Originally created 03/20/01

Season on the brink ends early for Gators



GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At times, the season seemed like torture for Florida, a team weighed down with tragedy, injury and the high expectations that always follow teams coming off a trip to the Final Four.

It ended the hard way Sunday, with a 75-54 loss to Temple in the NCAA second round, a game in which the Gators looked nothing like the team Billy Donovan has brought to national prominence over the past five years.

The bad news was that Florida failed to repeat its trip to the national title game, and didn't make program history by making the round of 16 for the third straight season.

Then again, the Gators went 24-7 and won a share of the Southeastern Conference regular-season title - not bad for a team many had pegged for the NIT in January, after a string of injuries left it at 1-3 in the conference, and with just seven healthy scholarship players.

"It's been a long, emotional year," Donovan said. "There was a lot of stuff that these guys dealt with, and I think that without question, every game, every day that went by, more and more got taken out of them because they had to play at such a high level to win."

Injuries were only a part of Florida's season-long saga.

Before the season started, Donovan's wife, Christine, gave birth to a stillborn child, a tragic loss that wore on the 35-year-old coach and his family all year.

Donovan blocked out the pain by redoubling his effort in the coaching office. He worked himself sick - literally - and had to be hospitalized in February after a monthlong bout with the flu that wouldn't subside.

It was his way of showing he would never buckle under adversity, and it turned out to be appropriate, because his team faced obstacles it never could have imagined.

Guard Teddy Dupay, suspended early in the season for reasons still undisclosed, had a herniated disc in his back, but made a remarkable comeback. Justin Hamilton tore a ligament in his knee and was lost for the season. Forward Brent Wright hurt his foot, then his thumb, then his foot again, and finally succumbed for the season just before the postseason started.

Essentially, Donovan had a five-man team with a few freshmen playing minor roles - leaving him with nowhere near the depth he needed to impose his breakneck style on opponents.

The game against Temple turned into a halfcourt matchup of zone defenses, a style Florida played out of necessity and Owls coach John Chaney has lived by for decades. It seemed fitting that, in the loss, Florida had the look of a team that simply ran out of gas.

"Probably for the first time all year long, I think emotionally and physically we hit a wall a little bit," Donovan said.

Donovan said he believes junior center Udonis Haslem and sophomore guard Brett Nelson will both return next season. Haslem pledged his return earlier this month and Nelson said he plans to return next season but will "see what happens over the next few months."

If they do come back, the Gators should be a top 10 team to open next season.

Donovan continued his strong recruiting legacy, and next season will welcome three of the best high school players in the country in David Lee, James White and Kwame Brown, although Brown is rumored to be thinking about jumping straight to the NBA.

"The only thing I can go off of is what he's saying and what his family's saying," Donovan said. "He obviously wants to come here to Florida, he wants to be here, everybody around him has told us that he's coming here. It's one of those things where eventually you've got to trust the kid."

Wright is a senior, and so is starting forward Major Parker. But Hamilton should return, Dupay will be back at full health and versatile forward Matt Bonner has the potential to blossom into one of the SEC's best players.

This year's freshmen, highly touted Orien Greene and Bonell Colas, have a year's worth of experience, and should be more productive next season.

The coaching staff could change, too. Assistant John Pelphrey talked with University of New Orleans officials after Sunday's loss. New Orleans is looking to replace Joey Stiebing, who was fired just two weeks after he was named Sun Belt Conference coach of the year.