With one week to go until Florida Gators basketball begins its ramp up to the 2015-16 season with a secret scrimmage against the UCF Knights – and three until the official start of the campaign – new head coach Mike White has been working with his team to get it prepared for what should be a challenging next few months.
During the month of October, White has spoken at length about progress he has seen from the Gators during practice and what some of his early expectations are for Florida ahead of the season.
Two players, six names: Between redshirt senior forward Dorian Finney-Smith and redshirt freshman guard Brandone Francis-Ramirez, nicknames and short-hand will be commonplace during Gators basketball games this season. What else can be expected from these two? Raw talent, which Florida fans have seen from Finney-Smith but have only gotten a slight taste of from Francis-Ramirez.
Finney-Smith’s resume does not need to be recounted, but it has been impressive. In short, he was not only the SEC Sixth Man of the Year in 2014 but also the Gators’ leading scorer and rebounder during a tough season in 2015. Finney-Smith could have followed guard Michael Fraizer II and forward Chris Walker by leaving school with eligibility remaining; instead, he returned to improve his game and play for head coach Billy Donovan … only for Donovan to leave and White to enter.
But Finney-Smith kept his head during the coaching change and has only continued to step his game up during the offseason, as White noted during his opening press conference earlier this month. “He’s been great. Dorian individually has played really well. He’s been our best player in workouts so far,” White explained. “We’re going to continue to challenge him to be more and more vocal and to lead. He’s always led by example. He’s a guy that the rest of our team looks up to, especially between the lines. He’s been there and done that and played significant minutes on the Final Four team. He’s put up big numbers at times in a very, very competitive league. Especially our new guys look to Dorian for that leadership.”
While Finney-Smith is a known quantity, Francis-Ramirez is more of a mystery man. The second-year guard was forced to sit his true freshman season due to academic issues that affected his ability to qualify. He worked hard in practice and spent the entire offseason honing his shot, which looked as smooth as silk (pardon the pun) during Florida’s special “madness” opening practice when Francis-Ramirez won the three-point contest.
White confirmed a couple weeks ago that Francis has been the best shooter in workouts to this point, and his scoring ability will be a much-needed factor for the Gators to complete a quick turnaround.
Making a point: White’s bread and butter is the backcourt, which means he had his sights set on Florida’s point guards – junior Kasey Hill and sophomore Chris Chiozza – from the beginning of his tenure.
To this point, White has been pleased with the contributions of both men. He mentioned that Chiozza has been the second-best shooter on the roster behind Francis-Ramirez this offseason and noted that Hill has stepped up as a more vocal leader for the young, inexperienced roster.
Perhaps more importantly, Hill has spent hours upon hours working on his shooting stroke, which has been unimpressive through two seasons (.379 from the field, .276 from three in 2014-15). White has stressed Hill improving from the foul line and the arc, taking better shots and spending the necessary time in the gym to actually improve in those areas.
“You’ve got to give him credit. He’s a junior in college, and he’s changed the way he’s shot the basketball for the last 15 years. We feel that’s helped him a little bit,” White explained. “Obviously, muscle memory with shooting is the biggest factor. Guys paying the price, earning the right, being in the gym and living in the gym. And that’s something that Coach Donovan talked a lot about last year.
“Some of it is mental. Just, it’s confidence. As coaches, one of the things that we can control is how many reps we get with the limited amount of hours that you have and the environment that those reps are taken. … Kasey’s stroke has improved.”
White also noted that he needs to put Hill in position to take better shots and make smart decisions, but he is also pleased with the way the third-year player has been giving effort on the defensive end of the floor. “One of the constants and things he can control is defensive energy, the utilization of his speed and quickness, which are to me as fast as anybody in college basketball,” White said. “We’re going to do the best we can [as a shooter], but we have to have you lead and you have to play with unbelievable energy defensively. And he’s embraced that challenge thus far.”
Man in the middle: Hey look, the Gators have a center. Redshirt sophomore John Egbunu, a 6-foot-11, 255-pound transfer from South Florida, is now eligible to play after sitting out his NCAA-mandated season on the bench. While Finney-Smith is the veteran and unarguably the best player on the team, no one may be more important than Egbunu when it comes to giving Florida an identity entering the season.
“John has been tremendous. He’s had a really good start to practice, not only with his back to the basket offensively but also setting screens, running the floor. Defensively, we started calling him ‘Johnny Clinic’ the other day as a nickname,” White explained. “He has been phenomenal and we appreciate the way he’s embraced his role in that regard, especially with his level of communication. His decibel level, you’ll hear in the O’Dome how well he communicates at times. It’s really important for us.”
A source close to the program confirmed (while laughing) to OnlyGators.com that “you always know when Egbunu is in the gym,” not just because of his size and presence but due to the fact that you will hear his voice echo off the floor and walls. His passion is something Florida can build off not only in practice but in games, and while he may not be long with the Gators due to his talent, he can be an effective player immediately on both ends of the court.
“We have a guy that can score it on the interior; we’re going to throw him the ball,” White said. “How productive John is for us, what percentage he shoots from the field, how often he can convert from the foul line, how well we execute to get him the ball, all those things will determine how many touches he gets.”
» On redshirt junior G DeVon Walker, who is returning from a torn ACL: “DeVon has got a contagious energy level. He’s a guy that you like seeing come into workouts because he lifts the intensity level of the guys around him. He’s a hard worker. He’s in the gym a ton. He’s a really good defender. I think the faster of the tempo of the game, the more conducive it will be for him. So we’re hopeful that we can play that way. I think he’ll be good in press and half court pressure, he’ll be a really good offensive rebounder for us, and he needs to be able to just knock down open threes. We’re going to keep the floor spaced.”
» On junior walk-on C Schuyler Rimmer, who as a mid-year transfer will not be eligible until the spring: “He’s a guy that can be productive with his back to the basket as well, not only with scoring but with passing it. He’s a really skilled kid. … He’s very intelligent. He’s very tough. He’s a really skilled big; he’s a good passing big. He’s extended his range by spending hours in this gym. … He’ll definitely add depth. He’ll push John every day. He’s been good for the development of Kevarrius [Hayes].”
» On freshman G KeVaughn Allen, who could be one of the top first-year in the SEC: “He’s such an offensive weapon. He’s probably as pure of a natural scorer as we have on our team. He can just go get baskets. He can make hard shots. He can create his own shots. He’s really, really athletic. But he’s got a ways to go, just like our other two freshmen.”
» On junior F Justin Leon, a JUCO transfer: “Justin’s got some qualities that I mentioned about DeVon Walker. He’s a hard working kid. Very emotional like Brandone Francis. Plays at a high level of intensity, really, really competitive. I’ve been really pleased with him and his work ethic, how he’s caught on to some of the terminology, some of the things that we do both offensively and defensively.”
Notes and bits
» White believes Florida could be a team that makes a significant leap after its first 10 games of the season, as by that point the inexperienced roster will have an opportunity to play together and gel into a unit that can truly compete with top-level competition.
» Allen, who suffered a concussion but returned after a week, will have an opportunity to start for the Gators, though the only locked-in starters at this time are Finney-Smith and Egbunu. Hill and/or Chiozza could start in the backcourt. “Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza are battling every day for that point guard position. Both of them have had really good off-seasons, and at times we could probably play them together as Coach Donovan did last year,” the coach said. “But KeVaughn is fighting for those — one of those wing positions. He’s very talented. He’s in the gym as much as anybody that we have.”
» Finney-Smith and Rimmer combined to go 11-for-11 in the first scrimmage.
» The goal is for Florida to have a rotation of 9-10 players.
» White watched 32 Gators game this offseason and spoke extensively with former staff members. Overall, he was impressed with the defense Florida played but does think the team can improve in its transition defense and communication on that end of the court.
» On how much assistance Donovan has provided during the transition: “He’s been incredible. Coach Donovan has been incredible. I’m going through something similar, but at least I’m going through transition with the same rules. It’s a different level. It’s a different league. We’re recruiting a little differently. We’re going to go and play probably a little bit differently, and there are a lot of question marks. With Coach Donovan, heck, it’s a different game. It’s a different game from college basketball, so I can imagine somewhat of what he’s going through. And he’s taken time on several occasions to reach out or return a call or text from me.
“I know one thing: He wants Florida to be really successful. He’s proud of what he’s built. Obviously built something special here. Probably most importantly he wants these kids that he’s recruited here to have success. So he cares. He’s been very, very helpful, and I’m very appreciative for it.”