Image Credit: ESPN Images
Florida Gators basketball kicks off the 2016-17 season on Friday unranked nationally yet predicted to finish second in the Southeastern Conference at season’s end.
Due to a $64.5 million renovation to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Florida will not play a true home game until Dec. 21. That means the Gators will be on the road for the first 11 games of the season — starting Friday at 7:30 p.m. against Florida Gulf Coast in Jacksonville.
Considering you have no doubt been in football mode for the last few months, let’s take a look at what you need to know ahead of head coach Mike White‘s second season leading Florida basketball.
1. The Gators are nearly at full strength: Though senior point guard Kasey Hill missed some practice time and the exhibition game with a hamstring injury, he is believed to back healthy and ready to start Friday. Junior forward Devin Robinson has fully recovered from the foot injury that postponed his NBA consideration. Robinson is not only healthy and active, he’s in good shape after being meticulous during his rehabilitation. Oh, and he spent that time improving his shooting form and stroke, taking a ton of reps from all over the court. “He’s really shooting the ball well, shooting as well as anyone on our team right now,” White said.
Florida will also have forward/center Gorjok Gak available this season after the NCAA processed a waiver and ruled the true freshman eligible on Thursday. The only player missing at the start of the season — and for its duration — will be freshman F Dontay Bassett, who will redshirt this season after a stress fracture was discovered in his right foot.
2. White has high expectations: Though he joked that he would jump on a guarantee of 30 wins if one was provided to him, White continues to express optimism about the Gators in Year 2 under his leadership. We’ll get to those details in a bit, but it’s worth noting that Louisiana Tech jumped from 18-16 (6-8 WAC) to 27-7 (16-2 WAC) in White’s second season. UF was 21-15 (9-9 SEC) last year. “It’s your second year, not only in a new community and you’re adjusted personally … but most importantly for the program you have a better sense as to who you have, what you’re working with … what your team’s strengths and weaknesses are,” White explained.
3. There’s a lot of new faces: Four players who should see playing time this season — one of them a potential starter — have never stepped on the court for Florida before. That group is led by graduate transfer guard Canyon Barry, who averaged 19.7 points per game last season for College of Charleston. Redshirt freshman F Keith Stone (sat at 2015-16 to build his body and skill set), freshman G Eric Hester and Gak are the others.
Barry will not only be an impactful player and the Gators’ best free throw shooter (yes, he shoots them underhanded in the style his family popularized), he also possesses a winning mentality and should grow as a leader as the season progresses. “He’s very capable of scoring the ball, but I think he’s underrated in other areas. He’s a great communicator. He’s always talking. He’s a quick thinker,” White explained. “He’s a very good passer. He’s probably our best post passer. Kind of sees things before he catches the ball, always checking the defense, very good vision. I think he’s going to be a really good scouting report guy.”
4. Shooting improvement to be determined: Though White thinks Florida will hit better percentages at the line and beyond the arc, he cautioned that the Gators are unlikely to “make a huge jump in either area.” Well, Florida was ranked 328th (of 351 teams) nationally in free throw percentage (.648) and 295th from three (.319), so even a marginal improvement could lead to a massive jump overall. “I would be surprised if we weren’t a little bit closer towards the middle of the pack,” White said, referring to UF’s place among SEC teams in those categories.
Sophomore G KeVaughn Allen remains the Gators’ best shooter, though Robinson, Barry and senior F Justin Leon are all solid from downtown. Hill has reinvented his shot and made strides, according to White, who said Hill will be more efficient but won’t be “hunting jump shots.” Barry will lead the pack at the charity stripe, and Florida has spent a lot of time working on free throw shooting in the offseason.
“We’ve shot the ball really well, but we haven’t played under the lights, on TV, in front of our fans, against a Division-I team yet when it counted,” White said. “So if we shoot the ball well Friday night, I’ll take a deep breath and feel good about it. In practice, we’ve shot it well, we have. But is that going to be our strength? I don’t think so. Do I expect to be an improved shooting team from the three and the foul line? Absolutely.”
5. The Gators can go big and small: Redshirt junior center John Egbunu — a Second Team Preseason All-SEC Team selection along with Allen — will be Florida’s most dominant player in the interior, but White has been consistent this offseason in cautioning against sleeping on sophomore F/C KeVarrius Hayes. While Egbunu has stepped up as a leader and become more vocal this offseason — a lot of pressure has been put on him physically with conditioning yet he still stood out — Hayes “has made a big jump” in his overall game, according to White.
As such, the Gators will play a big lineup with Egbunu and Hayes on the court at the same time. They can also go small with Hill, Allen and sophomore PG Chris Chiozza, which should help Florida play more up tempo basketball like it did at the end of the 2015-16 season. “We want to play pressure basketball,” White noted.
6. Defense is a focus: White has said over and again that his No. 1 goal for the Gators this season is for them to be a top 10 defensive team nationally. “I don’t think that there’s any reason we should shoot for being less than that,” he said. White credits Florida’s step forward in team culture, maturity and selflessness as a reason why that goal totally achievable. “We still have to become more accountable. We have to do a better job of doing our basketball jobs, whatever that next play is,” he cautioned. “… We’ve been pretty even-keeled and have worked at a pretty consistent level, have not been overly emotional about things.”
Solid frontcourt depth, great length (seven players at 6-foot-8 or taller seeing action), tremendous quickness (Hill, Chiozza, Allen) and intelligence (Barry, Leon) should all help towards this goal.
7. The schedule is “brutal,” obviously: As noted at the start of this primer, the Gators will begin by playing 11 games away from home — three in Jacksonville (one true road game), one in Lakeland, one in Tampa, three in Orlando, one in Sunrise, at Florida State in Tallahassee and against Duke in New York for the Jimmy V. Classic. Florida will not play a true home game for nearly six weeks. “Our schedule is brutal. It’s brutal. But [there’s] a lot of opportunity at the same time,” White said.
The positive of all this is that the Gators are going to get a ton of road experience before beginning a tough SEC slate and postseason. “Road wins are hard to come by away from home,” White said. “Hopefully these experiences will pay off in conference play and help you become a better road team.” Florida will only play back-to-back home games twice this season and both begins and ends its SEC schedule on the road.
8. Projected starting five: White will likely change the Gators’ starting five all season, just as he did last year, but it looks pretty clear that Florida will kick off 2016-17 with the following lineup: PG Kasey Hill, G KeVaughn Allen, F Devin Robinson, F Justin Leon, C John Egbunu.
9. The exhibition game was … interesting: Florida trailed Eckerd College 34-33 at half during its only exhibition game on Oct. 26. The Gators would go on to blast them 58-29 in the second half, but nonetheless, it was close for 20 minutes. Florida only hit 27.8 percent of its threes but went 22-of-29 from the free throw line (.759). The Gators were also even on the assist-to-turnover ratio. Barry hit 2 of 10 shots, Egbunu beasted with a team-highs of 18 points and 12 boards, Chiozza dropped four dimes, and both Allen and Hayes were solid.
10. Past teams serve as learning lessons: White said that the Gators watched the “Repeat After Us” documentary on the back-to-back Florida basketball title teams as a unit during a bus ride for a practice this offseason. He also noted that UF’s last Final Four team should serve as an inspiration and paradigm for this year’s Gators to aspire to.
“You look back on that Final Four team … it wasn’t the most gifted team at all, but they exceeded a ton of expectations. Won 30-something games in a row, it was incredible how they played for each other and defended and rebounded at that consistent level, the highest level … and hung their hat on those things as opposed to some of the other things you’re trying to not hang your hats on,” he said.
Florida tips off Friday night against FGCU in Jacksonville. It is set for 7:30 p.m. and will air live only online via SEC Network +.