The Florida Gators are looking to “bounce back” from a season where expectations were high, but weren’t quite met in 2018 with a 21-13 (11-7) record. They got to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament where they lost to a defensively versatile team in Texas Tech.
They never got to play with their only true big man in John Egbunu, while a few others were injured. In fact, the Gators actually had some of the worst luck in the country, according to KenPom’s Luck Ratings — ranking 310th in that regard. They lost seven games by five points or less, which contributes to the luck rating.
Mike White brought in some talent to replace guys like Egor Koulechov, Egbunu, point guard and ultimate glue guy Chris Chiozza. While I had the Gators as a tier 2 team in CBB Today’s SEC Preview, that was mostly due to the point guard position being an unknown now that Chiozza is gone and the KeVaughn Allen experiment going terribly wrong last season.
However, Allen will get to his more natural position of shooting guard. With that, as well as some other things, this team could easily vault into tier 1 status if the shooting picks up this season. Here’s a player-by-player preview of what to expect from this team this season.
KeVaughn Allen – 11 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.4 APG, 32.8 3P%, 36.1 FG%
Allen had one of the worst years of his career, both professionally and personally. He faced an unbelievable amount of off-court adversity, as he found out his mother was seriously ill, something his family kept from him for about half of the season. It took a toll on his game play. as he shot his percentage from the field dropped during his time at Florida and averaged a career-low in points to boot. Those issues have been resolved and the 6-foot-2, 193-pound senior shooting guard will have some great resolve to play well and be at his best this season.
There’s nowhere to go but up for the young man and he should be the first or second-leading scorer on this team with Jalen Hudson taking the other spot. He shouldn’t be asked to play point guard this season like he was at times 10 months ago to give Chiozza a spell to rest on the bench.
White has Mike Okauru and five-star freshman Andrew Nembhard coming in to handle those duties this season so Allen can focus on shooting, scoring and moving up from 30th overall on the Gator all-time scoring list.
Now that he’s had a season to gel with Hudson, the two should have some good chemistry on the floor, which could very well help Allen get back into the groove he found during his sophomore campaign when he shot about 44 percent from the floor and 37 percent from beyond the arc. They should also get some help from their point guard assuming it’s Nembhard as he can get into the paint and is a great passer like Chiozza was for the Gators.
Jalen Hudson – 15.5 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 1.1 APG, 40.4 3P%, 45.5 FG%
Hudson was superb last season for the Gators, as he stepped right into the leading scorer role for them after waiting a year due to NCAA transfer rules (Virginia Tech transfer). He’ll continue to be a scorer and may need to raise his averages a bit with Chiozza and Koulechov gone to graduation.
The 6-foot-6, 195-pound wing will likely be a little more trigger happy this year knowing there are less offensive weapons around him, but if he can keep his efficiency at similar levels to last season then there won’t be many complaints in Gainesville.
The former Hokie will have to continue to shore up his defense a little bit more as the interior is still a weak point for these Gators, which means they will need to keep guys from getting too close to the rim. He made strides throughout last season.
He made the preseason All-SEC first team list. Now he just has to play up to that expectation and a lot of people will be made happy. It should also help him with NBA scouts, as they didn’t quite see enough from him last year to make him comfortable enough to keep his name in the NBA Draft.
Kevarrius Hayes – 4.8 PPG, 5 RPG, 2 BPG, 1 SPG, 56.9 FG%
The 6-foot-9, 226-pound senior is obviously not much of an offensive threat as you can tell from the numbers above. However, he is a key part of the defense and is a tremendous help side defender, racking up a total of 67 blocks last season.
He will need to get a little better in his last year on campus of not letting guys overpower him in the post. His build doesn’t quite give him a lot more room for improvement, but that just means he’s going to have to do his work early on defense by not letting guys get good position or trying to front guys and get some help on the back side.
Hayes is a very good athlete though, and the receiver of lobs throughout games. He should continue that trend with whoever ends up playing at the point. He will need to either expand his post game or extend his range up to the high post so he can take defenders off the dribble or even shoot the mid-range jumper. Hayes is pretty much who we thought he was. If he makes any strides in any offensive part of his game it will be a pleasant surprise.
Andrew Nembhard (No Stats)
The heralded freshman out of IMG Academy will have the opportunity to start right away and would be a much different look at the position than the Gators have seen under Mike White. He’s a bigger guard than Chiozza and Kasey Hill were and has the ability to shoot the ball well and finish in the paint.
The 6-foot-5, 191-pound guard is White’s highest-rated recruit he’s had on campus while at Florida and the coach is surely hoping the young man will play like it. If he can be even average as a shooter and can be a solid perimeter defender, then the Gators will be in good shape.
Nembhard will be relied upon to be a bit of a stopper on defense and to get his team out in transition for easy buckets. If he can do those things in addition to what he did on the regular in high school, then the Gators could see themselves leapfrogging a couple teams in the SEC this season. The freshman can shoot the ball well enough, can find guys cutting while he’s driving and just generally sees the floor well.
Gator fans have their fingers crossed he works out immediately at point guard because he could be their secret weapon heading into the meat of their season in January.
Keith Stone – 8.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 0.9 BPG, 42.4 3P%, 43.8 FG%
Junior forward Keith Stone has the potential to make the biggest leap on the team this season. He showed flashes last year of being a large contributor on offense and was alright on the defensive end. The 6-foot-8, 253-pound junior should be able to handle bigger guys in the post if needed, but he will have to prove it this year as he did struggle at times with those bigger offensive players that planted themselves down low. Assuming he’s been in the weight room and keeping himself right this offseason that job should have gotten a little easier.
Stone’s game has gotten smoother over his three years on campus and that’s been shown in his shooting. If his stats take a jump like a lot of people believe they will, then he will be pretty set this season and could be the third-leading scorer on this team.
He will also be getting some more shot attempts per game this season. If he stays as efficient as he was last season with added usage and such, then he could be a real star. Assuming he rebounds the ball better and plays more physical on defense, expect him to get a little bit of NBA Draft hype as well since he’s a tweener who can step out and shoot threes while also handling the ball fairly well.
Gorjok Gak – 2.2 PPG, 0.4 BPG, 2.4 RPG, 63.4 FG% — in about 9 minutes a game
Gak never quite realized his potential last season and it was cut short by an injury that required offseason surgery. He didn’t play in the team’s exhibition game and it remains to be seen when he will make it back to the court. The 6-foot-11, 254-pound big man is the only guy over 6-foot-10 this team has and he will need to get back on the court and play some significant minutes. His height, wingspan and girth give him the potential to be a major rim protector once he gets his legs back under him.
The Australian big man has not shown a penchant for making a lot of post plays on offense, as he is usually the recipient of a lob or gets his buckets from offensive boards for putbacks. While there’s a place for that in the offense, if he wants to see more court time he will have to refine his game a bit and not get lost so much on defense as well. Staying healthy will obviously be a key part in that as well.
Chase Johnson – 4.3 PPG, 2 RPG, 0.5 BPG, 0.5 SPG, 50 FG% in 4 total games
The 6-foot-9, 219-pound redshirt freshman out of West Virginia was granted a medical redshirt last season because he only played in four games due to concussions. He is back and ready to rock this year and could be a secret X-factor for these Gators with his athleticism and ability to get up and down the floor. He could be a good rim runner for Nembhard and the other perimeter players while also giving the Gators a different look defensively when they face other quick forwards.
Johnson can step out and shoot it a little bit, but it still remains mostly a mystery as to how well he can shoot the ball from deep. He’s shown some solid mid-range shooting in the few shots he attempted last season, but no one really knows how well that might translate to shooting beyond the arc.
If he ends up being respectable from out there, that adds a new dimension for these Gators and gives them a chance to play with five guys on the outside and more room to operate in the paint on drives. It would also give Hayes some needed rest throughout the game rather than relying on him to be an iron man.
Deaundre Ballard – 3.7 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 38.4 FG%, 15.6 3P%
The 6-foot-5, 197-pound guard was averaging about 14 minutes a game through the first half of the season, but that number dipped considerably in the second half of the season. If he can get back to form and hit shots when he’s in the game then he should be just fine. For him, it will be making good decisions as to when he shoots the ball as he like to fire a little freely last season.
He seems to have gotten it together over the summer though as he ended up leading the Gators in scoring in their exhibition game against Florida Southern College while shooting 50 percent from the floor. Of course, that’s one game against a much inferior opponent, but it’s a good start. If he’s hitting shots and playing defense like Mike White wants then there’s no reason to think he won’t see some good floor action this season.
Isaiah Stokes – (No Stats)
The 6-foot-8, 270-pound big man redshirted last season as he was recovering from a knee injury he suffered in his senior year of high school. And if you’re a Gator fan who recognizes that name it’s probably because his brother Jarnell used to terrorize the Gators during his time at Tennessee.
The young Stokes promises to be a solid player and he managed to cut some weight during his redshirt season, which should help him get up and down the floor at the pace coach White likes to see from his teams. However, he is still the biggest player the Gators have — weight-wise anyway — and should help them be a little tougher on the interior and give them a low post presence who can score from there with a variety of moves.
Stokes only played nine minutes in Tuesday’s exhibition game, but he made his presence felt with six points, a block, an assist and a rebound in that short time. If he can play that hard in short bursts throughout the season then he could be an energizing force on the defensive end for the Gators when they need a boost. He’ll also give the team a different look offensively since he can operate out of the post and has good enough vision to find his shooters if he takes on a double team.
Dontay Bassett – 1.7 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 54.8 FG% in 7.1 minutes per game
The 6-foot-9, 237-pound redshirt sophomore will be looking to earn some more court time this season and made a good case in Florida’s exhibition game on Tuesday. He was the second-leading scorer with 12 points on a perfect 5-of-5 from the field. He even hit a couple threes, which he never even attempted to do last year.
Should he prove to be a capable outside shooter, that will not only earn him plenty of playing time, but will help this Gators team become a bigger offensive threat than people think they will be this season.
He will be asked to relieve Kevarrius Hayes at times on defense and while he will need to play well on that end to stay in the game, his offense could be a huge boon for the bench unit. That would certainly make coach White happy and it could give Bassett a little more confidence to play like he did near the end of last season when he saw a minutes bump and had a season-high of 24 minutes against Auburn in an upset victory for the Gators.
Mike Okauru – 3.8 PPG, 0.5 SPG, 1 RPG, 40.4 3%, 46.5 FG%
The 6-foot-3, 184-pound sophomore guard will look to split time at point with freshman Andrew Nembhard. He was set to inherit the position from graduating guard Chris Chiozza, but coach White went out and got a potential superstar at the position for the 2018 recruiting class.
Whoever ends up getting the majority of the minutes will already be a taller guard than what the Gators are used to and should be able to get into the paint a little easier than Chiozza. Nembhard is a superb passer and a solid enough shooter.
Okauru showed flashes last season. If he shoots close to what he did last year on more shots, then he should definitely find himself in the thick of the action and could give Florida a double point guard look at times if Mike White decides to go small with some lineups.
Okauru will mostly be asked to run a smooth offense, not turn the ball over and take open shots when he has them. He should not have to do a lot of creating for his own shot, but will need to create for others more frequently than he did last season when he averaged less than an assist a game. With some more shooters and potential for more spaced out lineups, those assists should be coming in bunches.
Noah Locke – (No Stats)
The 6-foot-3, 205-pound freshman shooting guard was one of the most heralded shooters in the 2018 recruiting class and showed it on the Nike EYBL circuit. He led the league in three-pointers made with 54 on 49.5 percent shooting from beyond the arc. If he shoots even remotely close to that he will have been a huge steal for coach White and his staff.
He should give the Gators a legitimate threat from outside and someone who can shoot at all three levels. Locke knows how to get off his own shot and create some space for himself and uses screens fairly well. He could be a bit of a KeVaughn Allen clone off the bench to start this season and could easily become a “microwave” guy for this team.
If he ends up hitting shots at a blistering clip like he did in high school you can definitely expect him to get the backup two-guard minutes and get a good grasp on them. While this team might struggle defensively, shooting still makes up for a multitude of sins and that’s where Locke will likely succeed this season.
Keyontae Johnson – (No Stats)
The 6-foot-5, 225-pound freshman is probably the most athletic player on this Gator squad and that alone will earn him some playing time. He showed off some of that athleticism against Florida Southern and was tied for second-most points on the team with 12.
Mike White is going to have to let Johnson get out and just run the floor at times because the electricity he will provide with his playmaking will be worth any trade-off he may have on defense being just a freshman.
Johnson should be getting out in transition a lot in Gainesville and while he can finish quite spectacularly at the rim, he is also a capable passer from the small forward position both on the break and in half court sets. His versatility and athleticism will get the fans and staff alike excited about what this kid can do in a couple years on campus with the right coaching and skill expansion.
If the Gators can play at a higher level of defense than they did against Division-II Florida Southern they could find themselves in the top 15 this season with a shot at an SEC title. This Gator squad will have to be strong on the perimeter until the big men aside from Hayes — none of which have seen real playing time in a collegiate game — get up to speed with the game. With the length in that part of the court, they should be alright and it will likely be a matter of mental preparation and execution more than anything.
The offense will likely be there now that the Gators have versatility and serious depth all the way around. Kevarrius Hayes won’t be running ragged as the only big man available. The Gators will be able to show big and small lineups as a counter to whatever lineup is run against them. This could keep a lot of key players fresh down stretches of games and hopefully give some of those underclassmen the experience they need to be comfortable come time for the conference slate.
Florida opens its season at Florida State on Nov. 6 against the No. 17 Seminoles.
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