Losing its top three scorers from a season ago is far from the only distraction the Florida men’s basketball team is hampered with to open the season.
After enduring an offseason that was plagued by multiple injuries to key reserves, a suspension of the team’s starting point guard and academic issues that will keep one Gators signee out for at least the first two months, Billy Donovan’s squad has a plethora of issues.
However, after making a third consecutive appearance in the Elite 8 of the NCAA Tournament last season, the Gators again boast the framework of a team capable of making a deep postseason run.
“Our team really needs to come together,” said Donovan, who is entering his 18th season as Florida’s coach. “More so than it is right now.”
The biggest question staring at the Gators all offseason is what would become of senior Scottie Wilbekin, who was suspended for a second time in seven months — it was described as an indefinite suspension — on June 10 for undisclosed reasons.
Donovan said Wednesday during the team’s annual media day that Wilbekin has been partially reinstated — he will be with the Gators when they open practice Friday — but has more hurdles he must clear before fully rejoining the team.
“He has done everything that I could ask of him as a player in terms of taking responsibility and growing,” Donovan said. “He still has some thing in front of him before he is fully back on our team, but we will give him the opportunity to practice.”
Wilbekin averaged 9.1 points and five assists as a junior. Following the departures of guards Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario, who combined to create one of the nation’s most productive backcourts last season, he and freshman Kasey Hill will be leaned on heavily.
Hill enters UF as a decorated five-star recruit out of Montverde Academy. With Wilbekin facing the possibility of a suspension to open the season, Hill, a McDonald’s All-American, will likely be tested as early as Nov. 8, when Florida opens its regular season at home against North Florida.
“He’s electrifying,” said Eli Carter, who transferred from Rutgers during the offseason. “He’s doing the same stuff he was doing in high school. He’s going to be real good.”
The NCAA ruled in September that Carter would be immediately eligible to play for the Gators in the wake of a scandal involving former Rutgers coach Mike Rice, who was fired for physically and verbally abusing players.
However, Carter has not been ruled medically eligible to play for Florida and admitted he “has no clue” when he will be after suffering a broken leg last season.
Will Yeguete, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in May, also continues to be sidelined, which leaves Donovan in a pinch for players.
“Right now, we have to go with the guys that are there and in practice right away,” Donovan said. “Those are the guys you have to rely on and get them ready to play.”
Florida retained the services of Patric Young, who returns for his senior season. The 6-foot-9 Young was one of only two players — the other being Boynton — to play in all 37 games for the Gators. He finished fourth on the team in scoring with 10.1 points per game and grabbed a team-leading 6.3 rebounds per contest.
UF will be bolstered inside with the additions of transfers Dorian Finney-Smith and Damontre Harris, who are each eligible to play after sitting out the 2012-13 season.
Finney-Smith, a lanky forward who left Virginia Tech after one season, offers a level of versatility Donovan has not had in several years. Harris is a traditional center who finished tied for second in the Southeastern Conference — behind Kentucky’s Anthony Davis — with 2.3 blocked shots per game for South Carolina in 2011-12.
“Sometimes we lacked that last year,” Yeguete said. “Having that depth.”
Florida’s frontcourt could challenge as one of the nation’s best units if the Gators can obtain the services of Chris Walker, a former signee who failed to qualify academically for the fall semester and will be out until at least December.
Walker (6-foot-11, 230 pounds) is a five-star recruit who snubbed Kansas and Connecticut to sign with Florida.
“I’m optimistic that he’ll be back here,” Donovan said of Walker.
The Gators have little time to waste juggling these lingering issues. Florida will battle perennial heavyweights Wisconsin, Kansas and Connecticut, in addition to matchups with Florida State and Memphis, bef0re the start of SEC play.
“Our non-conference schedule really prepared us for our conference schedule (last season),” Donovan said. “Right now, for us, getting that same kind of non-conference schedule — although the opponents are a little different — will allow us to find out a lot more about our team.”