GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Florida could be coming off back-to-back trips to the Final Four.
The Gators squandered late leads against Louisville (2012) and Butler (2011) in regional finals the last two seasons, disappointing losses that still haunt some of the team's upperclassmen.
"There's not a day that doesn't go by that I still don't think about it," junior center Pat Young said.
The 10th-ranked Gators want another shot at college basketball's biggest stage, and they seemingly have the players to make it happen. Coach Billy Donovan returns seven of nine key contributors, including three starters and his entire frontcourt, and has a schedule built to prepare his team for the NCAA tournament.
"People aren't going to remember that we came up short," Young said. "I want to leave here with a championship. We all want to. We know we have all the components necessary to get there."
Florida's quest begins Nov. 9 against Georgetown on the USS Bataan in nearby Jacksonville. The non-conference schedule also includes games against No. 23 Wisconsin (Nov. 14), Marquette (Nov. 29), No. 25 Florida State (Dec. 5), No. 12 Arizona (Dec. 15) and Kansas State (Dec. 22).
It's Florida's toughest slate in Donovan's 17 seasons in Gainesville.
But the Gators seem up for the challenge.
Guard Kenny Boynton and fellow starters Young and forward Erik Murphy are back, along with guards Scottie Wilbekin and Mike Rosario as well as versatile forwards Will Yeguete and Casey Prather. Throw in freshmen Michael Frazier II, Dillon Graham, Braxton Ogbueze and Devon Walker, and Donovan has the ability to press more than he has in years and the depth to handle injuries and foul trouble.
"The one thing that is clear right from the get-go is we have incredible potential defensively," Donovan said.
The Gators might need to alter their identity, mostly to compensate for losing guards Brad Beal and Erving Walker. Beal turned pro after his freshman season and was selected by Washington with the third pick in the NBA draft. Walker graduated, leaving school as the program's all-time assist leader.
Both were solid shooters, helping Florida lead the nation in 3-pointers last season.
"I do think we need to change some things on offense because our team is a little bit different," Donovan said. "Last year, clearly the identity was we could really, really shoot 3s. I think we have a good shooting team, but we probably, with the loss of Walker and Beal, don't have the same depth shooting the ball as we did a year ago."
The Gators have plenty of depth in the frontcourt. But Young needs to stay out of foul trouble. Murphy needs to become a post presence. And Yeguete needs to develop a short-range jumper.
But what really motivates this team is the way the last two years ended.
Florida led Butler by 11 points midway through the second half before collapsing and losing in overtime. Last year ended in similar fashion. The Gators were up 11 with about 8 minutes to play against Louisville, but managed just three points the rest of the way and lost 72-68.
"Our guys really need to be careful with the mentality of we got to try and get over the hump and get to the Final Four," Donovan said. "We can actually end up being a better team than a year ago and not go as far. With that being said, there's no guarantee right now that we're even an NCAA tournament team. You have to earn your way into that. You have to work your way into that.
"Our guys need to understand, and I think that they do, that there's a process."