Florida’s Elite Eight run last March was a thrilling, unexpected ride, considering the Gators were unranked heading into last season.
Now that the Gators have enjoyed a taste of success in the post-Billy Donovan era, the challenge is to try to sustain it. Donovan led the Gators to two national titles and 14 NCAA Tournament appearances in 19 seasons, making UF a nationally relevant program.
Florida coach Mike White’s mission is to build a similar standard of consistent success. Certainly, there are high expectations heading into the season. Florida was ranked No. 8 in the preseason AP Top 25 on Wednesday, its highest preseason ranking since being No. 7 to start 2014-15.
“Sustaining success, I think that’s just what we’re all trying to do,” White said. “It’s in every facet of your program, who you are hiring and who you are signing, and what you are doing offensively and defensively and how well you practice, the standards that you uphold.”
As White enters his third season at Florida, pieces are in place for the Gators to not only reach the NCAA Tournament, but to make another deep run. Florida did lose three starters and SEC sixth man of the year Canyon Barry from last season’s 27-9 team. But the Gators bring back junior guard and leading scorer KeVaughn Allen, plus senior point guard Chris Chiozza, a reserve with 33 career starts who essentially split time with senior point guard Kasey Hill last season.
The experienced core includes junior returning starting center Kevarrius Hayes, redshirt sophomore forward Keith Stone and a pair of transfers — fifth-year senior grad transfer forward Egor Koulechov from Rice and fourth-year junior transfer Jalen Hudson from Virginia Tech.
“It’s going to be difficult, putting in the new guys and trying to do what we did last year, keeping that culture,” Chiozza said. “We are a veteran team now. We have four new guys, but overall we’re a pretty old team and we all have experience playing.”
Allen and Chiozza form a dynamic starting backcourt due to their speed with the ball and shooting ability. Hudson, who scored 32 points in an ACC Tournament game as a freshman, and Koulechov, who shot 47.4 percent from 3-point range for Rice last season, will add perimeter scoring punch as well.
“Obviously we got to the Elite Eight last year,” said Hudson, who practiced with the Gators as a transfer last season but did not play per Division I rules. “We want a little bit more. We want to get our feet a little more wet.”
There are questions up front until senior center John Egbunu returns from a torn ACL in January. At 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds, Hayes has added some lower body strength to bang offensively and defensively in the post, but will need to provide more consistent post offense. Sophomore center Gorjok Gak (6-11, 245 pounds), redshirt freshman forward Dontay Bassett (6-9, 245) and Stone (6-8, 245) also should help inside. But the 6-11, 265-pound Egbunu, UF’s top rebounder at 6.6 rebounds per game, adds a different physical presence.
“He’s a terrific defensive player, protecting the rim, ball screen coverage, altering shots, blocking shots, defensive rebounding, one-on-one post play,” White said,
The Gators ranked fifth in the nation in Kenpom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings last season. Defensively, Florida could take a hit with the loss of Hill, an All-SEC defender and with Egbunu out for half the season.
Offensively, White has spent October installing some new wrinkles he’s taken from watching NBA and international teams in an effort to maximize his team’s scoring potential.
“We’ve tried to diversify what we’re doing a little bit,” White said. “We’re not going to be overly complicated. I want our guys playing with freedom and confidence and you want them using their basketball instincts. But more screening off the ball, more playing through the high post, opening up the floor a little more at times, some handoffs, some more cutting.
“We were very ball-screen heavy the last couple of years and we’re still going to set ball screens, but the plan right now is to not set quite as many. We’re evaluating every day.”
Chiozza said the wrinkles could help a Florida offense that had its up-and-down moments last season. Florida scored 90 or more points five times in 2016-17, but was held under 70 points seven times.
“It’s a little different but I think it’s going to benefit us well with all the offensive firepower we have this year, a lot of people who can make different plays,” Chiozza said. “Everybody is going to have a chance to score and make plays in this offense.”
Gators at a glance:
Last season: 27-9, 14-4 SEC
Coach: Mike White, 48-24 in two seasons at Florida, 149-64 in six seasons overall
Projected starting five: Kevarrius Hayes, Jr., C, (6-9, 225); Keith Stone, RSo., PF (6-8, 245), Egor Koulechov, GSr., SF (6-5, 205), Chris Chiozza, Sr., PG (6-0, 175), KeVaughn Allen, Jr., SG (6-2, 193).
Key Reserves: Jalen Hudson, RJr, G/F (6-6, 192),; Gorjok Gak, So., C (6-11, 245); Chase Johnson, Fr., F (6-9,205), DeAundrae Ballard, Fr., G/F (6-5, 195).