When Florida faces Kentucky on Saturday at Rupp Arena, the Gators coaching staff will see a familiar face at point guard for the Wildcats.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was a wide-eyed, 16-year-old, three-star recruit when he committed to Florida in November of 2015. The UF coaching staff projected the little known, 6-foot-6 Canadian with a 7-foot wingspan as a player capable of getting to the rim on offense and disrupting passing lanes on defense.
But by a month before National Signing Day in November of 2016, Gilgeous-Alexander blossomed into a four-star, top-50 national prospect. Kentucky called. Gilgeous-Alexander listened, then flipped his commitment from the Gators to the Wildcats.
“I developed as a player a lot faster than I thought,” Alexander said. “I re-evaluated and my goals changed and I had to make a decision.”
Gilgeous-Alexander has lived up to expectations at Kentucky, averaging 12 points, 4.2 assists and 1.9 assists per game as UK’s freshman starting point guard. A player the Gators once thought they had locked up for the future will now be a focal point to stop Saturday.
Florida coach Mike White said off the top of his head that Gilgeous-Alexander was the first player he could recall flipping on him in his years as an assistant coach at Ole Miss and as a head coach at Louisiana Tech and UF. Players flipping commitments in college basketball is rare, but not unprecedented. Former UF coach Billy Donovan got five-star point guard recruit Austin Rivers to commit following his freshman year of high school, but Rivers flipped to Duke during his junior year before National Signing Day.
“It was communicated with me and to us and if guys have second thoughts, at the end of the day, we all want guys to go where they want to be,” White said. “Wish nothing but the best for him. He’s a terrific player.”
A Hamilton Ontario native, Gilgeous-Alexander said he initially felt a strong bond with White and UF’s coaching staff and felt comfortable as a Gator pledge. But the summer before his senior year, Gilgeous-Alexander opened eyes by making the Canadian 18-under national team and averaging 7.8 points, 5.4 assists and 3.0 steals at the FIBA Americas Championships. Kentucky coach John Calipari visited Alexander during the fall of his senior year at Hamilton Heights Prep School in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“As soon as he came into the gym and talked to me, he was different from all the other coaches,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “He was very straight-forward with me, and he didn’t really tell me what I wanted to hear. He told me the truth, and how brutal this process is going to be. At the same time, (he told me) how much better I’d get. And I just wanted to be a part of it.”
Gilgeous-Alexander said it was hard for him to make the phone call telling White he was de-committing.
“It wasn’t the easiest thing, but nothing great comes easy,” Gilgeous-Alexander said. “So I had to do it.”
Last Monday, Gilgeous-Alexander was named SEC freshman of the week after averaging 19.5 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists in Kentucky wins over Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. But Gilgeous-Alexander is coming off a game in which he had as many turnovers (six) as points (six) in Kentucky’s 76-68 loss Tuesday at South Carolina.
White said he doesn’t view UF’s prior familiarity with Gilgeous-Alexander as a factor in preparing for him Saturday.
“I saw Shai play two high school games, three or four AAU games, a couple of high school practices, that’s it,” White said. “In today’s day and age, with technology and with the SEC Network, we see all these guards play 100 times. We get more from their reps in college than we do when they’re younger.”
Who: Florida (13-5, 5-1 SEC) vs. No. 18 Kentucky (14-4, 4-2)
When: 8:15 p.m. Saturday
Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Kentucky
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850