There was a noticeable difference when Florida took the court Sept. 25 for the start of preseason camp.
Gone was senior point guard Chris Chiozza, the Gators’ leader on and off the court, in addition to center John Egbunu and former graduate transfer Egor Koulechov.
A void was present, and it may not be filled during the 2018-19 season.
Instead, the Gators are a program undergoing a daunting transition — in search of a starting point guard, a vocal leader and a frontcourt presence.
For many programs, these challenges would entail a rebuild.
But UF coach Mike White, now in his fourth season at Florida, has seen glimpses of promise — in addition to several discouraging aspects — in the team’s initial two weeks of preparation for the upcoming campaign.
“We’ve had some hard practices. Haven’t responded unbelievably well in terms of fighting through fatigue and mental and physical toughness, but guys are trying. I think they understand that’s a deficiency of ours right now. We’re a little bit deeper right now, knock on wood,” White said Thursday. “Skilled team. High-character team. We’re going to have some games where I think we’ll score it — we’ve got some weapons — but I also think our guys understand that we’re average defensively, average on the glass. But we’re working to improve those areas.”
The crux of Florida’s early issues come down to subpar conditioning and a lack of defensive intensity — two aspects the Gators excelled in last season. In Florida’s 18 SEC contests during the 2017-18 season, the Gators held the opposition on average to 66.4 points per game, the fewest points allowed on average in the the conference. And the Gators must find a way to replace the nearly two steals per game Chiozza brought to the table, in addition to his all-around defensive prowess and drive.
That point guard picture will become less murky as time goes on, but, as it stands, the Gators have so far looked in multiple directions as they seek a new primary ball-handler.
“Mike (Okauru) is really working, defending at a higher level, rebounding at a higher level than a year ago. Still learning how to run a team and go through his checks, communicate effectively. But (I’m) pleased with his progress, he’s making progress. He’s a better player than he was last February,” White, asked about the team’s options at the position, said. “KeVaughn Allen is a low-risk guy. Heck, before he turns it over he usually shoots it. That’s what I’d prefer to see him do anyway. In terms of ball security, he’s been very good. Jalen Hudson’s got some reps at the point. And Andrew (Nembhard) is an elite passer with size, toughness. Again, been really pleased with his accountability as a true freshman. Transition defense, communication, blocking out, rotating. All those type of things that freshmen have to learn to do over time, he does it. He does it consistently as anybody on our team does it, which is, again, very rare for a true freshman.”
But much of the focus early has centered on the need for Florida’s upperclassmen to progress into a leadership role, and that transition often requires one stepping outside of their comfort zone.
Such is the case with senior forwards Kevarrius Hayes and Hudson, who will share the bulk of the responsibility when it comes to providing leadership on and off the court.
Considering Florida faces the frequently tall task of incorporating five players making collegiate debuts, some guidance is necessary, and who better than two vital contributors from a team that came just short of a consecutive trip to the Sweet 16?
However, nobody said it would be an overnight transition for a rather soft-spoken frontcourt duo.
“I wouldn’t say it’s super natural for me, but I am embracing it and it’s been working thus far. So, I’m really just trying to keep things going and just trying to stay consistent with my effort,” Hudson said of his newfound responsibility. “I’m just trying to make sure that I’m ready, so even if I’m talking to the other players, I’ve got to make sure that they’re ready as well. I’m just trying to make sure before anything that I’m ready to take on the leadership role and be the guy that I can be.”
Nurturing the fresh faces at Florida is an expectation the two have prepared for, and Hudson pointed to Chiozza and Koulechov as players who embodied just how Hudson intends to lead.
“(I learned) a little bit from Egor to be vocal and a little bit from (Chiozza) to just think ahead, make a play ahead,” Hudson said. “He was always so far ahead of people. It’s just those two things that I try to carry with me through this year.”
It’s no secret Florida sorely missed depth at the frontcourt, and a mostly healthy roster has White salivating at the prospect of incorporating a wide variety of rotations. Florida has many variables to figure out prior to the team’s first exhibition Oct. 30 against Florida Southern, but one thing seems certain: the Gators have a chance to be one of the conference’s deepest teams. UF’s ceiling appears contingent upon the development of the underclassmen-laden roster.
“All of our guys know that they determine playing time, they determine who starts, they determine roles. We help with roles a little bit, but not this early. Those guys are doing it themselves in practice. I like that there’s a lot of confusion and parity after our first few guys. I think the seniors have separated themselves a little bit. After that, just about everyone else on scholarship, from four to 13, has an opportunity to play. And can you play 13, I don’t know how effectively we can play 13 guys,” White said. “But we’re definitely much deeper than we were this time last year.”
Who: Florida vs. Florida State in the Fresh from Florida Sunshine Showdown
When: 9 p.m. Nov. 6
Where: Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, Tallahassee
Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM
Note: The date marks the earliest season opener in UF men’s basketball program history.