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Donovan’s presence still looms as Florida begins new era

Billy Donovan

Florida coach Billy Donovan holds up a piece of the net after the Gators became the first team in Southeastern Conference history to go 18-0 in league pla, Saturday, March 8, 2014 in Gainesville, Fla. Florida defeated Kentucky 84-65 Saturday in an NCAA college basketball game. (AP Photo/Phil Sandlin)


GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) There’s a huge mural of Billy Donovan plastered just inside the doors of Florida’s basketball facility. It went up after the Gators won consecutive national titles in 2006 and 2007.

It’s a tribute to the man who built Florida into a basketball power. It also could be a daunting image for the guy following Donovan, who guided Florida to two national championships and four Final Four appearances in 19 years in Gainesville.

But new coach Mike White has no plans to take it down.

“I point it out anytime we have a recruit on campus,” White said Tuesday at the team’s annual media day. “Not that you need to.”

Although White is beginning the tough task of replacing Donovan, who left to coach the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, not too much will change when the Gators take the floor for the first time Friday.

White plans to focus on player development, defensive intensity and getting up and down the court in a hurry. Sound familiar? It’s “Billyball” 2.0, really, with the most noticeable difference being that White hopes to play faster and expects to replace Florida’s ball-screen offense with a more dribble-drive scheme.

“There are still a lot of question marks offensively,” said White, who led Louisiana Tech to three consecutive regular-season conference titles and three NIT berths. “For us, right now, we have more emphasis on the defensive side of the ball and on skill development, on the level of intensity at practice, the tempo at practice, how hard we’re competing with one another. We’re trying to buy as much time as possible for offense.”

The Gators essentially have eight new faces from last season.

Guard KeVaughn Allen, forward Kevarrius Hayes and forward Keith Stone make up the freshman class. All three are Donovan recruits who stuck with White after the coaching change.

Guard DeVon Walker returns after missing all of last season following knee surgery. Guard Brandone Francis-Ramirez is eligible after sitting out his freshman season while working on academics. Junior forward Justin Leon, an Arkansas native and former Louisiana Tech signee, transferred to Florida after spending the last years at Shawnee Community College in Illinois.

Former Stanford forward Schuyler Rimmer will be eligible to play in January. And maybe the biggest addition is sophomore center John Egbunu, who sat out last season after transferring from South Florida.

The 6-foot-11, 250-pound Egbunu could give Florida its most significant inside presence since Joakim Noah and Al Horford led the Gators to those back-to-back titles.

“If we have a guy that can score it on the interior, we’re going to throw him the ball,” White said.

Those new pieces join guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza, versatile swingman Dorian Finney-Smith and forwards Alex Murphy and Devin Robinson in what could be a deep and talented roster.

The Gators finished 16-17 last season, ending a 16-year streak of winning at least 20 games, and missed the postseason for the first time since Donovan’s first season at Florida, 1996-97.

Donovan left a month later.

“It was emotional,” said Finney-Smith, who considered turning pro after Donovan moved on. “When I found out what happened, I was surprised. I wanted to talk to someone. I called my teammates and made sure they were good and see how they were feeling. I coached to Coach D probably the next day. He talked to me, we talked it out and I’m ready to focus this year.”

White and the Gators aren’t trying to stray too far from the culture Donovan built at Florida. White and Donovan have developed a relationship over the past four months, and everyone still sees Donovan’s face every day on the wall.

“He’s been incredible,” White said. “I know one thing: He wants Florida to be really successful. He’s proud of what he’s built. Obviously built something special here. Probably most importantly he wants these kids that he’s recruited here to have success. So he cares. He’s been very, very helpful, and I’m very appreciative for it.”