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Team Previews: Florida

Overview


Throughout the 2020-21 season, the Florida Gators experienced many ups and downs throughout the year that was marked with COVID-19 all over it. The Gators had to shut down team business twice last season due to COVID-19 cases in their program, canceling or postponing a few of their games in both conference and non-conference play. Additionally, the Gators suffered a catastrophic injury to Keyontae Johnson against Florida State on December 12th that forced the Gators to cancel games for nearly three weeks while the players mentally recovered from the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Johnson’s collapse to the floor. Through all of these challenges, the Gators were still able to amass a 15-10 (9-7) record, which was good enough to earn them the 5th seed in the SEC Tournament and an NCAA Tournament Bid, where they advanced to the round of 32 before running into the buzzsaw that was Max Abmas, Kevin Obanor and Oral Roberts.


Heading into the new season, the heat on head coach Mike White’s seat has never been hotter as Florida fans are questioning whether their coach is doing enough with the rosters that he’s built over the years. The Gators always have plenty of talented players but have not made a significant run in the NCAA Tournament since 2016-17. The days of two-time NCAA Champion coach Billy Donovan have given White (perhaps) unrealistic expectations, but he is heading into his 7th season in Gainesville with only one Elite 8 appearance during that time and the Florida faithful are beginning to get a bit restless with the current direction of the program.


Who’s Back, Who’s Gone?


Florida had no scholarship seniors on their roster last season, but they did have six scholarship players depart to either the NBA Draft or other schools. The two marquee departures from Gainesville came in their NBA Draft prospects in guard Tre Mann and forward Scottie Lewis. Mann’s stock rose throughout the season as he showed aspects of his game that were previously unknown, going from averaging 5.3 points per game his freshman season to averaging 16.0 points per game in sophomore season. Mann saw increases in both his two-point and three-point shooting percentages (+5.6% and +12.7%, respectively), as well as increases to his rebounding, assists and steal numbers as he took over the reins from now-Gonzaga point guard Andrew Nembhard. These improvements made the 6’5” local product into the 18th pick in the 2021 NBA Draft from a relative unknown just a year ago. Lewis is the less hyped NBA Draft prospect for this draft cycle, but the forward has impressive physical tools which led to him being selected 56th in the draft.


In addition to Mann and Lewis, the Gators had a host of outgoing transfers going to varying levels of competition for next season. The most impactful loss for the Gators is junior guard Noah Locke, who transferred to Louisville after starting 79 games and making 214 three-pointers in three seasons in Gainesville. Forward Omar Payne, who was almost assuredly leaving Gainesville after his elbowing incident involving Tennessee forward John Fulkerson in the SEC Tournament, is heading off to spell Kofi Cockburn at Illinois. Additionally, the Gators are losing three reserves to low-to-mid-major programs or the professional ranks in Ques Glover (Samford), Osayi Osifo (Jacksonville) and Samson Ruzhentsev (playing professionally in Russia). All these departures add up to 54% of points, 46% of rebounds and 52% of assists, so finding players to replace those numbers will be priority number 1 for Mike White.


The Gators have plenty of talent returning to Gainesville next year that will assist in carrying out that transition, and that starts with the trio of transfer juniors returning for their second seasons in Gainesville. Tyree Appleby will be the successor to Tre Mann after averaging 11.3 points per game last season for the Gators as a transfer from Cleveland State. He will be joined by Anthony Duruji (Louisiana Tech) and Colin Castleton (Michigan) as experienced frontcourt members in Mike White’s system, averaging 6.1 and 12.4 points per game respectively.


One of the major questions about Florida for next season will be the status of forward Keyontae Johnson and his career moving forward. Johnson collapsed on the court on December 12th against Florida State due to a non-COVID related cardiac incident, which has jeopardized his career moving forward. Johnson has yet to decide, in consultation with his family and doctors, whether he will continue his basketball career, but if he chooses to do so, the Gators will gain a bona fide stud on the wing. Johnson averaged 14 points per game in his last healthy season, earning an All-SEC selection that season. His return to the lineup could be the difference in Florida’s ceiling being a top-four seed in the SEC versus being a middle-of-the-pack team.


The Gators also bring back a group of reserves in forwards Jason Jitoboh (0.9 PPG) and guard Niels Lane (1.1 PPG) that will fill in around the edges of the rotation, bringing their total returner count to 7 scholarship players, assuming that Johnson is cleared to play.


Newcomers


The Gators hit the transfer portal hard this offseason, bringing in five transfers from different levels to fill out their roster. The group is highlighted by two graduate transfers from low-major conferences in guards Brandon McKissic (UMKC) and Phlandrous Fleming Jr. (Charleston Southern). Both players averaged over 17 points per game last season for their respective teams, with McKissic shooting 43% from three-point range and Fleming averaging 7.4 rebounds per game. Both McKissic and Fleming will play major roles on this Florida team, bringing 208 games of combined experience along with them, and while they won’t be expected to necessarily produce at the level they did at their old schools, there will be expectations to meet from a toughness and composure perspective. Both players were selected as their respective conference’s defensive player of the year, with Fleming being selected twice for the honor, so it would be reasonable to expect at least that part of their game to translate to the SEC from day one.


The Gators were also able to pick up two underclassmen transfers from power conference schools in Alabama native guard Myreon Jones (15.3 PPG at Penn State) and forward CJ Felder (9.7 PPG, 5.9 RPG at Boston College). Jones was targeted early by Alabama during his transfer recruiting process before ultimately choosing the Gators, while Felder chose to transfer to Florida over the likes of Texas A&M, Murray State and Clemson. Both players have been exposed to high-major competition for multiple seasons and should come in and be impactful rotation pieces that attempt to fill in for the losses of Lewis and Mann. Additionally, the Gators welcome two freshmen, led by four-star freshman guard Kowacie Reeves Jr. (Macon, GA), who was the 39th-ranked player in the 247 Sports composite rankings and should provide some two-way depth for the Gators off the wing. Elijah Kennedy (Virginia Beach, VA) and Tuongthach Gatkek (Portland, ME) were late additions to the roster and should provide some depth for the present with the potential to improve their roles later on in their careers.

Projected Rotation

G: Tyree Appleby

G: Brandon McKissic

G: Myreon Jones

F: Anthony Duruji

F: Colin Castleton

Bench: Phlandrous Fleming Jr.

Bench: CJ Felder

Bench: Kowacie Reeves Jr.

Bench: Niels Lane

Bench: Jason Jitoboh

Bench: Tuongthach Gatkek

Bench: Elijah Kennedy

Bench: Keyontae Johnson


Florida has numerous options for their starting lineup, but the composition comes down to the status of Keyontae Johnson. If Johnson does end up coming back to play for the Gators next season, he will be in the starting lineup, moving either McKissic or Jones to the bench. Appleby, Duruji, and Castleton seem to be solidly in the starting lineup based on their performances from last season, which leaves the 2 and 3 spots up for grabs for McKissic, Jones and Fleming Jr. (along with Johnson). The Gators will most likely have 8-9 players in their rotation next season, with the above starting five along with Fleming Jr., Felder, Reeves Jr., and potentially Johnson filling out the top 9 players on the roster.


Non-Conference Breakdown


The Gators open with a relatively easy season opener against the Elon Phoenix (KenPom #205) from the CAA, before taking on their state rivals in Florida State (KP #15). The Gators then get to take on top recruit Patrick Baldwin and Milwaukee (KP #216) before travelling down to Fort Myers, FL for their MTE, the Fort Myers Tip-Off. They open against California (KP #114), before having potential matchups with Ohio State (KP #11) and Seton Hall (KP #54) in a potential championship or consolation game. After returning from Fort Myers, the Gators take on Troy (KP #305) at home before heading to Norman, OK to take on Oklahoma (KP #39) in a game that was rescheduled from the 2020-21 slate. Two more buy games follow with Texas Southern (KP #208) and North Florida (KP #297) before Maryland (KP #35) comes calling in a neutral site contest in Brooklyn, NY. The final two games before New Years’ Day are South Florida (KP #170) in the Orange Bowl Basketball Classic in Sunrise, FL and a home contest against Stony Brook (KP #236), with the Gators also facing Oklahoma State (KP #33) in the Big 12-SEC Challenge in late January.


The Gators find themselves with a middle-of-the-road non-conference schedule, with a good mixture of buy games and road games that puts them 7th in the SEC in terms of out of conference strength of schedule. Their MTE brings on some decent competition, but nothing that they can’t handle as they try to revamp the main core of their roster from last season’s team. Playing teams like Maryland, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Florida State and potentially Ohio State will definitely provide some challenges heading into the conference season for them to figure out their rotations and roles.


Final Thoughts


Florida has become one of the more consistent teams in the SEC over the last few years, but outside of their NCAA Tournament run in the 2016-17 season, the Gators haven’t gotten past the Round of 32, including a loss to 15-seed Oral Roberts in this season’s tournament. This relative lack of deep success is a far cry from the days of Billy Donovan, who won back-to-back national championships in the mid-2000’s. The Gators return a portion of their core from last season’s team while losing the top-end talent in Mann and Lewis. Mike White has brought in transfer talent from multiple sources and backgrounds, but the main challenge will come in making those pieces fit together with the existing group. The Gators should continue to be one of the better teams in the SEC next season, but I have doubts about whether they can reach the upper echelon of the league next season.


Superlatives

MVP: Colin Castleton

Offensive Player of the Year: Tyree Appleby

Defensive Player of the Year: Brandon McKissic

Freshman of the Year: Kowacie Reeves Jr.

Best Transfer: Myreon Jones

Most Improved Player: Anthony Duruji

X-Factor: Keyontae Johnson

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