The BR-56 Florida Gators are a much different basketball team than they were a year ago. They lost many key players including Jon Horford, Eli Carter, and most notably, Michael Frazier, not to mention coach as Billy Donovan, the head coach since 1996 who left for the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder.
To replace Donovan, Athletic Director Jeremy Foley brought in former Louisiana Tech head coach Mike White. He doesn’t have a lot of head coaching experience, but has had some success at his last stop. When White came aboard at Louisiana Tech they hadn’t won a regular season conference championship in 14 years. In his four years with the Bulldogs, they went 101-40 and won three consecutive regular season Conference USA championships.
White will take over a young Gators team this year, one led by redshirt senior Dorian Finney-Smith and junior Kasey Hill. These are the only two players left who made big contributions in the 2013-2014 March Madness run that carried Florida to the Final Four. Finney-Smith led the team in points and rebounds last year.
Along with the two upperclass leaders, sophomores Devon Robinson and Chris Chiozza should get a lot of playing time this year, and will most likely enter the season with starting spots. Robinson is poised for a breakout season. This kid was a five star recruit before coming to Florida, and made the SEC All-Freshman team last season. He has the ability to get to the rim at will and with the weight he has added since last season, he should be able to take his game to another level.
Alex Murphy is back for his last season and will be a key role player this year. Murphy was a mid-season transfer from Duke last year and played well at times. He is a good defender who has the ability to score in spurts. DeVon Walker will compete with Murphy for some time — he started seven games two years ago and has appeared in 60 career games. He redshirted last season after tearing his ACL in the offseason.
Those are the known quantities, but the Gators also bring aboard a new class of freshmen and a transfer player. Even though the team lost four-star recruit Noah Dickerson (reportedly due to the departure of Billy Donovan), Coach White was able to retain incoming freshman KeVaughn Allen, Kevarrius Hayes, and Keith Stone. Allen is a very good scorer and will likely be the second guard off of the bench. Hayes will compete for the backup center job with transfer Schuyler Rimmer, who used to play at Stanford.
They also will have guard, Brandon Francis-Ramirez, who redshirted last season because he was academically ineligible. Francis-Ramirez is a very good shooter who will get a lot of time at the shooting guard spot. He will contribute a lot of points off the bench this season.
The biggest acquisition for the Gators this season may be John Egbunu. The 6-foot-11 transfer from the University of South Florida will start at center. Egbunu is a big man who has the ability to get down the court quickly, and is a ferocious player. He will be a force down low; rebounding and blocking shots on the defensive end, and throwing down easy baskets on the offensive side.
This Gators team will play fast-paced, running the ball and pressing. White is not changing Donovan’s scheme, just simplifying it and adding some new wrinkles of his own. It should not be hard for the team to adjust. the Gators will just have to play smart, fundamental basketball this year, something they struggled with at times last year.
Another aspect that they will need to improve on is their free throw shooting. The Gators 63.5 FT% ranked tied for 334th out of the 351 teams in Division 1 last season. They finished last in the SEC in free throw percentage and free throws made per game, with 10.6. They ranked 324th in Division 1 in free throws made per game.
Michael White’s Louisiana Tech team shot 68.8% from the line and made 14 free throws per game. Louisiana Tech also averaged 20.3 free throws per game, compared to Florida’s 16.8. If White can get Florida to shoot better and make more free throws this year, they can win some close games that they were unable to last season.
The team finished 16-17 last year and failed to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008-2009. It was the first time they failed to make any tournament since Billy Donovan’s first year, in 1996-1997.
Expect all the fresh faces for this team, coaches and players, to play better than last year, but there will be some growing pains at first. The Gators will be a middle of the pack SEC team who will finish between 5th and 8th in the conference, but could make a run in the conference playoff if the team starts to gel and play up to their potential. Their goal will be to return to the NCAA tournament, and if everything goes well, they could do so.