Florida Gators basketball 2020-21 season preview: Starters, new faces, changes, predictions

By Jake Winderman
November 25, 2020
Florida Gators basketball 2020-21 season preview: Starters, new faces, changes, predictions

Image Credit: Courtney Culbreath / UAA

The start of the 2020-21 season has been delayed for Florida Gators basketball due to COVID-19 concerns, but tipoff is nevertheless right around the corner. As of now, the Gators are expected to begin their season against the Oklahoma Sooners on Wednesday, Dec. 2.

With a fresh starting lineup, multiple newcomers to the program and a fast-paced offense set to be installed this season, Florida has plenty of things to look forward to after a 19-12 finish to the shortened 2019-20 season. 

Let’s take a look at what to expect from the Gators as we wait for the program to be cleared to continue practice and preparations for the start of their season.

Projected starting five

PG: Tre Mann, sophomore
SG: Noah Locke, junior
SF: Scottie Lewis, sophomore
PF: Keyontae Johnson, junior
C: Omar Payne, sophomore

Judging from Mike White’s previous starting lineups during his tenure, the Florida head coach prefers to have experience at tip off, with incoming transfers, players who have redshirted, and freshmen coming off the bench. In the lineup above, the Gators will have 139 combined starts over the past two seasons in Locke (55), Johnson (51), Lewis (22) Payne (7) and Mann (4).

The toughest decision for White will be whether to start Mann or junior Tyree Appleby at point guard. Mann has a higher ceiling as a 6-foot-5, 190-pound combo guard with extended range from beyond the arc and McDonald’s High School All-American credentials. On the flip side, Appleby has more experience at the Division I level, playing 63 games over two seasons at Cleveland State while averaging 14.3 points, 4.7 assists and 1.4 steals on 36.5% shooting from beyond the arc. He earned All-Horizon second team honors during his final season in the conference.

Both players were with the Gators last season, but Appleby was only allowed to practice due to NCAA bylaws restricting non-graduate transfers without a waiver for playing immediately at the school they transfer into. 

Locke, Lewis and Johnson have definitively earned the right to start for Florida. Payne should get the nod over sophomore Jason Jitoboh at center simply due to experience. Payne has played nine more games and averaged nearly 9 more minutes per appearance. At the end of the day, who UF starts at center will be largely matchup-reliant. Against faster teams who play with pace, the more athletic Payne will probably get the start. Against slower, more plodding offenses, Jitoboh might get the chance as a bigger, more physical center.

Projected second five

PG: Tyree Appleby, junior
SG: Ques Glover, sophomore
SF: Samson Ruzhentsev, freshman
PF: Anthony Duruji, junior
C: Jason Jitoboh, sophomore / Colin Castleton, junior

If the Gators were to completely replace their starting unit with a new five coming on the floor, this lineup offers potential. Appleby gives the second unit a mature point guard who can create his own space and put others in position to succeed. He’s the equivalent of having a second starter off the bench. In Glover, you have a combo guard who can play point but will probably be more successful as a shooting guard due to his turnover issues at the 1 last season. 

Ruzhentsev, a freshman from Hamilton Heights (the same school as Jitoboh), gives Florida length at the wing with a 6-foot-7, 192-pound frame. He is a talented shooter and can attack closeouts well once teams start to step out further on his shot. Duruji, a transfer from Louisiana Tech, sat out last season due to NCAA transfer rules. His athleticism (46.5-inch vertical!) and size (6-foot-7, 220 pounds) will allow him to play as both a power forward and small-ball center this season. Duruji’s ability to shoot better than 35% from three during his time at Louisiana Tech is another plus. 

At center, the Gators will have the option to go with either Jitoboh or Payne, depending who starts the game, or Castleton, a junior transfer from Michigan who was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA this offseason. Castleton only played 7.9 minutes per game during his sophomore season but was a four-star prospect out of high school in Daytona Beach, Florida. He has soft touch around the rim and gives UF another big body inside.

Prepare for a fast-paced offense

Florida charted its two slowest offenses of White’s tenure, in terms of average offensive possession length, during the last two seasons. Why? A lack of shooting during the 2018-19 campaign and playing through Andrew Nembhard and Kerry Blackshear Jr., two players who like to slow down the pace of the offense, during the 2019-20 season. The Gators offense ultimately grinded away the shot clock over the past two seasons to their own detriment. 

With Nembhard transferring to Gonzaga and Blackshear Jr. graduating, Florida is set to play with similar pace to its 2016-17 campaign, when it reached the Elite Eight. That season, UF ranked 65th in the country in average offensive possession length and 25th in the NCAA in adjusted offensive efficiency, per KenPom. Mann, Appleby and Glover have shown the propensity to get out into space with the rock and make plays in transition.

“Out of necessity and out of desire, we’re going to extend pressure, and we’re going to play faster [this season],” White said. “Our increase in tempo will be amongst the national leaders, in my opinion. … Heading into Game 1, I anticipate a significant increase in level of tempo, but that’s easier said than done.”

With athletic wings like Lewis and Johnson playing alongside speedy guards like Mann, Appleby and Glover, working faster offensively fits the 2020-21 squad significantly better than it did the 2019-20 team. If Locke can improve his transition three-point percentage (30%) to around what he shot in halfcourt sets coming off of a screen (44%), the Gators will be playing plenty of transition basketball with their starting five and the backup units to follow. 

“New” faces

Florida will have four brand new faces in freshmen Ruzhentsev and G Niels Lane, junior college transfer F/C Osayi Osifo and Castleton. Duruji and Appleby were able to practice with the 2019-20 squad but were ineligible to play in games due to NCAA transfer rules. 

Of the freshmen, Ruzhentsev — a 6-foot-7, 192-pound forward out by way of Moscow, Russia — is the likeliest to see the most playing time this season. He averaged 19.3 points and 6.3 rebounds on 41% shooting from beyond the arc as a senior at Hamilton Heights and represented the Russian national team at the FIBA U18 Euro Championships. His scoring ability at all three levels and length on defense will give the Gators another three-and-D type player who can play power forward in small-ball lineups. 

Lane missed a large portion of his senior season at Roselle Catholic High School in New Jersey after contracting mononucleosis, but he was excellent as a guard when he was finally able to play. Lane is already regarded as one of the better defenders on this Florida team, and at 6-foot-5 and 206 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he can defend anything from a point guard to a power forward on the defensive end. Lane was a 1,000-point scorer in high school and has vastly improved his three-point shooting during the 2020-21 offseason. 

Osifo is the lone junior college transfer, coming to Gainesville by way of Eastern Florida State College. He posted averages of 10.6 points and 7.5 rebounds on 54% shooting during his final season at EFSC and led the team to a 22-11 record. He is one of the most raw prospects on the roster but has an extremely high motor and a work ethic that has been compared to Justin Leon by White, high praise coming from the coach. Osifo can play both power forward and center for Florida at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds, and he will be a defensive stopper more than anything during his first season.

Duruji and Appleby both sat out the 2019-20 season after transferring, respectively, from Louisiana Tech and Cleveland State following the 2018-19 college basketball season. Appleby will compete for the starting point guard job this year and has quite the resume out of Cleveland State. Appleby averaged 17.2 points, 5.6 assists, 3.7 boards and 1.4 steals while shooting 42% from the field and 38% from three during his final season. Despite playing on a team that finished second-to-last in the Horizon League with a 10-21 overall record, he still found a way to be effective, landing a spot on the All-Horizon League second team while finishing first in the conference in assists per game, fifth in three-point percentage and sixth in points per game. Appleby reminds of a taller Erving Walker.

Duruji also has impressive credentials after two seasons at Louisiana Tech. Before even mentioning his stats or accolades, his size and athleticism speak wonders. Duruji at 6-foot-7, 220 pounds has an impressive vertical and a nearly 7-foot-1 wingspan. His combination of length and athleticism will be of great help to this year’s Florida team in the sense that he can be the ultimate utility player at small forward, power forward or center. He can truly defend anything from 2-5. Offensively, his ability to shoot better than 35% from beyond the arc during his two seasons at Louisiana Tech allows him to play on the wing or in the interior. There’s a lot to like about Duruji, who could be the Gators’ standout sixth man.

The final newcomer is Castleton, a junior who grew up a Gator fan in Daytona Beach. At 6-foot-11, 231 pounds, he is the sole new face who will probably be limited to playing just one position. The Michigan transfer saw limited action, playing 44 games over two seasons and averaging just 6 minutes. Despite this, Castleton charted a 6.1 block percentage last season with the Wolverines, tied for first on the team, and recorded three games of double-digit scoring. A long center is a welcome addition at any Division I program, and White plans to use Castleton as rim-deterrence on defense and an inside presence with soft hands on the offensive end. 

2020-21 season expectations

Florida was picked to finish fourth in the SEC by the media in their preseason poll. Johnson and Lewis have also picked up some preseason honors. Between Florida’s high-end returning talent and the Gators’ impressive newcomers, there is absolutely no case where this team shouldn’t make the 2021 NCAA Tournament, barring a COVID-19 situation or multiple injuries to key players.

The Gators’ floor this season should be the Round of 32 with a potential Final Four ceiling if Mann, Lewis and Johnson all prove they’re capable of excelling at the next level and worthy of selections in the 2021 NBA Draft. If forced to make a projection, Florida will ends it season in the Sweet 16.

10 bold predictions

  1. Johnson will average a double-double, finish as a First-Team All-American and be selected in the top 15 of the 2021 NBA Draft.
  2. Locke will shoot over 45% from three-point range.
  3. Lewis will average over 1.5 steals and blocks per game.
  4. Lane will make the SEC All-Defensive team.
  5. Florida will sweep Kentucky in the regular season.
  6. Payne will record at least eight games of 3+ blocks.
  7. Duruji will make the All-SEC second team and start at least half the games.
  8. Mann will average 12+ points this season on 35% or better from three.
  9. The Gators will win the SEC Tournament.
  10. Preferred walk-on Alex Klatsky will make at least five triples.

Preseason rankings

T-Rank: 7th
KenPom: 24th
Sagarin: 25th
AP Top 25: T27
Coaches Poll: 27th

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