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Thursday, June 01, 2023

As Nick Calathes walked off the court at Madison Square Garden, the feeling of failure began to wash over him.

With every step across the hardwood floor, uncertainty trickled down the hollows of his mind like confetti from the rafters.

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

Less than a year after winning the school's second consecutive national championship, the Gators had not only failed to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 10 years, but also were unable to win the conciliatory NIT championship - UF lost in a semifinal game to Massachusetts 78-66.

This time, the cameras and congratulations were not meant for them.

In a small locker room in the world's most famous arena, one road had come to an end.

Calathes, the Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year, finished his first postseason appearance by shooting 5-19 from the field.

"It was tough," Calathes said. "(That night) hurt us inside."

Early season dreams of conference championships and tournament runs had ended in disappointment.

The Gators finished the 2007-08 season with a 24-12 record. It was a mark that seemed like it would be good enough to land UF an NCAA Tournament bid.

It wasn't.

After spending nearly all of last year on the tournament bubble, UF was left out of the 65-team field.

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"There's no way in their minds last year that they didn't see themselves competing in the NCAA Tournament," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "If you would have talked to them in January and February they would have said that was a forgone conclusion."

Though the Gators marched on to show some improvement and win three games in the NIT, the season ended with more questions than answers.

Center Marreese Speights, who finished the night with 16 points and 18 rebounds, sat under the bright Garden lights as reporters peppered him with questions about a potential jump to the NBA.

"I don't know," Speights said after the game. "We definitely could have had a better season."

It was a leap the 6-foot-10 sophomore would eventually make. He was selected with the 16th overall pick by the Philadelphia 76ers in June.

What happened to the program that had grown accustomed to the ecstasy of winning over the last two years?

Was this group's disappointment merely the result of inexperience, or had a team full of freshmen and sophomores grown complacent living on the reputation of the school's greatest players?

Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green were gone.

Only Walter Hodge remained from the back-to-back national championship squad.

The Last Link

More than seven months after that dreadful night in New York City, Hodge walks across the UF campus with a smile, the pain of last year now just a fading memory. Hodge, the team's lone senior, started all of the Gators' 36 games last season.

"This year is my last year," Hodge said. "I have to push the guys and become a better leader."

When it came to leadership, the soft-spoken Hodge had deferred to teammates in the past. With outspoken characters like Noah and Horford, it was easier to leave the talking to those who were wired for it.

But now, as the only remaining pillar of the house he helped build, Hodge knows the leadership role will undoubtedly fall on his shoulders.

"I have to be more vocal," he said. "I have to push them harder."

Hodge, who averaged 10.4 points per game last season, is undeterred by the failure of 2008.

"There's a lot of motivation there," he said.

Filling the big man's shoes

In a spacious locker room in a building far from the bright lights of New York City a new road is being built.

As players shuffle in and out of the room, all eyes are on the new faces. Some nervous, some confident, but all know what is expected.

One by one laces are tightened. Each pulls a newly issued practice jersey over his head. The anticipation of stardom is still fresh in their minds.

With Speights now lacing up his high tops for the 76'ers, the Gators are left with the unenviable task of figuring out who will fill the big man's shoes.

Speights averaged 14.5 points and 8.1 rebounds a game while blocking 49 shots last season.

Junior Dan Werner and sophomore Chandler Parsons are the only returning front court players with any type of significant experience.

The 6-foot-8 Werner played out of position at power forward last year. With limited options in the low post, it was more out of necessity than anything.

"From an experience stand point, Dan Werner is really the only guy there," Donovan said.

His hard-nosed play drew praise from coaches and teammates, but Werner is certainly more suited to play the small forward.

The 6-foot-10 Parsons- UF's top scorer off the bench last season averaging 8.1 points per game- has bulked up 30 pounds during the off-season and should provide the Gators with a solid option at power forward.

When it comes to the question of who will play center there is more than one answer.

Freshmen Kenny Kadji, Allan Chaney and Eloy Vargas should all see minutes.

"History tells me that when you're dealing with freshman big men they are a little bit slower to develop," Donovan said. "It could be a position that we have to play by committee."

Kadji seems to be the most ready to step in and play. He has impressed early on at practice and is considered the favorite to start the first game.

At 6-foot-10, 245 pounds, Kadji is the most physically imposing of the freshmen big men.

Chaney is an intriguing player. The 6-foot-8 forward played guard until a high school growth spurt forced him into the post.

A polished outside game and ball handling ability make Chaney a tough match up for opponents.

Vargas, probably the best pure center of the group, has been hampered by recovery from ankle surgery he had in June to repair an injury he has battled since high school.

Vargas starts of his UF career behind the eight ball having missed nearly 10 weeks of summer workouts and preseason practice.

"I feel bad for him right now," Donovan said. "He certainly conditioning wise and catching up to the group has a ways to go."

The highly touted freshman class (ranked No. 10 nationally by gives UF a reason to expect big things this season. Players who a few years ago would have been hard pressed to choose UF over the other national power houses recruiting them turned down household names like Memphis, Connecticut and Louisville for the greener pastures of Gainesville.

A school Donovan once spent countless hours promoting is now selling its self.

What's In A Name?

UF, a program that for so long reveled in mediocrity, is now a brand.

As high school prospects watch players like Noah, Horford, Brewer and Speights become first-round NBA Draft picks and sign multi-million dollar contracts, the excitement over a once-maligned program grows.

With every newly won banner hanging from the roof of the O'Connell Center, respect for a name builds.

With every victory against once-superior rivals, fear begins to form in the minds of a conference.

Donovan has built UF into a brand that the basketball universe is now forced to acknowledge.

"I think that when you can get your program to the point where people are looking at the name across your jersey, that's a positive thing," Donovan said.

But winning is the lifeblood of success, and the Gators can't afford to take another step backward this season.

Missing out on the NCAA Tournament for a second straight year is not an option.

A .500 record (8-8) in the SEC is not good enough. Not anymore. UF lost eight of its last 11 SEC games last year.

As unfair as it may seem, a repeat of last season would be a devastating blow to the program Donovan has spent the last 12 years building.

In the short-minded world of college basketball, perception is reality and every day is a fight to stay relevant.

"Our guys realize that there is a lot we have to try and earn back," Donovan said. "There is an expectation and a standard that these guys have to realize is there."

As Calathes walks across the floor at the UF practice facility, a sea of optimism washes over him.

With every step, he gets closer to a new beginning.

He bounces the ball across the hardwood to teammate Chandler Parsons.

"Let's do it," Parsons says.

Maybe this is the season that will end the way it's supposed to.

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