Key Returners: KeVaughn Allen, Chris Chiozza, Kevarrius Hayes, John Egbunu
Key Losses: Kasey Hill, Canyon Barry, Devin Robinson, Justin Leon
Key Newcomers: Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov, D’Aundrae Ballard, Isaiah Stokes, Chase Johnson, Mike Okauru
Outlook: *whispers* I think Florida is better than Kentucky this year. Jim, you are insane! No one in the SEC has been better than Kentucky since 2014, when a certain squad from Gainesville ripped through the league at 18-0 en route to the NCAA Tournament’s #1 overall seed. Though our consensus rankings have the Gators trailing UK by a hair, I am forecasting another rise to the SEC's pinnacle from the Swamp, as Florida returns some strong talent to pair with a fresh group of newcomers – both via the recruiting trail and the transfer wire.
Perhaps the biggest difference this season will be the absence of four-year contributor Kasey Hill at point guard. Hill had an up-and-down four years after coming in as an elite recruit, and though he never became the star many thought, he was an outstanding defender and excelled at pushing the pace in Mike White’s transition-heavy offense. That role will now fall to Chris Chiozza, whom many (including myself) believe to be a superior player overall – especially after he tore out Wisconsin players’ and fans’ guts and left them strewn about the Madison Square Garden court last season. Ugh…linking to that made me curl up in the fetal position, but it should also prove I’m not biased. Despite this perception, though, Florida was clearly better with Hill running the show last season:
This was especially baffling to me because Chiozza was significantly more efficient than Hill individually – he shot better percentages from everywhere on the floor, plus he had a higher assist rate and lower turnover rate. The 20-point gap in O-rating is gigantic (100 is average):
My main conclusion is that Hill had a tendency to push the tempo more, and while that may not directly lead to more assists, it got players like KeVaughn Allen and Kevarrius Hayes into a game flow in which they were (and are) far more comfortable. Florida put up 1.17 points per possession in transition last season, per Synergy, placing them in the 95th percentile in the country – Chiozza (and true frosh understudy Mike Okauru) will need to lay on the gas pedal all season long.
Once in the halfcourt, the Gators’ offense leans heavily on the pick-and-roll (much like their in-state rivals, Miami). Florida ranked 20th overall in the country in PnR frequency, per Synergy, and with Allen, Chiozza, Okauru, Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson, and freshman D’Aundrae Ballard all offering a modicum of playmaking, expect that offensive trend to continue. In particular, Allen is a devastating driver with the trap muscles of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson; he can score from all three levels and will threaten for SEC Player of the Year. Florida’s offense differs from Miami, though, in that they initiate a lot of the action from the wing (vs. the top of the key) – see Chiozza executing that here:
Also seen here, one of Florida’s primary weapons in this scheme is having the screener pop or slip to the corner for an open three – Devin Robinson and Justin Leon were deadly at it last year, but both are gone. The clip above shows Keith Stone, a promising redshirt sophomore whose role will surely expand this year. Stone likely won’t start, though, due to the presence of Egor Koulechov, a grad transfer from Rice. Koulechov, aka the “Mad Russian” as @jordcubsdan affectionately calls him, is a sniper – he’s coming off a year in which he shot 76/166 (46%) from deep, playing in a similarly fast-paced offense with a bevy of skilled guards to feed him open shots.
Despite all of this potency, the true power in Gainesville lies on the defensive side of the court. Florida finished fifth in KenPom’s adjusted defense rankings last year, led by intense ball pressure from the guards and strong rim protection behind them from Hayes and John Egbunu. White is a devout man-to-man disciple, and he has the luxury of being able to send two true ballhawks, Chiozza and Allen, to dog opposing ballhandlers for 94 feet.
That extended pressure is not necessarily meant to speed up opponents, though. Florida had some of the longer average defensive possessions in the country last year, meaning they play extremely disciplined D once settled into the halfcourt, forcing bad shots and turnovers if teams aren’t patient or precise with their offense.
The one fatal defensive flaw is the Gators' defensive rebounding. Even with Egbunu on the court (by far the team's best defensive rebounder), opponents found success on the offensive glass, and once he went down with a torn ACL in mid-February, that weakness was amplified. The gigantic big man likely won’t return until January or February this year, so the rest of the roster will need to make up for his absence. Enter redshirt sophomore Gorjok Gak. After playing limited minutes most of the season, Gak made some positive contributions in the NCAA Tournament, and getting some interior production from the 6'11 Australian would be massive this year. True freshman Isaiah Stokes, a manchild at 6’8, 270 pounds, is coming off a knee injury of his own in January. If healthy, Stokes will own the space around him, but he may struggle with the speed of the game after missing so much time.
Bottom Line: Florida’s blend of talent, both new and old, along with a rising star roaming the sidelines should give Swamp Nation plenty of reasons for excitement. As an added bonus, the Gators even get to play some home games in the non-conference schedule! With the ODome under construction last year, UF was a nomad, playing non-conf games in Jacksonville, Lakeland, Tampa, Sunrise, and even a smaller Gainesville arena. This year will be different – will the SEC champion finally see a change, as well?