2014-15 Florida basketball primer: Can the Gators keep it going with a rebuilt starting five?

Despite losing four senior starters to graduation, Florida Gators basketball will enter the 2014-15 season as the consensus No. 7 team in the nation, coming off its return to the Final Four for the first time since 2006-07.

Florida finished the 2013-14 campaign with a program-best 36-3 record, winning a program-record 30-straight games at one point and dropping its three contests to a pair of opponents including twice to eventual national champion UConn. UF beat Kentucky thrice (including in the finals of the 2014 SEC Tournament), became the first SEC team to finish 18-0 in league play (21-0 including the SEC Tournament), and went undefeated (17-0) in the friendly confines of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

The Gators also captured their second-straight SEC regular-season crown and swept both SEC championship titles for just the second time in program history (2007).

Though none of Florida’s four seniors were selected in the 2014 NBA Draft, three were given tryouts with NBA teams and center Patric Young caught on with the New Orleans Pelicans as an undrafted free agent.

Head coach Billy Donovan, entering his 19th year with the program coming off his third SEC Coach of the Year award in four seasons, will look to lead UF to at least the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament for the fifth-straight season. He brings two new transfers and one of the nation’s best recruiting classes into the fold, though not all of the players will be available this season.

Here’s what Donovan (451-169, 195-100 SEC) has to work with as the Gators prepare for their exhibition game on Thursday evening in Gainesville, Florida.

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2015 F Keith Stone commits to Florida Gators

The Florida Gators added another big name to their already-impressive 2015 recruiting class on Monday night when three-star forward Keith Stone (Deerfield Beach, FL) verbally committed to play college basketball in Gainesville.

Ranked No. 127 overall by Rivals, Stone (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) took his first official visit to Florida over the weekend.

A long-time Gators lean, seeing the program in person and getting the go-ahead from the staff was all it took for him to commit to head coach Billy Donovan. Stone announced his commitment Monday via his Twitter account.

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Florida F/C Chris Walker suspended three games; G Brandone Francis will not play in 2014-15

Florida Gators sophomore forward Chris Walker will miss the first three games of the season, including two regular-season contests, while serving a suspension for violation of team rules, head coach Billy Donovan announced on Wednesday.

Donovan also noted that four-star freshman guard Brandone Francis, who OnlyGators.com first reported was cleared academically to enroll at Florida, will sit out the 2014-15 season while he works to improve his grades in order to get approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse.

Walker, who missed the first half of his freshman campaign while working to become academically eligible to compete, is projected to start in the frontcourt for the Gators once he is able to play in his first game. He decided to return for his sophomore campaign rather than try his hand at the NBA Draft a year ago.

“He has worked very, very hard in the weight room. I think the biggest thing, his biggest challenge this year, in my opinion, is going to be his ability to manage expectations,” Donovan said.

“The one thing I admired about him a year ago is here comes a highly-profiled kid coming into our season in the middle of January. … He was an unbelievable teammate last year in terms of understanding the fact that he had missed so much of the summer, non-conference [games], and when he came here, he never once complained about playing time. He wanted to do whatever he could to help. …

“You hear all these expectations and people look at the fact that he has gotten physical stronger and everything else, [yet] he has such a long way to go in terms of being reliable, accountable and disciplined. Those would be the three things that I would say I don’t have a real good grasp on right now, but we’re going to find out.

“Him being reliable on the court to be able to do his job, him being responsible as it relates to his work ethic each and every day and understanding his role. Those are going to be some things where I think he’s going to have to battle some of those expectations because certainly he’s been built and hyped up. …

“I don’t know what kind of impact he’s going to make. I think that he’s going to have to be able to be able to handle that where maybe he’s got his own personal expectation of where he thinks he should be and if he’s not at that level, how is he going to handle that? I think that’s one of the most difficult things to deal with as a coach, when you have players with individual expectations that don’t’ get met with how they’re performing. He’s got to have a realistic expectation. He’s got a long way to go.”

Francis was expected to serve a reserve role at guard.

Florida opens up the 2014-15 campaign at home against William & Mary on Friday, Nov. 14. UF then hosts Miami on Monday, Nov. 17 and Louisiana-Monroe on Friday, Nov. 21.

Walker will be eligible to return for the Louisiana-Monroe contest as he will serve one part of his three-game suspension during UF’s exhibition game against Barry University on Thursday, Nov. 6.

He averaged 1.9 points, 1.3 boards and 0.4 blocks in just 4.8 minutes per game during his freshman season but should see a huge uptick in minutes and opportunity during his sophomore campaign.

“I think, offensively right now, he’s got a long way to go. I don’t necessarily know if he has an offensive go-to game, so to speak,” Donovan said. “He’s a terrific athlete. He’s got a really good motor. He tries to go rebound and chase balls on the glass. He’s a good shot blocker. I think he’s very quick off the dribble, he actually can dive the ball some from the perimeter. But he’s not a great jump shooter, he’s not a great back-to-the-basket player; he’s not a guy you can just throw the ball to and he can go get you a bucket. But I do think there’s a lot of value he can bring into our team.”

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The Silver Lining for Wednesday, August 20

Couple thousand student season tickets remain unsold

Attendance at sporting events is a growing problem across the nation, and the Florida Gators have been attempting to do whatever they can to try and address the issue in order to reach full capacity at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium each week.

Florida has wired the stadium to drastically improve cellular phone reception (though high-speed wireless internet, at a cost of about $3 million, has not yet been implemented throughout the stadium), begun offering more affordable tickets to recent graduates, opened spring and fall practices to all comers and even formed a council of boosters and students to ensure the program is doing everything it can to get its tickets sold.

UF also worked with the Southeastern Conference and its television partners to ensure that its early-season games were played in the late afternoon or evening, rather than the grueling early-afternoon heat.

Unfortunately for the Gators, the problem has only continued to grow. What was once limited to declining season ticket sales from boosters, those unwilling to spend thousands of dollars to get a couple of seats in The Swamp on Sunday, has now jumped across the field to the student section.

A Florida spokesman told OnlyGators.com last week that the school had “a couple thousand” student season tickets unsold with just two weeks to go before the start of the season. Pressed for a more specific number with 10 days left, the spokesman divulged this week that there are approximately 2,000 student season tickets available (as of press time) with that number shrinking minimally each day.

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PF Noah Dickerson commits to Florida, Donovan

Updated at 5:30 p.m.

Going back to the Montverde Academy pipeline for the third time in the last four recruiting cycles, Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan landed a big verbal commitment on Sunday when four-star power forward Noah Dickerson (Montverde, FL) announced his intention to join the program next season.

At 6-foot-8 and 245 pounds, Dickerson is rated as the No. 56 overall player in the Class of 2015 by Rivals. A one-time Georgetown commitment, he changed his mind in June and reopened his recruitment, listening to pitches from a number of schools including Florida.

In the end, Dickerson decided to play for Donovan and the Gators.

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FOUR BITS: NBA Draft, Haslem, Parsons, Noah

1 » ESPN.com’s Chad Ford took an early look at the prospects potentially available in the 2015 NBA Draft and had a number of Florida Gators on his top-100 list. Leading the way at No. 13 overall is forward/center Chris Walker, who is projected to be a lottery selection. He is followed by sophomore point guard Kasey Hill (No. 29), junior guard Michael Frazier II (No. 65) and redshirt junior F Dorian Finney-Smith (No. 67). Walker has already decided to turn pro after the 2014-15 season, though Hill will need to take a major step forward if he hopes to leave after his second campaign. Frazier and Finney-Smith will likely remain at Florida for their senior seasons.

2 » Power forward Udonis Haslem chose not to exercise his player option of $4.6 million with the Miami Heat, the second time in his career that he has left money on the table to help the club have increased flexibility in free agency. The last time Haslem made a similar maneuver, he gave up $10 million in salary to re-sign with Miami instead of take a free agent contract with the Dallas Mavericks. Halsem, now 34, is near the end of his NBA career. He averaged a career-low 14.2 minutes per game during the regular season and played less than 11 minutes on average in the 2013-14 postseason. Rather than take the chunk salary of $4.6 million he is due as an option, he is expected to sign a multi-year deal for a larger amount (but lower annual salary) that will be paid out over three or four seasons. Chances are Haslem will retire before seeing the end of his contract and be given a role in the Heat organization while still being paid by the franchise. He will be entering his 12th season in 2014-15.

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FOUR BITS: MLB Draft, revenue, Walker, Spikes

1 » The 2014 MLB Draft begins Thursday night and unlike years past, members of the Florida Gators baseball team will not have their attention diverted from postseason competition due to the program being eliminated in the Gainesville Regional portion of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Also unlike previous years, Florida does not have anyone projected to go in the early rounds of the draft, though that does not mean that draft-eligible Gators will not leave the program early (there were no seniors on the roster).

Junior catcher Taylor Gushue should be the first Florida player off the board at some point during the second day of the draft on Friday (Rounds 3-10). Juniors right-handed pitcher Ryan Harris, first baseman Zack Powers (previously drafted), left-handed pitcher Bobby Poyner, outfielder/RHP Justin Shafer, third baseman Josh Tobias (previously drafted) and second baseman Casey Turgeon (previously drafted) could all be selected. Redshirt junior RHP Karsten Whitson, the No. 9 overall pick in the 2010 MLB Draft, is expected to be picked and choose to a professional after dealing with injuries throughout his Gators career. Florida will also have a number of players from its 14-member 2015 recruiting class drafted.

2 » USA Today on Thursday released its college athletic department financial database, and Florida checked in sixth nationally in total revenue by bringing in more than $130 million last year. Weighed against its $107 million in expenses, UF netted over $23 million (second to Alabama’s $27 million) in 2013. Florida brought in $1 million more in ticket sales ($24.6 million) and $2 million more in contributions ($48.4 million) compared to 2012, figures that increased for the third-straight year (2011-13) after dipping in consecutive years (2009-10). The Gators also spent $1 million more on coaching and staff ($41.9 million) compared to 2012 but were nearly $2 million below its nine-year maximum of $43.7 million in 2011.

Continue Reading » FOUR BITS: MLB Draft, revenue, Walker, Spikes

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Florida Gators add transfer C John Egbunu

The Florida Gators on Thursday landed their third transfer in the last six months, adding South Florida Bulls center John Egbunu to a stacked roster.

Egbunu’s decision was first reported by CBSSports.com‘s Jeff Borzello.

A four-star prospect and the No. 83 overall player in the Class of 2013, Egbunu (6-foot-10, 245 pounds), joins the Gators this summer but will be unable to play at Florida until the 2015-16 season when he will be listed as a redshirt sophomore after sitting out the 2014-15 campaign due to NCAA transfer rules.

He will have three years of collegiate eligibility remaining when he suits up for UF.

Egbunu made 31 starts in 32 games for the Bulls, setting a school record for rebounds by a freshman (198) while averaging 7.4 points, 6.2 boards and 1.3 blocks per contest.

He is one of five South Florida players that transferred after the school fired head coach Stan Health, choosing Florida over Michigan State, Georgetown and Virginia Tech.

Egbunu, a native of Bauchi, Nigeria, had his eligibility reviewed by the NCAA during the 2013-14 season but did not miss any games.

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