UK basketball: Sluggish start recalls struggles by previous champions

jtipton@herald-leader.comDecember 12, 2012 

  • Saturday

    Lipscomb at Kentucky

    When: 12:30 p.m.

    TV: Fox Sports South

Freshmen-oriented team. Failure to play to an expected standard. Frustrated coach.

The components that contributed to Kentucky's 6-3 start and Coach John Calipari's reaction (read: Camp Cal during the semester break) are nothing new. Six seasons ago, Florida basketball went through a similar experience.

Only more so.

Like UK this season, Florida was starting over after a national championship run. Actually, the Gators had won the previous two NCAA tournaments. While UK's revolving-door program has three freshman starters this season, Florida in 2007-08 started four first-year players — Nick Calathes, Jai Lucas, Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons.

Florida Coach Billy Donovan, who the summer before that season took the Orlando Magic job and then quickly changed his mind, openly questioned his new players' competitiveness. He threw players out of pre-season practices. After a loss to Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Tournament made the Gators NIT-bound, he famously banned his players from using the program's relatively new $12 million practice facility. Donovan also ordered the players not to wear any clothing with a Florida logo.

Donovan could not be reached for comment. But Larry Shyatt, an assistant on those Florida teams and now coach at Wyoming, recalled a combination of factors that should sound familiar to UK fans.

"There was a built-in expectation after what we had gone through," Shyatt said of Florida's 2006 and 2007 national championships.

Florida's freshmen shared the sense of great expectations.

"'We have the (Florida) uniform on, we're supposed to win,'" Shyatt recalled. "Actually, I shouldn't say that. 'The other guys are supposed to lose.' And that's not right. The other guys, they're fighting, too. That's what Coach was facing, and he met it head on."

Perhaps following the lead of then-Florida football coach Urban Meyer, who banned his team from practice facilities for a time in 2005, Donovan made the customary laundry service off limits. Ditto for the massage therapist that had been available after games.

"What rubbed Coach (Donovan) the wrong way was he felt we were behind," Shyatt said. "... It was a combination of how hard were we going to play? How were we going to represent Florida now that Florida is looked at differently?

"He got quite frustrated with what may have been — looking back — quite normal."

Calathes, Parsons and company showed great promise. But they suffered from an impossible-to-avoid comparison to the stars who led Florida to national championships: Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green.

Donovan did not see the same competitiveness, savvy and basketball IQ.

"Also Coach had never lost," Shyatt said. "To him, 21-11 (Florida's record going into the NIT) was losing."

Florida became the first defending national champion to not play in the following NCAA Tournament since Louisville in 1987.

Denny Crum, U of L's Hall of Fame coach, recalled dips in performance after his program's national championships in 1980 and 1986. The Cardinals began 1980-81 by losing six of the first seven games. The 1986-87 season began with three straight losses.

When asked if there was an inflated sense of self among players going into those seasons, Crum said, "Probably. I'm sure there was. If you ask them, they'd say, 'Oh, no. We didn't think that way.' But my guess is there was probably some of that thinking."

Donovan took no solace in the idea that Florida's young players could be good in future seasons. "I'm not necessarily that excited about these guys being sophomores, to be honest," he said after the SEC Tournament loss.

Florida practiced for its NIT games in either on-campus gyms used for intramurals or area high schools.

As Shyatt recalled, the more humble surroundings made a lasting impression. As seniors, Chandler and Tyus led Florida to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament.

"I think they talked about it and remembered it the following fall," he said. "I have to believe it had an impact somewhere in the mind set.

"I don't think it had a basketball effect. It didn't help our offense or our defense. But I'd think it helped them understand where Coach (Donovan) was coming from, to further understand what does Billy Donovan want. Because they could see that it hurt him. ...

"It's going to take more. I think that was the scene."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com

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