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2017-18 SEC Basketball Season Preview: Florida Gators

The Gators lose quite a bit off last year’s Elite Eight team but could still have enough in the tank for another run.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Florida vs East Tennessee State Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Gators 2017-18 Season Preview

Head Coach: Mike White (48-24, 2 years; 149-64 overall, 6 years)

Last year: 27-9 (14-4 SEC); KenPom rating: 5

Returning starters: 2

Returning possession-minutes: 46.9%

Recruiting class ranking: #19 nationally; #5 in SEC


How Did We Get Here?

When Billy Donovan took the Oklahoma City Thunder job after a disappointing 16-17 season, some people openly wondered if Florida had made the right choice in hiring Mike White away from Louisiana Tech. In spite of a 101-40 record and three conference titles in four years in Ruston, White had never made the NCAA Tournament and wasn’t considered a “hot” candidate.

After going 27-9 in his second season and making it to the Elite Eight before losing to South Carolina, those questions are mostly gone.

Now, Florida has to replace three starters, but that the Gators are opening the 2017-18 season in the Top 10 suggests that most people don’t think they’ll drop off very much. First team All-SEC player KeVaughn Allen returns, and for the second year in a row, Florida will welcome a talented graduate transfer on the wing.

There’s still no guarantee that White will keep Florida consistently at the level that it was for most of Donovan’s tenure, but there are a lot fewer questions about that than there were last year. The incoming recruiting class is solid, too, with three four-star recruits who probably won’t be asked to be huge contributors immediately and can be brought along slowly.

Basically, if you told me that Billy Donovan was still running this program, I’d probably believe you. Because this still looks like a Donovan team and a Donovan program.


Backcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
0 Mike Okauru 6'3" Fr. #257 recruit
3 Jalen Hudson 6'6" Jr. 8.4 ppg/2.3 rpg (VaTech)
4 Egor Koulechov 6'5" Sr. 18.2 ppg/8.9 rpg (Rice)
5 KeVaughn Allen 6'2" Jr. 14.0 ppg/2.4 rpg
11 Chris Chiozza 6'0" Sr. 7.2 ppg/3.8 apg
24 Deaundrae Ballard 6'5" Fr. #100 recruit

This is the strength of the team, with two good returnees, a pair of talented transfers, and a couple of freshmen with some promise.

KeVaughn Allen was named to the All-SEC first team as a sophomore, and is one of just two players so honored to return to the league this year (Georgia’s Yante Maten is the other.) After showing promise as a freshman, Allen made the leap to being one of the SEC’s best as a sophomore, shooting 37 percent from three-point range (and 42.2 percent in conference play.) What’s more, Allen was also a solid defender on the perimeter, averaging 1.3 steals per game. He practically carried Florida with a career-high 35 points in a Sweet 16 win over Wisconsin, one of seven occasions last season when he scored 20 or more points.

While starting point guard Kasey Hill is gone, backup Chris Chiozza might have actually been better, and now Chiozza will get the keys to the offense. The 6’0” senior averaged 7.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.3 steals while playing 22.1 minutes per game last year, and in spite of being just 6’0” he managed to post a triple-double with 12 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in a win over Missouri. And even Chiozza’s scoring picked up down the stretch: he scored in double figures just twice in Florida’s first 21 games, but he had nine double-figure games in the last 15.

And if that’s not good enough, Florida has some more experience coming into the program. 6’5” senior Egor Koulechov arrives as a graduate transfer from Rice, where he started all 35 games and averaged 18.2 ppg and 8.9 rpg. In conference play, the senior from Volgograd, Russia, averaged a double-double. And if you’re wondering how his game will translate from Conference USA to the SEC, a 45.8 percent mark from three-point range is a strong indicator. At worst, Koulechov will play Canyon Barry’s role as a shooter off the bench, and there’s plenty of indication he can be even better than that.

Florida also adds Jalen Hudson, a 6’6” junior who sat out last year after transferring from Virginia Tech. Hudson struggled in two years at Virginia Tech, but at Florida he’ll be playing a smaller role than he was asked to play for the Hokies and could provide value on the wing.

Two freshmen will probably be brought along slowly in a loaded backcourt. 6’5” freshman Deaundrae Ballard is the higher-rated of the two, a four-star recruit who can score and has a good jump shot. Mike Onauku, a 6’3” freshman, will probably be Chiozza’s backup at the point.


Frontcourt

# Player Height Year Notes
1 Chase Johnson 6'9" Fr. #84 recruit
2 Isaiah Stokes 6'8" Fr. #122 recruit
12 Gorjok Gak 6'11" So. 1.5 ppg/1.5 rpg
13 Kevarrius Hayes 6'9" Jr. 6.2 ppg/4.4 rpg
15 John Egbunu 6'11" Sr. 7.8 ppg/6.6 rpg
21 Dontay Bassett 6'9" Fr. redshirted 2016-17
25 Keith Stone 6'8" So. 3.6 ppg/2.2 rpg

If the backcourt is one of the SEC’s best, the frontcourt has more question marks, but Florida did catch a break when senior John Egbunu pulled his name out of the NBA Draft. Egbunu was one of the SEC’s best rebounders before tearing his ACL in mid-February.

The bad news is that Egbunu will likely be out until January as he continues his recovery. Until then, returnees Kevarrius Hayes and Gorjok Gak will have to pick up the slack. Hayes held down the fort after Egbunu went out, and before that, he had 20 points in a win over Oklahoma in January. The 6’9” junior posted the SEC’s highest block rate in conference play and averaged 1.7 blocks per game on the season, and also shot 60.6 percent from the floor (mostly close to the basket.)

Gak was raw as a freshman and got little playing time as a result, but by the NCAA Tournament he managed to score 10 points in 17 minutes in Florida’s first weekend games against East Tennessee State and Virginia. If Florida’s official roster is to be believed, he’s added 40 pounds since last season.

6’8” redshirt sophomore Keith Stone had four double-figure games early in the season, including a 17-point performance against Georgia on January 14, but his playing time and performance tailed off after that. But as a former four-star recruit who’s now been in the program for two years, Stone will probably be playing a bigger role this season. 6’9” redshirt freshman Dontay Bassett missed all of last season with a stress fracture.

Two freshmen also join the program here. 6’9” freshman Chase Johnson is the highest-rated player in the incoming recruiting class who can score at the basket and has a developing jump shot, and in an unsettled frontcourt he could play a key role at the four spot. Isaiah Stokes is the younger brother of former Tennessee star Jarnell Stokes, and like his brother he’s a wide body who could be a load inside.


Schedule

Date Opponent
11/13 Gardner-Webb
11/16 North Florida
11/19 New Hampshire
11/23 vs. Stanford
11/24 PK80
11/26 PK80
12/4 Florida State
12/6 Loyola-Chicago
12/9 vs. Cincinnati (Newark, NJ)
12/16 vs. Clemson (Sunrise, FL)
12/20 James Madison
12/22 Incarnate Word
12/30 Vanderbilt
1/2 at Texas A&M
1/6 at Missouri
1/10 Mississippi State
1/13 at Ole Miss
1/17 Arkansas
1/20 at Kentucky
1/24 South Carolina
1/27 Baylor
1/30 at Georgia
2/3 Alabama
2/7 LSU
2/10 at South Carolina
2/14 Georgia
2/17 at Vanderbilt
2/21 at Tennessee
2/24 Auburn
2/27 at Alabama
3/3 Kentucky

Florida won’t play a true road game until January 2, but that’s about the only knock I can come up with about the Gators’ nonconference schedule. They’ll play in the PK80’s Motion bracket, which includes an opening game against Stanford and also includes Gonzaga, Ohio State, Texas, Butler, and Duke. They play a neutral-court game against Cincinnati, which might be in the Top 10, and they face Baylor in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge in late January.

Florida has its usual double-dip against Kentucky in SEC play, and also draws Alabama and Vanderbilt twice. Georgia and South Carolina might not be terrific, but early trips to Texas A&M, Missouri, and Ole Miss should give us a good idea of those three teams.


Outlook

There are questions in the frontcourt, mostly having to do with Egbunu’s injury, but otherwise Florida is loaded. Florida would have one of the SEC’s best backcourts if you stopped at KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza, but adding Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson to that mix makes this group extremely dangerous, and even the freshmen are promising.

That gives Florida a pretty high floor. The Gators’ ceiling will be determined by how much players like Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone have improved from last season, or if they can get contributions from Gorjok Gak, Dontay Bassett, or one of the freshmen inside. While all the focus was on Allen and now-departed Devin Robinson, Florida’s defense is what made them special last year.

A Top 10 preseason ranking is reflective of that ceiling. If the defense tails off from last year, Florida looks more like a team that will play in an 8/9 game in the NCAA Tournament. That wouldn’t be a bad outcome, of course, but it would feel like a disappointment given the expectations.