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Florida doesn’t have huge upside, but the Gators are a safe pick

Of course, there’s a pretty significant gap between second place and first place in this league...

NCAA Basketball: SEC Tournament-Florida vs Texas A&M Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

How Did We Get Here?

In a lot of ways, Billy Donovan picked an ideal time to exit. Following a legend is never easy, but at the very least, Mike White was following a legend coming off his first losing season in nearly two decades (2014-15) as opposed to, say, a legend coming off a Final Four season (2013-14).

Had it been the latter case, and assuming White wouldn’t have gotten any more out of the 2014-15 team than Donovan did, White would have taken a preseason top 10 team and finished with a losing record. But with that being Donovan’s last year, White got a little bit more slack from the fan base than he would have had he taken over after a vintage Donovan year. Florida finished White’s first season 21-15, 9-9 in the SEC, and the season ended with a loss to George Washington in the quarterfinals of the NIT. But seeing how that represented an improvement over the previous year, White still has the fan base.

It was hard to find much fault with White’s coaching in his first year in Gainesville, particularly since Florida’s biggest flaw — shooting — was the same thing that Florida couldn’t do in 2015. And that’s much more of a personnel issue than a coaching issue. But Florida improved drastically in the other three “Four Factors” — the Gators were a decent rebounding team and pretty good at ball-handling, and much better at getting to the foul line. Of course, going back to that shooting thing, Florida also ranked 330th nationally in free throw shooting.

In short, White did what he could with the talent on hand, but that talent wasn’t quite good enough to get to the NCAA Tournament. Florida scheduled well in non-conference play and looked to be on the right side of the bubble until a four-game losing streak in late February did them in.

When we do preseason projections, there’s a balance between star power and the depth chart that we often get wrong. Florida returns 78 percent of its minutes from 2015-16 and 77 percent of its scoring. Both of those numbers are the highest in the SEC, and that’s off a team that was already pretty good. Seven of Florida’s top eight players return from last season, but the one who doesn’t is Dorian Finney-Smith. Finney-Smith led Florida in scoring and rebounding, was second on the team in blocks, and third in assists; he will obviously be missed. But practically everyone else of consequence returns this year.

What’s more, Florida added a graduate transfer who addresses the team’s biggest weak spot (shooting), and they also have a former four-star recruit coming off a redshirt year. Looking at all the available evidence, it’s not a question of whether Florida will be better this year, but how much.

Now, if there’s one remaining loose end to be tied up with White, it’s recruiting. White’s first full recruiting class as Florida’s head coach was ranked 60th nationally and 11th in the SEC. Certainly, at least some of that reflects the fact that there wasn’t going to be a lot of immediate playing time available for freshmen this year, but Donovan was an ace recruiter and so far, it doesn’t look like White will be recruiting at that level.

But at least in the near term, that probably doesn’t make a huge difference. Florida ranked second in a poll of seven TSK contributors, with nobody ranking them lower than fourth. It’s much harder to make the case for this team not making the tournament than it is for them making the tournament. Florida isn’t a preseason top 25 team, but there are a lot of reasons to think they’ll wind up there when all is said and done.

Backcourt

# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG SPG WS Notes
Brandone Francis 10.8 2.0 1.0 0.5 0.3 0.3 -0.2 Transfer (Texas Tech)
DeVon Walker 10.6 1.6 1.7 0.2 0.4 0.2 0.1 Grad transfer (Troy)
5 KeVaughn Allen 6'2" 183 SO. 0.9751 27.2 11.6 2.7 1.6 1.0 1.1 3.6
0 Kasey Hill 6'1" 175 SR. 0.9966 23.9 9.1 2.4 3.3 2.0 1.5 1.8
11 Chris Chiozza 6'0" 176 JR. 0.9823 23.8 7.2 2.9 4.3 1.8 1.1 2.3
2 Eric Hester 6'3" 167 FR. 0.9234
24 Canyon Barry 6'6" 215 SR. NR 31.9 19.7 3.4 1.3 2.4 0.8 1.5 Grad transfer (Charleston)
3 Jalen Hudson 6'6" 190 JR. 0.8711 Transfer (Virginia Tech); sitting out 2016-17

Florida has a pair of skilled ball-handlers in senior Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza, which played a large role in the Gators ranking 42nd in the country in turnover percentage -- but having two guards on the floor who aren’t particularly good shooters probably played a role in Florida’s shooting woes as well.

Hill, a former five-star recruit, certainly has good parts to his game — he ranked third in the SEC in steals last year, and he ranked fifth in the league in assists two years ago — but his shot has simply never come along. Last year Hill shot 38.9 percent from the floor, 29.7 percent from three-point range, and 53.8 percent from the foul line. Those aren’t good numbers, and combined with Hill ranking third on the team in field goal attempts and free throw attempts -- does the good really outweigh the bad here? That might explain why Hill ceded more playing time to Chiozza last year, though they were frequently on the floor together. Chiozza isn’t a particularly good shooter, either (he shot 25 percent from three-point range in SEC play last year), but at the very least Chiozza can make his free throws (79.7 percent) and otherwise brings most of the same things to the table that Hill does.

Whichever one claims the starting job, though, Hill and Chiozza will probably spend a lot less time on the floor together this year. KeVaughn Allen, a 6’2” sophomore from Little Rock, got off to a slow start in his freshman season but came on well enough in conference play to be named to the All-SEC Freshman Team. Allen scored in double figures in 13 of 18 conference games and averaged 12.3 ppg; he also shot 32.6 percent from three-point range in SEC play, but his 84.6 percent foul shooting on the season suggests he’s capable of better than that. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Allen emerges as one of the SEC’s top shooters and scorers this season.

Florida also shored up its shooting woes by adding Canyon Barry. The 6’5” senior and the youngest son of Hall of Famer Rick Barry comes as a transfer from College of Charleston. Barry’s 2015-16 season ended early due to injury, but in 12 games he averaged 19.7 ppg — albeit on 16.1 field goal attempts per game. But Barry won’t be asked to shoot that much at Florida; on a team with more offensive options, Barry can function as a third scoring option and occasional shooter from deep, which is a role that he can be effective in. Expect him to do better than his career 34.4 percent shooting from deep when defenses aren’t keying on him.

The Gators also added a well-regarded freshman in 6’3” Eric Hester. Hester has good length for a guard and is athletic, which could make him a valuable defender, though it remains to be seen whether he’ll shoot well enough to help the Gators this year. But with basically the entire backcourt returning from last season, White can bring him along slowly and not push him for immediate contributions if he’s not ready. Jalen Hudson, a transfer from Virginia Tech, is sitting out this season and will be available in 2017-18.

Frontcourt

# Player Height Weight Year 247 Rating MPG PPG RPG APG TPG BPG WS Notes
Dorian Finney-Smith 31.8 14.7 8.3 2.1 1.9 0.8 5.3
Alex Murphy 7.7 3.3 1.3 0.0 0.3 0.3 0.0
15 John Egbunu 6'11" 255 JR. 0.9740 25.2 11.5 6.5 0.4 1.8 1.4 3.2
1 Devin Robinson 6'8" 200 JR. 0.9921 23.1 9.0 5.6 0.5 0.8 0.6 3.3
23 Justin Leon 6'8" 206 SR. 0.9100 14.9 5.3 3.1 0.3 0.6 0.1 1.7
13 Kevarrius Hayes 6'9" 218 SO. 0.9319 11.5 2.8 2.6 0.2 0.5 0.6 1.4
22 Dontay Bassett 6'9" 222 FR. 0.8441
25 Keith Stone 6'8" 240 FR. 0.9609 Redshirted 2015-16
12 Gorjok Gak 6'11" 231 FR. 0.8742 Ineligible for 2016-17

Florida caught a big break when Devin Robinson withdrew his name from the NBA Draft. The 6’8” junior from Chesterfield, Virginia, has potential as a do-it-all wing, but in his first year and a half or so at Florida he was mostly just potential. But Robinson hit his stride during SEC play last year, shooting 47.8 percent on threes. Robinson’s length and athleticism creates problems for opposing offenses and now, with Dorian Finney-Smith gone, Robinson could emerge as Florida’s primary scorer. Robinson was very efficient in a relatively limited role last year and it remains to be seen if he’ll continue to be so as a go-to guy, but he certainly has the talent to do it.

The Gators also have a good scorer and rebounder in the paint in John Egbunu. The 6’11” junior from Nigeria averaged 11.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg while shooting 59.1 percent from the floor, albeit mostly on shots close to the basket, and showed himself capable of having some big nights — like scoring 27 on 12-of-15 shooting in a loss to Kentucky late in the season. More frequently, though, Egbunu delivered a consistent 10-15 points per game. The big question this year is whether Egbunu can avoid foul trouble: He fouled out of six games last year and only managed to hit the 30-minute plateau nine times in 34 games.

Granted, it’s not a huge problem if Egbunu can’t stay on the floor because in Kevarrius Hayes, Florida has a capable backup in the paint. As a freshman, Hayes was pretty foul-prone himself but did manage to block 20 shots while playing just 11 minutes per game; he also shot 70 percent on the floor and flashed potential as a scorer and rebounder. When Egbunu missed a pair of games in the NIT, Hayes scored 28 points and shot 11-of-12 from the floor (and 6-of-6 from the foul line) in relief. Hayes gives Florida another big man to rotate in the game.

On the wing, Florida returns Justin Leon, a 6’8” senior who shot 40.5 percent from three-point range in SEC play -- though he shot just 46 percent at the foul line on the season. Leon’s limitations likely mean that he’s better off as a sixth man off the bench, particularly now that Keith Stone is available after a redshirt year. Mike White resisted the urge to play Stone -- granted, he probably wouldn’t have seen too many minutes behind Finney-Smith and Robinson — but he could give Florida another dynamic option on the wing.

Mike White signed a couple of big men on the recruiting trail, though one — Gorjok Gak — didn’t make it through the NCAA clearing house and will sit out this season. Dontay Bassett will probably need an additional year to develop but does give Florida an emergency big man off the bench if both Egbunu and Hayes are in foul trouble.

Schedule

Date Opponent Time (ET) TV
11/11 Florida Gulf Coast 7:30 PM SEC Network+
11/13 Mercer 8:00 PM ESPNU
11/17 St. Bonaventure 7:00 PM SEC Network+
11/21 Belmont 7:00 PM SEC Network
11/24 to 27 AdvoCare Invitational (Orlando, FL)
12/1 at North Florida 7:00 PM ESPN3
12/6 vs. Duke (New York) 9:00 PM ESPN
12/11 at Florida State 4:00 PM ESPNU
12/17 Charlotte 4:00 PM FS2
12/21 Little Rock 7:00 PM SEC Network
12/29 at Arkansas 7:00 PM SEC Network
1/3 Ole Miss 7:00 PM ESPNU
1/7 Tennessee 5:15 PM ESPN2
1/10 at Alabama 9:00 PM ESPNU
1/14 Georgia 12:00 PM ESPN or ESPN2
1/18 at South Carolina 6:30 PM SEC Network
1/21 Vanderbilt 12:00 PM CBS
1/25 at LSU 9:00 PM SEC Network
1/28 at Oklahoma 2:00 PM ESPN
2/2 Missouri 7:00 PM ESPN or ESPN2
2/4 Kentucky TBA ESPN or ESPN2
2/7 at Georgia 7:00 PM ESPN2
2/11 Texas A&M 12:00 PM ESPN or ESPN2
2/14 at Auburn 7:00 PM SEC Network
2/18 at Mississippi State 2:00 PM ESPN or ESPN2
2/21 South Carolina 7:00 PM ESPN
2/25 at Kentucky 2:00 PM CBS
3/1 Arkansas 7:00 PM ESPN2
3/4 at Vanderbilt 2:00 PM ESPN or ESPN2

Florida won’t play a true home game until December 21 due to renovations at the O’Connell Center; they will also play just one game outside the state of Florida during that stretch. The Gators will play “home” games in Jacksonville, Lakeland, Tampa, and Sunrise, in addition to road games at North Florida and Florida State and the AdvoCare Invitational in Orlando. Of course, this won’t be an easy nonconference schedule: In addition to the neutral-site game against top-ranked Duke in New York and the road trip to Oklahoma in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, the Gators will play some decent mid-majors (including a potentially salty UNF team on the road) and they’ll play Seton Hall as well as, potentially, Gonzaga, Miami, Stanford, or Iowa State in the AdvoCare Invitational.

Florida’s SEC schedule won’t be easy, either; of the projected top six teams in the league, Florida will face four of them (Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Arkansas) twice each. Overall, this schedule shouldn’t be a problem if the Gators are looking at an NCAA Tournament bid.

Outlook

This isn’t exactly a vintage Billy Donovan team in that the upside probably won’t be incredibly high, but the floor for this team is probably pretty high as well. The Gators should be solid at all five positions, and Devin Robinson could take another step forward this year. There’s also plenty of depth — while there are 11 scholarship players, the backups are good enough that there’s no single player that Florida absolutely cannot afford to lose. If KeVaughn Allen gets hurt, Canyon Barry is a solid option. Kevarrius Hayes should be a fine option if Egbunu goes down. There’s no position where I’m scratching my head about what happens if a starter goes down. Of course there will be a dropoff, because there’s always a dropoff from the starter to the backup — but at the very least, none of the backups look like guys who absolutely should not be playing 20 or more minutes a game.

And that’s why Florida is the easiest pick for second in the conference, because while there might be a bit less upside than a team like Texas A&M, it’s really hard to imagine a scenario where the bottom just falls out on this team. This isn’t to say that there are no question marks, but compared to some other teams — even some teams that will probably contend for a NCAA Tournament bid — the question marks are relatively small. There just aren’t too many obvious holes on this team, even if it’s not too clear just how good the star players are.

In the long term, it’s still too early to tell if Mike White will be able to maintain the program at the heights it enjoyed under Billy Donovan, but the short-term prognosis looks pretty good. Florida should find their way back to the NCAA Tournament this year and could potentially win a game or two there.