style of play. Donovan noted that with the lack of a frontcourt presence, the team might be forced to move at a frenetic pace.

Hodge expressed excitement at the idea of playing up-tempo.

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"We're fast and we're smart," Hodge said. "I think we're going to do a lot of damage to the other team. All of us can play defense, so it's going to be interesting."

Hodge admitted that he may have trouble recognizing some of the faces around him tonight, especially after last season's overhaul.

"Last year we had bigs, Joakim (Noah), Al (Horford), Corey Brewer," Hodge said. "It was 6 foot 9 and up. But now we have guys that play hard and want to win."

Tonight's contest may indicate very little in the larger picture because Flagler, a school from the NAIA, should pose little threat to UF.

Freshman guard Jai Lucas said the game against the Saints should serve as a warm-up for the season ahead.

"As the game moves on, I'm sure there will be something I can pick up and know I have to do better," Lucas said, "But that's the good thing about exhibition games, it's almost like a scrimmage. But it is serious, you want to go out there, win and play your hardest."

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