UF freshmen carving out roles prior to opener

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UF's three freshmen Noah Locke (10), Keyontae Johnson (11) and Andrew Nembhard (2). [Brad McClenny/ The Gainesville Sun]

At Mike White’s news conference Sept. 25 to preview preseason camp, the fourth-year UF basketball coach hinted at the possibility of playing as many as 13 players in the 2018-19 season.

White’s glass-half-full mentality concerning Florida’s potential depth hinged on a quick adjustment for the team’s three freshmen, who all arrived in Gainesville with a significant amount of acclaim following impressive high school careers.

But the collegiate game is an entirely different beast, and only time would tell whether the Gators could truly rely on three fresh faces for vital contributions.

While their development remains a work in progress, White said he continues to see gradual progress a month into Florida’s preparation — although any developments to date are essentially meaningless until they translate in a game.

“Freshmen are playing well and continue to play with maturity. We’ll see if that carries over to outside competition,” White said Thursday. “No one is really in the doghouse this early in the year.”

It’s no secret the Gators recruited players who are mature enough to make a instantaneous impact, and that starts with point guard Andrew Nembhard. The freshman from Ontario, Canada, is expected to eventually claim Florida’s starting point guard role — a job currently in contention with just days until UF’s exhibition contest against Florida Southern. Nembhard, who made his name known with Team Canada over the summer, said his first month of practice at Florida was “really competitive” — although he hasn’t been given any indication where the battle stands.

“Everybody’s going at it and trying to get better for the season and looking forward to the games,” Nembhard said. “We’re just competing every day, just trying to let coach decide (a starter) and look to win games in the future.”

For now, Nembhard is one of four duking it out for the role, and the competition has only served to prepare each player for when the role of ball-handling duties inevitably shifts during the course of the game.

“I think it’s really open right now,” Nembhard said. “We’re all just trying to work together to try to win games and not worry about who gets a spot early.”

Although the freshmen are all working to ensure a spot is there for the taking. When it comes to the sharpshooting Noah Locke, it appears likely he’ll carve a role for himself on the back of his range. Locke hasn’t shied away from letting it fly in practice, either — and it seems more than likely the Gators will call his number early, given the increased reliance upon the 3-point shot in today’s game. If anything, Locke feels as if he may need to dial it back a bit when Florida’s season commences.

“We got this NBA 3-point line in the practice gym, and I usually shoot behind that. It’s going to be different playing at the O’Dome and that line there is going to feel a little awkward,” Locke said,” but I usually shoot it farther back.”

Yet if recent history is any indication, Florida’s success this season will be determined by the depth in the frontcourt rather than the production of the backcourt.

Wrought with inexperience in the post aside from senior Kevarrius Hayes, the Gators seem set to count on several players without much experience at the collegiate level. Isaiah Stokes and Chase Johnson missed the 2017-18 season, and both appear poised to contribute early after a year of recovery and development. Then there’s the lone freshman forward, Keyontae Johnson. Like Nembhard, Johnson honed his craft at a preparatory academy, and he’s flashed signs of potential in the early going as a result.

“Prep school helped a lot, because you’re playing against a lot of top talent. My teammate, Keldon (Johnson), he went to Kentucky. It helped me know what to expect from the Kentucky players,” Johnson said. “I feel like it helped me a lot.”

His raw potential at such a young age has made an impression on the coach who recruited him to UF.

“Keyontae, he’s got a lot of God-given ability. Explosive athlete, great length, good basketball IQ, sees the game,” White said. “He’s got to learn how to play and get out of his comfort zone, and play at a higher level of intensity. He understands it and he’s trying to do it. You’ll see it, a possession, and then he’ll get to where he can coast, almost like all freshmen, and then you’ll see it again in another spurt. So he’s just working simply on his motor. Just playing as hard as he can play all the time. And if he can get to that, he will, but who knows how long it will take for freshmen to figure that out. Because it’s a high level, and our schedule’s very, very difficult, so. When he does figure that out, he’s going to be a very good player.”

Johnson points to a common hiccup many freshmen experience when asked about his inconsistent play so far — subpar conditioning at the collegiate level.

“Conditioning is hard for me. It’s just the fact that you have to sprint everything,” Johnson said. “You can’t jog it out.”

For the trio of newcomers, the early stretch of the season will, as White said, do no favors to anyone, instead serving as a trial-by-fire introduction to the next level.

Until each individual has settled into a role and become comfortable, the freshmen intend to lean on each other, with the goal of adjusting as a collective sooner rather than later. When you intend to play all 13 players on scholarship, the mentality is seemingly one of sticking together rather than sticking out.

“We’re always together. We’re all going through the same thing, so we can definitely relate to each other. We just have to push each other to try to stay the course and get to our goals,” Nembhard said. “As freshmen, we’ve been practicing since the beginning of summer B. It’s been a long time coming. We’re ready to compete on a real court and get to it.”


Up next

What: Exhibition basketball game

Who: Florida Southern vs. Florida

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: O’Connell Center

8 COMMENTS

  1. Yes, it is hard to think about the hardwood when the UF-UGA rivalry takes to the gridiron tomorrow. I am surprised the basketball team isn’t in the Top 25. Maybe voters are wanting to see White develop further as a coach before spotting his team votes based on his ability to create a highly competitive team from a group of lesser known and/or experience, like it seemed to happen with Donovan. I’m sure this team will be exciting to watch, no matter their ranking. Yes, go Gators!

  2. I’m very excited about this team and don’t understand why we are not ranked but who cares – winning will take care of that. We will miss Chiozza but our front court will be much better, more depth, and defense should be better too. Overall, a fun team to watch. Go Gators!!!

  3. I like these guys as much as football. Here’s the thing. If the non freshmen get us in the NCAA tourney then these freshmen can carry us deep. It’s been the opposite in recent years due to injury but remember the 04s took an entire season on the bench….to me all freshmen need time to mature in basketball. And that’s how the NBA feels too imo

  4. If I remember correctly, the Gators are sitting at number 29 in the AP poll (if you count the “also receiving votes” teams), so given the uncertainty with all the new players, that’s probably about right. As Steve says above, winning games will take care of the ranking. Okauru played well last season, so if he can push Nembhard at the point, it’ll just make them both better. The key may be Allen finding a way to be more aggressive and consistent without taking shots from Hudson. With his FT shooting, the Gators need him to go to the hoop and get to the line often.

  5. I am oh so excited about this team and the players coming into the program. Florida Basketball is regaining its momentum and will reemerge at the top. National Championships back to back. Tremendous! Hold on to your hat when these guys get going. It’s going to be something to watch. Go Gators!

  6. The Gators are ranked where they should be given the lack of a proven front court players and point guard. They play a ranked FSU team for the first game. Win and they are in the Top 25. I believe this team has a high ceiling if they get good point guard play and the bigs develop under the leadership of new assistant coach Pinkins.