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Florida has all the tools to win big, but that’s been said before

Previewing the #5 team in the SEC, the Florida Gators.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

We come to one of the tougher questions to ask this preseason: Are the expectations we set for Mike White too dependent on the Billy Donovan era in Gainesville?

Without a doubt, Donovan was one of the most successful coaches in college basketball of his generation. He won a pair of national titles and was a perennial contender for the Final Four. He left to take his chances in the NBA, and Florida turned the keys over to White. At the time, White was thought of as a near-perfect successor. But after an Elite Eight run in his second season, the results have been solid but unspectacular. Only the fanbase has grown accustomed to the latter.


Previous SEC Previews

#5 Florida Gators

Last Season: 19-12 (11-7 in conference) No. 32 KenPom

My Prediction: 15-10 (11-7, 5th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 4th in conference

KenPom Projection: 20-10 (11-7 in conference) No. 19

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

HEAD COACH: Mike White | Sixth Season, 108-65

On paper, White’s resume is eerily similar to Donovan’s: a young coach who builds deep rosters, applies pressure and plays fast. At Louisiana Tech, it produced a fun and up-tempo brand, but little of it has carried over to Florida. Instead, White’s eased off the accelerator and focused on grinding teams down defensively in the half-court. Yet White recruits like a coach who wants to open the pace back up and play in transition. So, each year, the Gators are a team in tension: striving to control the pace defensively but let athletes attack at the other end. The results have been inconsistent. Is this season the year they turn it around and get past the 11-7 mark in conference play?

Seat Temp: TEPID

florida 10 year look 2020 preview

White’s win percentage is 62.4 percent. At almost any other program, we wouldn’t be talking about a warming seat or doubts about his job security. But when your predecessor won at a 74.4 percent clip the decade before you arrived, the context shifts. Donovan not only piled up wins and five protected seeds, he made deep runs into the second weekend. In the last six seasons, though, Florida’s only been seeded fourth or better once. By almost any metric, White’s done fine, but is he failing to meet expectations? Or should Florida tweak them?

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Kerry Blackshear graduation 31 67.44% 17.77% 19.33% 17.06%
Andrew Nembhardt transfer 31 82.48% 15.57% 16.71% 17.13%
Dontay Bassett transfer 17 9.12% 0.94% 1.37% 1.12%
Gorjok Gak transfer 2 0.88% 0.00% -0.22% 0.16%
31.98% 34.28% 37.19% 35.47%

Last season, hype around the Gators as a Final Four threat ramped up after they landed Virgina Tech big man Kerry Blackshear to go with a boatload of backcourt talent. A year ago, Blackshear felt like the final piece for a contender, but it didn’t pan out that way. Instead, he struggled acclimating and saw his production and efficiency drop across the board.

This offseason, the Gators also lost point guard Andrew Nembhard to transfer, which was a little bit of a surprising move. Nembhard was never an elite scorer out of pick-and-rolls, but he could get the gears unstuck for the Gators. Now, he’s out west rebooting his career for Gonzaga.

Dontay Bassett also moved on for more opportunity at Weber State, but his minutes were limited and weren’t likely to increase this season. Gorjok Gak struggled to stay healthy and transferred to Cal-Baptist.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Keyontae Johnson JR CF 31 77.52% 19.52% 62.70% 22.03%
Noah Locke JR CG 31 73.84% 14.77% 58.70% 13.03%
Scottie Lewis SO WING 30 69.76% 11.45% 56.90% 12.97%
Tre Mann SO CG 29 41.28% 6.96% 44.90% 3.74%
Ques Glover SO PG 31 30.56% 6.10% 48.90% 2.61%
Omar Payne SO POST 30 36.32% 5.16% 58.40% 6.91%
Jason Jitobah SO POST 22 10.64% 1.71% 52.10% 1.48%
Anthony Duruji CF Transfer - REDSHIRT
Tyree Appleby CG Transfer - REDSHIRT
67.98% 65.67% 62.77%
NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Keyontae Johnson | JUNIOR | COMBO FORWARD

Keyontae Johnson arrived in Gainesville as an overlooked member of a deep and talented recruiting class. He was an athletic freak from Oak Hill Academy who had yet to really round his skill set into shape, but with each season he’s progressed. Now, he’s reached a point where NBA draftniks were mildly surprised he returned for his junior season. Back in the Gators’ rotation, he’s most likely member of the All-SEC team and the odds-on favorite for the conference’s Player of the Year. Johnson improved his shooting, ball-handling, and decision making last year and could take another step forward this year.

Playing off Johnson is Noah Locke, who’s one of the SEC’s truly elite spot-up threats. With a 58.1 true-shooting shooting percentage and only a 15.3-percent usage rate, Locke is perfect at spacing the floor. Then there’s Scottie Lewis, a former five-star recruit who finally got traction offensively down the stretch of a freshman season where he reached double figures in just seven SEC games.

Inside, the Gators hope to see growth from Omar Payne, a skilled defender and high-level athlete in the post. Should Payne struggle, Jason Jitobah would be in line for minutes, and he’s a big dude at 6-foot-11 and 300 pounds.

Ques Glover brought energy and shotmaking ability off the bench, and he could see some major minutes at point guard this year. To do that, he have to battle it out with Cleveland State transfer Tyree Appleby, who sat out last season after lighting up the Horizon League for two seasons. Fellow transfer Anthony Duruji, a combo forward from Louisiana Tech, is also eligible and in the mix.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tre Mann | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD

There are plenty of important players on this roster. Payne could really help solidify the paint. Locke’s shooting can be an equalizer in any game. And Lewis taking a step toward offensive consistency would put the Gators over the top. But Tre Mann needs to adequately replace the departed Nembhard. Yet Mann, a former McDonald’s All-American is more a scorer than distributor. Unable to dominate the ball last season, he drifted on the perimeter, struggled to knock down shots and never found a flow. He’s capable of dominating in the scoring column, but can he also get Florida into good enough sets to keep everyone fed? If so, Florida will finally be more than the sum of its parts.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
Fr Samson Ruzhentsev 6'7 197 ★★★★ 46 WING
Fr Niels Lane 6'5 205 ★★★ 139 WING
Jr Osayi Osifo 6'7 225 ★★★ 10 CF
Jr Colin Castleton 6'11 230 - TRANSFER

Florida returns enough assets and had two transfers waiting, meaning this freshman class is one that doesn’t need to make a dent early. The key pickup is Samson Ruzhentsev, a slender wing from Hamilton Heights Academy in Tennessee who can score at all three levels. That polish and prowess should contribute right away.

Niels Lane reminds me a bit of a more athletic version of Locke, with a reliable jumper featuring a compact and quick release. Osayi Osifo is a bouncy combo forward with a developing skill set, but he’s a nice athlete who can defend and rebound at three positions. Last in the group is Michigan transfer Colin Castleton, a traditional big man capable of protecting the rim. Castleton didn’t carve out a huge role in Ann Arbor and transferred closer to home.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Tyree Appleby Ques Glover
(2) Combo Guard Noah Locke Tre Mann
(3) Wing Scottie Lewis Samson Ruzhentsev Niels Lane
(4) Combo Forward Keyontae Johnson Anthony Duruji Osayi Osifo
(5) Post Omar Payne Colin Castleton Jason Jitobah

White’s built a talented and balanced roster, but how he apportions minutes is always interesting. He tends to keep his rotation tight and bench short. You can write Johnson’s name in ink, and Locke’s shooting is pivotal to keeping defenses from sitting down in gaps. Lewis also seems like a likely starter. And Payne is probably your man up front.

The position battle to watch is whether Appleby or Mann gets the nod at lead guard. Neither is a traditional set-up artist, and it might come down to which is able to balance their scoring instinct with running the team. Off the bench, Glover and Ruhzhentsev could compete for reserve roles.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 15-10 | KenPom Projected Record: 17-8

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 25 Neutral UMass Lowell 244
Nov 27 Neutral Virginia 16
Dec 2 Away Oklahoma 31 L
Dec 6 Home Stetson 222 W
Dec 12 Away Florida State 19 L
Dec 16 Home North Florida 282 W
Dec 19 Home Florida Atlantic 224 W
Dec 22 Home James Madison 270 W
Jan 30 Away West Virginia 8 L
avg 146.22 4-3

As usual, White isn’t afraid to schedule tough. Florida’s early conference showdown was cancelled due to COVID issues, but Oklahoma, Florida State, and West Virginia are all games that should let White know exactly how tough his team is. They haven’t beaten Florida State under White, so I’m sure he’s earmarked that game to try and get one in the win column.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 30 Away Vanderbilt 125 W
Jan 2 Home LSU 44 W
Jan 5 Away Alabama 48 L
Jan 9 Home Kentucky 20 W
Jan 12 Home Ole Miss 41 W
Jan 16 Away Mississippi State 93 W
Jan 19 Home Tennessee 18 L
Jan 23 Away Georgia 99 W
Jan 27 Home Vanderbilt 125 W
Feb 3 Home South Carolina 67 W
Feb 6 Away LSU 44 L
Feb 10 Away Tennessee 18 L
Feb 13 Home Texas A&M 65 W
Feb 16 Away Arkansas 50 L
Feb 20 Home Georgia 99 W
Feb 23 Away Auburn 71 L
Feb 27 Away Kentucky 20 L
Mar 3 Home Missouri 56 W
avg 61.28 11-7

Florida’s permanent SEC rivals are Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Georgia. The latter two are pegged to bring up the rear of the standings and should help Florida have some cushion against home-and-homes with LSU and Tennessee. They could pick up road wins at Mississippi State, Auburn, and Arkansas are the potential road wins, but Florida will need to hold serve at home against Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Texas A&M.

The early stretch might define the Gators conference season. There are home games against LSU, Kentucky and a road trip to Alabama. Come away with a 2-1 record, and it might be an optimistic signal. Go 0-3, and the warning sirens will wail. Finally, there’s a sneaky trap game against Ole Miss, a team who clipped the Gators just last year, after the Gators take on Kentucky.

OVERVIEW

Each year, we go through the same ritual. We look at the Gators’ roster, set aside the inconsistency of the prior year, and predict them to finish among the top four in the SEC. Last season, for example, Florida turned preseason buzz into a potential No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament. Sure, White’s crew could have put together a hell of a run, but at no point in the regular season did they resemble a national title contender.

The Gators under White have been good but also equally frustrating and mystifying. Now that White owns the entire roster, it’s time to decide whether UF should recalibrate its expectations or start applying pressure to the unruffled White.

florida 2020 synergy

If you take the recruiting and the roster building, Florida’s recruiting isn’t normally as good as it was in 2019. Then the Gators added two 5-stars and a 4-star, the top grad transfer available in Blackshear, and the results were mixed. Since taking over the reigns, White is much more likely to have the 5th ranked recruiting class in the SEC than the 2nd, like he did that year. Recruiting has been very good, but not elite, and the program has gone from elite to simply being very good.

How does Mike White break the cycle? A big part of it is going to be development. To date, there hasn’t been enough players who’ve come into the program who have developed into elite players, Keyontae Johnson might be looking at being the first guy to come in and outplay his recruiting ranking. Couple a lack of development with a fair amount of roster turnover and you have a recipe for a team which feels like it’s underachieving. This is why I think this season is a pivotal one for the program.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This isn’t to say Mike White’s job is in jeopardy. It’s a larger conversation about whether Florida, who operates on an economical budget, should continue expecting to overachieve relative to its resources and historical success. Many programs have been through a similar process with a generational coach whose success shouldn’t be taken as a baseline.

If Florida fans aren’t going to moderate their expectations, White’s season hinges on whether Mann grows into a lead guard. Florida knows what to expect from Locke and Johnson, while Lewis snapped out of his funk late. But Mann breaking out transforms this team from one happy with a Sweet 16 bid to one that can inflict damage in the NCAA tournament.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Florida’s not without a wonderful array of proven talent and depth. Few teams in the SEC can say the same, and not many have a cornerstone as sturdy as Johnson. If the Gators sort out their point guard spot and front court rotation, White and Co. can challenge for an SEC title. Experience, depth, athleticism, rim protection: Mike White has all of it.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

The undercurrent of pessimism isn’t hard to detect. White’s been on the job seven seasons. And we’re still waiting for him to take the next step. In that period, Auburn, LSU, Tennessee and Alabama have invested in coaches, ramped up recruiting and—in the case of everyone but the Crimson Tide—won a share of an SEC crown. None have been dramatically more talented than Florida. If White can’t break through soon, it’s not illogical to wonder if he’s the man to keep the Gators among the SEC’s upper tier.


About the preview: In past years we’ve had a single Google Form where a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick of the entire league schedule game by game. Because the Coronavirus has impacted just about everything, the schedule came out so late we were unable to run through this process. I worked with Matt Harris to get as much of a consensus between our two outcomes of picks (they are still game by game) but in the end these are all MY picks. I’ve tried to include the SEC Media’s predictions and KenPom’s preseason ratings into the preview to set some kind of balance.


GLOSSARY

* - 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.