Who: North Florida vs. No. 6 Florida
When: 7 tonight
Where: O’Connell Center
TV: SEC Network. Radio: 103.7-FM
After an offseason filled with preparation and anticipation, the Florida men’s basketball team will finally tip off the regular season at 7 tonight against the University of North Florida at the O’Connell Center.
Florida’s additions — and subtractions — have been well-documented, as the Gators have had nine new faces join the ranks. Among them is graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr., who posted a double-double in Florida’s 89-71 win in an exhibition last week against Lynn University.
That game saw UF jump out to a 20-point lead at halftime, only to watch the Fighting Knights outscore the Gators by a field goal in the second half. For a team seemingly set to rely on an abundance of underclassmen this season, an early focus for the Gators may be playing with intensity until the final buzzer.
“We’ve just got to always maintain the same energy we have at the start of the game. The excitement that we have at the start of a game, we’ve got to keep it throughout a game, when we’re up 30, when we’re up 20, or whatever that may be,” Blackshear said, “and I think as we continue to do that and we continue to maintain our maturity, we’ll be a good team.”
With a No. 6 ranking in the Associated Press Preseason Top-25, many already expect the Gators to be more than just a passable program this season. Although coach Mike White cautioned that the team must take advantage of the chance to open the season with a home stretch, considering the Gators possess the No. 2-ranked non-conference schedule in the country by CBSSports.
UF will play five neutral-site games this season, in addition to traveling to UConn and Butler, while five top-50 match-ups loom, too. Furthermore, UF will play no fewer than 12 teams that made last season’s NCAA Tournament.
Suffice to say, the time is nigh for working out any lingering issues, whatever they may be.
“Definitely not further along or where (we) want to be. I’m not sure you’re ever where you want to be. There’s always that level of concern about certain areas and urgency. I like the way we’re shooting the basketball and sharing it. Those factors, I guess, we’re in a pretty good place in those areas, and probably a couple others. But, no, not where we need to be in terms of rebounding the basketball, overall accountability defensively,” White said. “The buy-in is pretty good, not great, defensively. I think that’s kind of typical for such a young team. The is my first go-around with a team this young, of course, so I’m learning as we go as well.”
Meaning Blackshear’s presence could prove to be all the more valuable. UF’s reserve big men with experience — Dontay Bassett and Gorjok Gak — missed much of the preseason due to injuries, with Gak’s return undetermined as of yet. The former could make his return to the court for Tuesday’s contest, although the Gators presumably were able to breathe a sigh of relief after seeing Omar Payne and Jason Jitoboh, freshmen in the frontcourt, perform admirably against Lynn.
White admitted he wasn’t expecting to play the duo as many minutes as he did, yet both displayed an ability to perform sans considerable guidance.
If the Gators can get all six freshmen involved, building depth at each position in the process, it could make for a smoother-than-anticipated early transition for a program once again clutching lofty late-season expectations.
“I didn’t anticipate playing those guys that many minutes together. And they hadn’t played that many minutes together in practice. Probably didn’t give them enough direction, especially offensively to where we could take advantage of playing those guys together,” White said. “I’m not sure, at the end of the day, what will be our best way to play offensively yet. It’s so early. And we’re so versatile offensively, it gives you more options, and we hope that that doesn’t confuse it. But we had focused going into that exhibition on more of the meat and potatoes than anything else. Getting into a stance, being competitive, being a good teammate, playing unselfishly, playing hard. And we’ll find a way, we’ll find, hopefully, throughout the course of the season, you find your best way to play in transition, on defense, on offense, in the halfcourt and all those things.”
Keyontae Johnson ; F; 6-5; 231; So.; 8.1 ppg; 6.4 rpg
Kerry Blackshear Jr.*; F; 6-10; 241; Gr.; 14.9 ppg; 7.5 rpg
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; 193; So.; 8.0 ppg; 5.4 apg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; 207; So.; 9.4 ppg; 2.3 3fg
Tre Mann ; G; 6-4; 172 ; Fr.; – – – –
*Stats at Virginia Tech
Wajid Aminu ; F; 6-7; 197; Sr.; 11.7 ppg; 6.5 rpg
Garrett Sams ; F ; 6-7; 209 ; Sr.; 12.5 ppg; 4.9 rpg
Carter Hendricksen ; F; 6-7; 217; So.; 4.3 ppg; 3.9 rpg
JT Escobar ; G ; 6-2; 186; RSr.; 9.9 ppg; 2.0 rpg
Ivan Gandia-Rosa ; G; 6-1; 193; Sr.; 10.5 ppg; 3.2 rpg
Notes: Florida opens the season ranked 6th in the nation, which matches the Gators’ second-highest preseason ranking since in program history (1st in 2006-07, 6th in 2001-02) … Florida and UNF link up for the fifth consecutive season and the 9th time overall .. The Gators have won all eight meetings, including the four under Mike White … Florida started three freshmen last season for the first time in 20 years. The trio of returning starters put up elite numbers during their freshman season, as Andrew Nembhard’s 194 assists ranked fourth most in UF history, while Noah Locke hit a Florida freshman record 81 3-pointers and Keyontae Johnson’s 229 rebounds were fifth-most by a UF freshman. … Blackshear and Nembhard were named to the coaches’ preseason All-SEC first team Monday.
— Graham Hall