Talented Gators look for consistency
Florida ended November ranked fifth in the nation. Two months later, the Gators were out of the top 25. An injury-riddled inside game, defensive breakdowns and an over-reliance on 3-point shooting produced some bad losses. The Gators made the NCAA Tournament, but inconsistency was the season’s theme.
Coach Mike White seeks a smoother ride. Florida first must replace all-time assists leader Chris Chiozza and wing Egor Koulechov, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. “My biggest concern is consistency,” White says. “Really, the two guys we could count on are leaving us.”
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Mike White
2017-18 RECORD (SEC): 21-13 (11-7)
2017-18 POSTSEASON: NCAA: Lost to Texas Tech 69-66 in the second round
G Chris Chiozza (11.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 6.1 apg)
G Egor Koulechov (13.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg)
The Gators will need more than improved health to thrive down low. Senior center Kevarrius Hayes has much to prove. He struggled in an expanded role when senior center John Egbunu failed to return from an ACL tear. Hayes is an instinctive shot blocker with a high motor, but he lacks polish offensively, and at 6'9", 225 pounds, he can be pushed around. With Egbunu out, the Gators struggled on the boards — they grabbed an SEC low 48.2 percent of rebounds — and were beaten repeatedly for second-chance points.
Keith Stone’s scoring and rebounding averages improved as a sophomore. But the 6'8", 245-pound forward was too content to play on the perimeter rather than providing the physicality and defensive presence the Gators needed.
Like Egbunu, Chase Johnson (concussions) and Isaiah Stokes (knee) dealt with significant injuries in 2017-18. Athletic and rangy, the 6'9", 205-pound Johnson is medically cleared, but his level of contact will be monitored. Stokes has shed 30 pounds. “He looks like a different guy,” White says. The 6'8", 270-pound brother of former Tennessee star Jarnell Stokes is skilled but will be rusty.
The X-factor could be 6'11", 245-pound junior Gorjok Gak, who flashed athleticism, hustle and court sense as a freshman. A knee injury limited him last season, but Florida hopes he’s 100 percent by fall camp.
Replacing Chiozza will be a challenge, but shooting guard Jalen Hudson’s decision to return for his senior season was critical. Hudson averaged a team-leading 15.5 points, but he needs to develop other aspects of his game and become a leader.
Chiozza’s instincts, tenacity and sense of the moment will be missed. Senior KeVaughn Allen, a natural shooting guard, sophomore Mike Okauru and freshman Andrew Nembhard will vie to replace Chiozza.
Ultimately, Nembhard, White’s first five-star recruit, is Florida’s point guard of the future. The 6'4" Canadian led Orlando’s Montverde Academy to the prep national championship, totaling 13 assists and no turnovers in the title game. “Andrew will come in and be hands down the best passer in the program,” says White.
Wherever Allen lines up, he must bounce back as a senior. A preseason All-SEC selection at this time a year ago, Allen shot 36.1 percent from the floor while his scoring average dipped by three points, to 11.0 per game. White calls Deaundrae Ballard “a wild card” due to his explosive scoring ability. Poor shot selection was an issue as a freshman. One recruiting service ranked newcomer Noah Locke as the best shooter in the entire 2018 class.
Back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances represent notable progress following a two-year absence. But last season’s failure to build on a red-hot start was disappointing, as was losing five games at home. A renewed commitment to defense and more diversity on offense will be key to contending in an SEC that is increasingly competitive, with more top-25 programs, better coaches and deeper talent than a decade ago. The Gators have recorded enough big wins and scintillating performances the past two seasons to offer hope for the future.
Postseason Prediction: Two & Out
SEC Prediction: 6th