UF baseball must deal with expectations

Kevin O'Sullivan's Florida Gators aim to find their way back to the championship series ... and win it. AP Photo/Eric Francis

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Florida has the best team in college baseball. Nearly everyone says so.

The Gators sit atop the Collegiate Baseball, Baseball America and USA Today/ESPN Coaches preseasons polls and had an NCAA-record seven players named preseason All-Americans by Louisville Slugger and Baseball America. Perfect Game tabbed five UF players preseason All-Americans, and the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association had five on its list.

UF returns seven position starters and nine pitchers from last year’s team that finished runner-up to national champion South Carolina in the College World Series. The Gators also have 14 players who are projected to be drafted in June -- including seven who could go in the first three rounds.

With all that talent and experience, expectations for the Gators are pretty high in 2012. Just making the College World Series -- something UF has done only seven times in school history -- isn’t even enough. It’s almost national title or bust.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve had expectations. They’ve been through this before, especially last year,” UF coach Kevin O’Sullivan said. “Hopefully they’ll draw from their experiences last year and be well prepared for it this year. We’ve talked about it. It’s Florida. There’s expectations. We want to be in Omaha every year and compete for a national championships.”

But this season is different. There is too much talent on the mound -- including a weekend rotation of Hudson Randall (a second-team preseason All-American), Karsten Whitson (a freshman All-American last season) and Brian Johnson (an All-Southeastern Conference pick and semifinalist for the John Olerud Two-Way Player of the Year last season). And there’s too much offensive firepower -- including 2011 SEC Player of the Year Mike Zunino (.371, 19 homers, 67 RBIs) and Preston Tucker (.308, 15 homers, 74 RBIs last) -- for the Gators not to be playing for a national title.

And while O’Sullivan and his players won’t say that publicly, others will.

“I think that going into this thing that if we could count on experience in the College World Series, which they now have, talent, which they have, and if we can count on that experience translating into even better years or the same kind of years that they had last year, then they are undoubtedly the best team in the nation,” said Texas coach Augie Garrido.

O’Sullivan’s biggest task this season, other than finding a way to get several talented freshmen some playing time, is managing the expectations. It’s similar to what basketball coach Billy Donovan faced in 2006-07, when Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green returned for their junior seasons after winning the national title the season before.

O’Sullivan has a veteran team -- 15 of the 20 returning players are juniors or seniors -- so he’s pretty confident the Gators won’t wilt.

“I guess the bottom line is we don’t want to put too much pressure on ourselves,” O’Sullivan said. “The expectations are what they are, but I’ve really got no reason to believe that they haven’t handled it or won’t handle it well. I think they’re ready to go.”

They start Friday against No. 16 Cal State Fullerton at McKethan Stadium, and that’s all the Gators are worrying about -- not SEC titles, not the draft, and not Omaha, Neb.

“Just got to play one game at a time and not think of anything else but one pitch at a time, one play at a time,” shortstop Nolan Fontana said. “You can’t get caught up in anything besides that.”

Michael DiRocco covers University of Florida sports for GatorNation. He can be reached at espndirocco@gmail.com or on Twitter @ESPNdirocco.