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Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Florida doesn’t want to dwell on title

National-championship run was great, players say, but it won't win them games this season

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— Last basketball season, Florida players and coaches say, isn't important now.

Yet all around them, reminders of last year's success loom.

On the bookshelves, where most preseason publications put the Gators on their cover and both national polls have Florida as their preseason No. 1. On the court, where they return the top seven players from last season. And along the front of their practice facility and arena, where a sign proclaims them the defending national champions.

Still, the team speaks of attacking the chance at another national title rather than defending the one they have. They hope that spirit defines this season, which starts Friday at the O'Connell Center against Samford.

"Last year was great," shooting guard Lee Humphrey said. "But that's all in the past. The memories are great, but it doesn't mean a whole lot."

Some of those details could mean a bunch as the team heads toward March. Start with the five starters, each of whom averaged between 10.9 and 14.2 points per game, each of whom is a starter again this season.

Humphrey, the lone senior starter, joins junior Taurean Green in the backcourt. And the all-junior frontcourt of Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah might rank as the nation's best.

Florida's starting frontcourt turned down places in the first round of the NBA draft to return to school. Each said the chance to play together again motivated the decision.

"If one of us would have left," Brewer said at Florida's media day in October, "we all would have left."

Noah, Horford and Brewer were first-team preseason All-SEC picks, with Green making the second team. The media also tabbed Noah as the conference's preseason player of the year.

UF's bench should be a plus. As the team's lone other scholarship guard, sophomore Walter Hodge will back up Green and Humphrey. Hodge's teammates have raved about his improved confidence and scoring in practice, with Noah calling him their most improved player.

Chris Richard, whom ESPN's Jay Bilas last week dubbed "the nation's best third big man," will spell the starting forwards. And the four freshmen-forwards Dan Werner, Jonathan Mitchell and Brandon Powell and center Marreese Speights-all should play in the early part of the season.

Coach Billy Donovan spent much of the preseason working to integrate the new players.

There will be more time for the new group to gel. A Thanksgiving weekend trip to Las Vegas, where games against Western Kentucky and Kansas University await, will challenge the Gators. So will the Dec. 3 visit to Florida State and a visit from Ohio State two days before Christmas.

Then there's the SEC schedule, which should provide a handful of tests. All six Gators losses last season came in conference play, including two to South Carolina and Tennessee.

Then again, last season doesn't matter, at least to these players and coaches. It's the theme of the season, one they hope will carry them to another Final Four.

"Of course there's confidence because we won the championship," Green said. "We can't dwell on that. We've got to move on."

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