Practice had opened five days earlier, but on a cool, drizzly day
in late October, Florida's O'Connell Center was teeming with
toddlers. The cause of this invasion was the road show Sesame
Street Live, which had come to the O Dome for three performances.
Big Bird has since packed his feathers and left town, but there's
still a distinctly juvenile air in the arena now that Boy Wonder
Billy Donovan and his cast of child prodigies have the place to
There were snickers four years ago when Florida hired Donovan, a
Rick Pitino acolyte who was just 30 at the time. But Donovan has
already proved himself a capable bench coach and a peerless
recruiter. Last year three of the Gators' top five scorers were
freshmen, yet they went 22-9 and reached the Sweet Sixteen.
Florida hasn't gotten much older--Donovan will rely heavily on his
second straight top five recruiting class--but that doesn't mean
the Gators won't be better. "Age has nothing to do with
anything," Donovan says. "For me to make preliminary excuses and
say we're not that good, we're young, I think that sends the
wrong message to our kids."
Still, whether the Gators contend for the national title this
season depends on the extent to which last year's freshmen--and in
particular versatile forward Mike Miller--have matured. The 6'8"
Miller led the team in scoring (12.2 points a game) and was
second in rebounding (5.2), but he was hampered by a nagging
ankle sprain and exhibited typical freshman inconsistency last
season. Exhibit A: He followed his 20-point performance (3 for 4
from three-point range) in a 75-68 win over Kentucky by scoring
four points in an 11-point loss to Mississippi.
A South Dakota kid whose hometown nickname was Skinny, Miller
also had trouble maintaining weight. He got up to 225 pounds in
late December but finished the year back where he started, at
205. "It was all Creatine weight. I'd lose 10 pounds after two
practices," he says. Still, the hyperkinetic Donovan found a
kindred spirit in Miller, who displayed a passion for the game
despite his occasional struggles. A few hours after Miller had
gone 3 for 8 from the field in an early win over Florida State,
Donovan returned to his office at 1 a.m. and heard sounds coming
from the practice gym upstairs. When he went to investigate, he
found Miller doing wind sprints. "A lot of people look at
shooting and ball handling and passing ability when they
recruit," Donovan says. "I look for guys who love the game."
Last year's other freshmen--5'10" Ted Dupay, 6'3" LaDarius Halton
and 6'7" Udonis Haslem--also had to work through growing pains,
though Haslem proved to be a surprisingly sturdy center. They
should have plenty of advice for this year's group of greenhorns.
Brett Nelson, a 6'3" guard hailed as one of the best players to
come out of West Virginia since Jerry West, will share time with
Dupay at the point, while 6'9" Matt Bonner will add depth up
front. But the unquestioned gemstone of the incoming class is
6'8" Donnell Harvey, a big-time rebounding talent from small-town
Shellman, Ga. (pop. 1,752). "No traffic lights, two convenience
stores, one grocery store. Y'all city boys wouldn't like it," he
says. With those additions the Gators have a bona fide nine-man
rotation, meaning Donovan has the depth to unleash the trademark
full-court pressure he learned from his mentor, Pitino.
Last season, Florida's NCAA tournament run ended when Gonzaga's
Casey Calvary scored on a tip-in with 4.4 seconds remaining to
give the Zags a 73-72 second-round win. Most teams try to forget
a loss like that, but the Gators prefer to remember. That's why
strength and conditioning coordinator Scott Webster wore a
Gonzaga T-shirt during preseason workouts. "If we had made it to
the Final Eight and lost, we would have said, 'Hey guys, great
year,'" Donovan says. "I think our guys feel like their season
wasn't complete. They want to do more."
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Cross-country Florida's recruiting reach extended to South Dakota to get Miller, the state's best player ever.
POS. HT. CLASS KEY STAT
SF Mike Miller 6'8" So. 12.2 ppg
PF Donnell Harvey 6'8" Fr. 23.3 ppg*
C Udonis Haslem 6'7" So. 5.0 rpg
SG Kenyan Weeks 6'4" Sr. 11.3 ppg
PG Ted Dupay 5'10" So. 11.0 ppg
1998-99 record: 22-9 Final rank (coaches' poll): No. 17
Returning starter *As high school senior