Florida won the offseason.
Coming off a .500 effort in the SEC and a second-round exit in March, the Gators are now billed as a top-10 team that should harbor Final Four aspirations. And for the first time since Billy Donovan left for the NBA, the Gators are now back in the discussion as a member of the sport’s upper crust. Over Mike White’s four seasons in Gainesville, Florida’s never backslid into mediocrity, settling somewhere between average and good. Now, in a matter of months, their credentials have been upgraded.
Last season, there were ample and fair reasons to critique the roster— it was a veteran team whose defining character trait might have been offensive inconsistency. This year, those criticisms have been set aside — even as we wait for White’s breakout.
Will it be this year? The Gators appear to have all the pieces. Now, it’s time for White to show he’s more than a mere caretaker.
Previous SEC Previews
- No. 14 Vanderbilt Commodores: Jerry Stackhouse takes over at Vanderbilt with a big rebuild ahead of him
- No. 13 Texas A&M Aggies: Buzz Williams takes over a rebuild at Texas A&M, but he’s certainly the long term answer
- No. 12 South Carolina Gamecocks: This feels like a pivotal year for a Frank Martin team looking to break through
- No. 11 Georgia Bulldogs: Anthony Edwards is going to be the star of the show in Athens
- No. 10 Ole Miss Rebels: With Breein Tyree the Rebels have a shot each and every game
- No. 9 Mississippi State Bulldogs: Reggie Perry can be a star, but what surrounds him will determine the Bulldogs’ fate
- No. 8 Arkansas Razorbacks: At Arkansas, there are more questions than Razorback fans would like to admit
- No. 7 Auburn Tigers: Bruce Pearl tries to ride the wave of Auburn’s first Final Four
- No. 6 Missouri Tigers: The outside expectations don’t match the internal ones at Missouri this season
- No. 5 Alabama Crimson Tide: Alabama plays a wild card to turn the Tide on a stagnant program
- No. 4 LSU Tigers: As potential NCAA trouble looms, LSU should still be really good this year
- No. 3 Tennessee Volunteers: At Tennessee, bet on culture winning out in a transition year
Last Season: 20-16 (9-9 in conference) No. 26 KenPom
My Prediction: 23-8 (13-5, 2nd in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 14.2-3.8 (2nd in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 2nd in conference
KenPom Projection: 20-9 (11-7 in conference) No. 12
HEAD COACH: Mike White | Fifth Season, 89-53
When Mike White was hired, his style of play was something touted as the reason for Gator fans to be excited. Before setting foot in Gainesville, he had a reputation for applying heavy doses of pressure and playing fast at Louisiana Tech. However, he’s shifted away from that approach with the Gators, who consistently finish among the bottom 50 teams nationally in tempo. If anything, White’s shown he’s stylistically adaptable.
Underlying that adaptation was a reasonable logic: the SEC is a league with deeper, more athletic rosters, where it’s harder to reap the windfall of a full-court press. And while White has retrofitted the roster to his liking, it’s been an evolving process also marked by injuries and unexpected departures. Typically, half his roster has exited each offseason, and that went to the extreme this spring. Eight new faces reported for workouts over the summer and White will sink or swim with a fully realized version of Florida under his leadership.
Seat Temp: COLD
The baseline is clear: make the NCAA tournament. Florida’s done that 17 of the last 21 years, and this season is a terrific barometer for the heights White might reach with the program. If all goes as expected, Florida should not only be a tournament team, but a protected seed and potential conference winner.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
When Kevaughn Allen’s eligibility ran out, the last remnants of the Billy Donovan era left town. After an impressive freshman campaign, his play and shooting numbers dipped, starting a three-year run where inconsistency defined his presence. That being said, Allen didn’t shy away from taking and making tough shots. Necessity also dictated that he serve as the Gators’ primary ball-handler, which wasn’t his strength.
Keavarrius Hayes and Keith Stone were also Donovan holdovers that found roles under a new regime. Hayes provided four years of sound defense and hard-nosed rebounding. He wasn’t a great offensive player but made the Gators’ defense tougher.
One of the surprise disappointments last year was Jalen Hudson. Hudson, a Virginia Tech transfer, broke out as a junior and even explored his NBA options. Yet returning to UF didn’t pan out. He only shot 28 percent from 3-point range — a dip of 12 percentage points — as a senior and saw younger guards like Noah Lock pass him in the rotation. Meanwhile, Stone was often injured, but when healthy, he could shoot the ball from outside paired with size and strength to defend around the basket.
Finally, a trio of players transferred out. Deaundre Ballard (South Alabama), Mike Okauru (UNC-Wilmington), and Isaiah Stokes (Memphis) never found consistent minutes last year. And that was unlikely to change as the Gators were importing more talented players.
THEN, WHO’S BACK?
Andrew Nembhard | SOPHOMORE | POINT GUARD
The hype around Nembhard is justified once you watch him play. That’s saying something considering he relies more on pace than speed. Nembhard’s head is always up, eyes scanning the floor for the right play. His feel is also startling given his age. It’s tempting to call him a throwback, but Nembhard very much fits into a modern game heavy on spread pick-and-rolls. Yet opponents knew his preferences, played tons of drop coverage, clogged up passing angles and dared Nembhard to finish plays at the rim. He struggled.
So he spent the entire offseason, working both at Florida and with the Canadian national team, on looking as a scorer when turning the corner on a screen. If Nembhard unlocks that part of his game, the Gators offense will take off.
One of my favorite players coming into last year was Noah Locke. I’m a fan of guys with ultra-efficient shooting strokes, and Locke’s shot should be in an instructional video. He got a little banged up on the year, but still posted a 114 offensive rating. With more talent and slashers around him, it stands to reason he’ll be better.
Keyontae Johnson has a developing offensive game but could be a significant factor in the combo forward role this year. He’s so strong and athletic around the rim and just needs to be a little more consistent shooting the ball. Dontay Bassett is a sturdy body who can provide spot minutes in the middle. And poor Gorjok Gak is again saddled with an injury. This time it’s a shoulder issue that might keep him out for a while. When healthy, he’s an energy big who can stretch the floor a little bit.
AND, WHO’S NEW?
|Sr||Kerry Blackshear, Jr.||6'10||241||-||Grad-Transfer||CF|
Kerry Blackshear Jr. | SENIOR | POST
I’ll be honest, I was lukewarm on the Gators until they got Kerry Blackshear. Typically, Florida’s guard play has been productive enough that they’ve only needed the frontcourt for rim protection, rebounding and spot scoring. That calculus should change with Blackshear, who was easily the top transfer available this offseason.
At Virginia Tech, Blackshear was adept at managing the offense for the Hokies through the high and low post. They played through him a lot, and he rewarded Buzz Williams with 1.1 points per possession on each post up. Considering the modern game and how ineffective post-ups have become, that’s a terrific number.
If Blackshear had the ball on a post-up, his ability to either find a cutter or a spot-up shooter was excellent. Yet if the ball stayed in his hands, all the better. He was skilled at drawing fouls and getting to the free-throw line, where he shot made 73 percent. Then there’s the rebounding. If Blackshear can provide for the Gators what he did for the Hokies last year, Florida should be a top-10 team.
Scottie Lewis enters the year with a ton of hype as a potential lottery pick next June, but I’m most excited about fellow freshman Tre Mann. A slippery 6-foot-3 point guard, Mann is unafraid to hunt for his shot, making him a contrast to Nembhard’s mode of operation. That’s not to dismiss Mann as a passer, but his decision tree is rooted more in scoring than setting up teammates.
Meanwhile, Lewis is the best pro prospect on the roster, an evaluation isn’t always strictly attached to college production. Unlike Anthony Edwards at Georgia, Lewis won’t be asked to carry his team offensively. However, he’s still a rangy athlete who plays hard and defends, but could use some polish offensively.
In the post, Omar Payne should get early minutes. He’s a nice athlete and finishes high around the rim, meaning he should benefit from plenty of lobs tossed his way. Meanwhile, Jason Jitobah is such a big dude, it’s hard to get a handle on what kind of impact he can make right away. But when you’re 6-foot-11 and 290 pounds, you can certainly carve out space on the block. I’m a little skeptical of Ques Glover and his ability to help out early. There are a lot of bodies in front of him, but the guard is springy and could grow into a role if he sticks around.
White also has a pair of transfers — Tyree Appleby and Anthony Duruji — sitting out this season. Appleby is a smaller combo guard but has a reputation for filling it up at Cleveland State. As for Duruji, the 6-7 combo forward is an elite athlete from Louisiana Tech and likely to put some poor soul on a poster before his time in Gainesville is done. He also has the makings of a shooter who can stretch the floor, a skill he can hone while taking his mandatory redshirt year.
|(1) Point Guard||Andrew Nembhard||Tre Mann|
|(2) Combo Guard||Noah Locke||Ques Glover||Tyree Appleby|
|(3) Wing||Scottie Lewis||Keyontae Johnson||Anthony Duruji|
|(4) Combo Forward||Dontay Bassett||Omar Payne|
|(5) Post||Kerry Blackshear||Jason Jitobah||Gorjok Gak|
White’s starting lineup can go any number of directions, and it may not line up with what I expect. The Gators have a lot of players vying for minutes in their frontcourt. For example, it’s more likely that Johnson gets the nod early at combo forward while also backing up Lewis on the wing. But what does that mean for Bassett and Payne?
Florida’s roster can easily go nine-deep, but stretching it to an even 10 seems like a reach. (It’s also matter of sheer numbers with Appleby, Duruji, and Gak unavailable.) You can imagine Nembhard running the offense, while Mann’s scoring instincts serve him well at combo guard. The wing will be interesting, too. Locke’s shooting is attractive to space the floor and create room for two creators. However, Lewis is an elite slasher and relentless off the dribble. Starting Lewis also gives White an elite defensive trio to apply his preferred brand of aggressive on-ball defense. We’ve already talked about the dilemma at combo forward, but Blackshear figures to be a mainstay in the post. The only question is whether White wants a twin post look or decides putting four elite playmakers around Blackshear is more beneficial.
My Projected Record: 23-8 | KenPom Projected Record: 20-9
|Nov 5||Home||North Florida||184||W|
|Nov 10||Home||Florida State||14||W|
|Nov 21||Neutral||Saint Joseph’s||216||W|
|Nov 22||Neutral||Miami / Missouri State||65 / 166||W|
|Dec 21||Home*||Utah State||68||W|
|Dec 28||Home||Long Beach State||309||W|
Florida faces a non-conference slate that’s tough but manageable. Four games against teams inside the top 40 of KenPom isn’t a cakewalk, but only one of those opponents (Butler) will be on their home floor. Utah State is the Mountain West favorite, and a road game against a rebuilding UConn under Danny Hurley could be stiff. White’s likely rooting for Xavier to coast through the early rounds of the Charleston Classic. If that unfolds, there are plenty of opportunities for Florida to nab some Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins for its NCAA tournament resume.
|Jan 7||Away||South Carolina||69||W|
|Jan 14||Home||Ole Miss||60||W|
|Jan 28||Home||Mississippi State||53||W|
|Feb 8||Away||Ole Miss||60||L|
|Feb 12||Away||Texas A&M||58||W|
Florida and Kentucky are locked in a battle for SEC supremacy from now until at least the end of this year. The fact that these two will face each other twice each season is good for the SEC and good for College Basketball, particularly now that White looks to have a team which can be every bit as good as the Wildcats. But the Gators also get LSU, a team with a heap-load of talent and everything to play for this year (because who knows what the future holds). Vanderbilt provides a bit of a break, but the history of Florida at Memorial Gym is sketchy at best. Ole Miss and Georgia are dangerous teams to take on the road because each has really good guard play with Breein Tyree and Anthony Edwards capable of winning games on their own. Plus road trips to South Carolina, Missouri, Tennessee and Texas A&M won’t be easy wins.
It’s been a bit of a conundrum trying to set expectations for Florida. I applauded White when he was hired, and he hasn’t given any of us a real reason to doubt the move. Still, you can’t escape the feeling he hasn’t reached his potential. We’re waiting for a moment or game where you feel validated in thinking he was the logical successor to Donovan.
And that wait is ongoing.
When you look back at our preseason projections and those by SEC media, the Gators have typically finished two or three spots lower in the standings. If that holds up this season, the Gators would land around fifth place. In a year where the SEC is in flux and with this roster, that would raise questions.
In other words, conditions are ripe for White to meet expectations.
That isn’t to denigrate the job White has done either. It’s nearly impossible to follow a coach like Donovan. Rarely does a coach who follows a legend meet or exceeds that baseline. There’s a reason why coaches like Donovan are rare and coveted.
So what are my expectations for Florida, versus the average Florida fan? That’s the rub. To me, Florida’s clearly elevated its status in the sport. However, it still sits outside the traditional cluster of blue bloods we all know well. Florida is a top-20 program, which means it needs the right mix of players and circumstances to go on a title run.
Early in the offseason, you could have said analysts were overrating the Gators based on their incoming recruiting class. The addition of Blackshear, though, changed my expectations. It also puts pressure on White. He has the talent. The schedule is balanced. If he’s going to take Florida to another level, this is the year it needs to happen.
If the Gators are fifth in the SEC and an average seed in the NCAA tournament, you could mark this season down as a disappointment. What could hold Florida back is youth. Collecting talent is essential, and it wins out most nights. But transcendent teams establish chemistry and create cohesion. Will White’s team achieve that feat?
There are two SEC teams with the talent to reach the Final Four and contend for a national title. Florida is one of them. There are three top-end returners to couple with three elite newcomers, giving White the nucleus he needs. Assuming the reserves are steady, this team is primed for a run.
If White can’t make it work, it’s time to reassess the program’s ceiling under his leadership.
No pressure, right?
About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.
If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.
* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player
GP - Games Played
%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury
%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team
%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.
%pts - percentage of teams points scored
ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.