DALLAS — Florida grad transfer guard Egor Koulechov often used the term “roller coaster” to describe the Gators throughout the 2017-18 season.
The wild ride came to an end with a 69-66 loss to Texas Tech in the Round of 32 of the NCAA Tournament late Saturday night at American Airlines Center. Florida finished the season 21-13, going 6-3 against ranked teams, but losing 10 games in which it was favored.
The inconsistency of the team could be traced to its inability to generate points and defend inside in the post due to its lack of size, strength and post-scoring ability.
Still, the season had its high points. The Gators swept Kentucky, including knocking off the Wildcats 66-64 at Rupp Arena to post just their fourth win in the building in the last 20 years. Florida knocked off Gonzaga in overtime in Portland in the PK80 Tournament and beat Cincinnati in Newark, N.J., in the Never Forget Tribute Classic.
Florida scored 100 or more points in four of its first six games of the season. But when flaws in transition defense were exposed in an 83-66 loss on Dec. 4 against Florida State, White abandoned the Loyola-Marymount pace and slowed his team down. UF finished the year 223rd in the nation in adjusted offensive tempo, per Ken Pomeroy’s ratings.
“Four or five games this year, the time of possession for us, kind of like a football game, was very, very lopsided,” Florida coach Mike White said. “It’s hard to make shots when you play three fourths of the game on defense. So we had to evolve as a team.”
The Gators ended up improving defensively, finishing second in the SEC and 21st in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. But while Florida was able to create points off turnovers thanks to senior point guard and All-SEC defender Chris Chiozza, who ranked second in the SEC in steals at 1.9 per game, UF struggled on the glass. Florida was outrebounded in 13 of 19 SEC games and finished last in the league in rebounding margin (-2.2)
Looking ahead, the Gators will need to find a way to replace Chiozza, their best ball-handler, passer and defender. Chiozza will leave UF as its all-time assist leader at 571. Koulechov, meanwhile, was UF’s second-leading scorer (13.6 ppg) and leading rebounder (6.4 rpg).
“If all 13 of my guys were as tough as these two, we’d still be playing,” White said. “Some of the young guys are going to continue to develop, but these guys pound for pound are absolute warriors.”
In addition, junior guard Jalen Hudson was non-committal postgame about returning for his senior season. The 6-foot-6 Hudson led the Gators in scoring at 15.5 points and scored a team-high 23 points in the Texas Tech loss. White said he still does not know if senior center John Egbunu, who sat out the entire season while trying to rehab from a torn ACL suffered year, will try to apply for a sixth year from the NCAA and return to UF. The 6-11, 265-pound Egbunu would help solve some of UF’s rebounding and post scoring issues, provided he’s fully healthy.
“We have to obviously plan on having a conversation with these guys over the next week,” White said.
White said at this point, he’s satisfied with the big men he has on his roster. That could change if Egbunu chooses not to return. Sophomore center Gorjok Gak has been dealing all season with severe knee pain and will likely undergo a procedure to clean up those knee issues during the offseason.
“I like the bigs on our roster,” White said. “I do. I just think we’ve got to keep developing them. I thought Kevarrius Hayes played his heart out (against Texas Tech). He brings a lot of value. Keith Stone I thought made a lot of progress this year. Being older guys, Kevarrius being a senior, Keith Stone being a redshirt junior as of right now, I know it’s really early but I think our frontcourt will be improved.”
If Hudson chooses not to return, junior guard KeVaughn Allen would project to become the go-to guy on offense as a senior. A preseason All-SEC selection, Allen struggled with his confidence and ability to meet those expectations. His scoring average (11 ppg) and 3-point field percentage (32.8 percent) both dipped from his sophomore season (14 ppg, 37 pct from 3). Allen had to handle more point guard responsibilities backing up Chiozza and finished the year with an assist to turnover ratio of 82 to 44.
Allen could see more time replacing Chiozza at the point next season, but Florida will have other options. Freshman combo guard Mike Okauru showed promise throughout the season, averaging 3.8 points off the bench while shooting 40.4 percent from 3-point range and will likely see more time at the point in 2018-19. White also addressed the position in recruiting by landing his first five-star signee, 6-foot-4 point guard Andrew Nembhard. Like Chiozza, Nembhard is a pass-first point guard with excellent playmaking instincts
Nembhard is one of three Top 100 national signees who will join the Gators as incoming freshmen in 2018-19, a list that includes four-star 6-2 shooting guard Noah Locke and four-star 6-5 wing player Keyontae Johnson. Locke projects as a dead-eye shooter who has shot better than 40 percent from 3-point range facing the best competition in the country in summer AAU events. Johnson is more in the Corey Brewer and Casey Prather mold of UF wing players, a lock down defender with a 40-inch vertical leap. He could provide a finisher in transition the Gators lacked this season.
White is 69-37 in three seasons at Florida and showed the ability to sustain success by leading UF to its second straight NCAA Tournament appearance. But it will take a more complete roster for the Gators to return to the tournament and make a deeper run next season.
“I like some of our young pieces,” White said. “I like our signees. We’ve got to get back to work, though. We’ve got to spend a lot of time with development and we’ve got to figure out next fall who we can count on, reevaluate everything we’re doing, of course, offensively and defensively with a new team as we do every offseason.”