Previewing the No. 6 team in the SEC, the Florida Gators.
What to make of Florida basketball these days is an exercise in trying to forget what the program was 10 years ago and what Billy Donovan built in Gainesville. For 20 years, Donovan roamed the sidelines, won multiple National Championships, finished in the KenPom top 10 eight times and in the top 25 thirteen times, and in the final AP poll twelve times. That’s an elite run.
It’s really hard to sustain that level of success, though, and Mike White hasn’t. Where Donovan had the program at an elite level, Florida has been merely good under White. Good is certainly better than the alternative, and White hasn’t come close to cratering the program. But there’s no getting around it— the Gators are still good while being far from great.
With a whole new back court and some returning front court help, just how good can the Gators be this year?
Previous SEC Previews
- 14. Georgia Bulldogs
- 13. South Carolina Gamecocks
- 12. Texas A&M Aggies
- 11. Missouri Tigers
- 10. Vanderbilt Commodores
- 9. Ole Miss Rebels
- 8. Mississippi State Bulldogs
- 7. LSU Tigers
#6 Florida Gators
Last Season: 15-10 (9-7 in conference) No. 41 KenPom
My Prediction: 20-11 (11-7, 6th in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 11.1-6.9 (6th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 7th in conference
KenPom Projection: 21-9 (11-7 in conference) No. 25
HEAD COACH: Mike White | 7th Season, 123-75
What credit is given when a coach is given a program running like a Mercedes and trades it in for a Lexus? It’s still a nice car, and better than a lot of cars, but it’s no longer an elite car. That’s Florida right now. Florida is running like a Lexus. For some programs that’s aspirational. Many programs are just hoping to be seen as a likely NCAA tournament team no matter who wears the uniform.
White has spent now six full seasons on the bench for the Gators with four NCAA tournaments and one COVID-shortened season when they were projected in the field. But aside from White’s second season, when the roster was full of mostly Donovan recruits, Florida has been a 6-10 seed. On top of that, for the last four seasons Florida has underperformed in each season, essentially falling short of media expectations. This year, with multiple big name frontcourt players returning, expectations are again high. If White again underachieves with his group, does the temperature under his seat get warmer?
White has never been bad, but he’s struggled to keep Florida at the top level. They recruit well, and the reputation is still there, but for how much longer will that hold as other programs in the league have passed the Gators?
Seat Temp: COOL
Good. That’s what Florida is right now. A good program. An NCAA berth is likely headed their way, the roster looks like an eight or nine seed. Despite the dip in 2015 and 2016, Florida has been to every NCAA tournament since 2010 when there’s been one. And here we are— another year, another projected tournament team.
Almost discreetly, Florida really lost of a lot of production in the offseason. Tre Mann was probably one of the more underrated players who ended up a 1st round NBA Draft pick in the SEC last year. He went from a guy who underachieved as a freshman to an All-SEC player. His minutes nearly doubled, his usage went up, and his efficiency went up 0.23 points per possession. Mann was forced into the primary role when Keyontae Johnson went down for the season, and he stepped up in a big way.
Noah Locke was as consistent as you could ask a college guard to be, but his athletic limitations made him easy to overlook. But who wouldn’t love a low usage elite shooter who doesn’t foul, doesn’t turn the ball over, and defends well? Well, Louisville will love him this year. Meanwhile Scottie Lewis was a player who always flashed his potential. And while he was an elite defender, things never came together on offense, so he’ll try to put it together in the G-League.
Omar Payne came in as a highly-recruited big, and still has a high ceiling, but he became a rotational defender and transferred out looking for a larger role. I always sort of thought Ques Glover was an odd fit into the program, and he saw his minutes cut in half as a sophomore. Osayi Osifo followed former Florida assistant Jordan Mincy to Jacksonville after playing only spot minutes for the Gators. And Samson Ruzhentsev opted to sign a professional contract in Serbia after two pretty lackluster seasons at Florida.
Keyontae Johnson | JUNIOR | COMBO FORWARD
This is more about the biggest question surrounding the Gators than anything else. Keyontae Johnson was our pick for SEC Player of the Year last season, and started the season looking every bit the part. Then in game number four, during the first media timeout, Johnson collapsed to the floor in what might have been the scariest event in college basketball last year. Johnson didn’t return to the floor again for the Gators, and many thought his career could be over. As of September 28th, Johnson was still not cleared to practice. So it’s unclear what, if any, contribution Johnson will be able to provide on the floor. And honestly, that isn’t the concern here. Everyone is relieved he’s alive and doing well after what happened. But it’s impossible to ignore how good Johnson was, and the contributions he could potentially make if he’s healthy. As it is, without Johnson in the lineup, the expectations for the Gators are still fairly high, but with him they could take off.
The man who benefitted the most when Johnson was pushed to the sideline was probably Anthony Duruji. Duruji was averaging only about 11 minutes a game in the first four, but then finished the year averaging 22 minutes a game. He isn’t going to blow anyone away with his skill set or scoring, but he’s a finisher around the rim, a highly effective offensive rebounder, and a solid defender. Another transfer into the program was Tyree Appleby, the All-Horizon League guard from Cleveland State. Appleby had a solid junior season where he averaged 11.3 points in 28 minutes and a respectable 101.7 offensive rating.
Niels Lane was a top 150 recruit who was lightly used as a freshman, and might be facing another long road up to playing time after only playing about 6 minutes per game in 14 games. Joining Lane in the role of backup is returning big man, Jason Jitoboh. A massive 290 lb center, Jitoboh hasn’t seen the floor much in two years, and he’s playing this season behind a Second Team All-SEC big man.
Colin Castleton | SENIOR | POST
One of the harbingers for the Gators and their success last season was the output of Colin Castleon. After a quiet start, the SEC season starting represented the breakout for Castleton. After averaging just 6.3 points per game in non-conference play, Castleton averaged nearly 14 against SEC opponents, with an Offensive Rating 121.5.
Castleton is very much a throwback post player. He wants to get the ball on the low to mid block and go to work. When the Gators were able to get Castleton on the left block with single coverage, Colin was superb averaging around 1.2 points per possession. So most coaches would think you have to double team him, right? But only if you’re comfortable giving up 1.37 points per possession. Basically, your best bet was to single cover Castleton and hope your defense at least forces a tough shot. Double teams had mild success if you can force a turnover, but you can’t let him pass out… the PPP jumps to 1.474 if you double and he gets the ball out. Sheesh.
The next step in Castleton’s evolution is to work on extending the floor. He’s attempted just eight 3-pointers in his career and just one last year. But as a career 76% free throw shooter, it’s easy to watch him attempt jump shots and see the capability of adding 3-point shots to the arsenal.
Like the rest of the SEC, Florida welcomes in a host of transfers.
The biggest addition for the Gators was Penn State transfer, Myreon Jones. For a team in need of perimeter scoring, Jones is a great fit. A natural fit off the ball, Jones had a 114.8 Offensive Rating in the Big 10 last year while shooting nearly 40% from behind the arc. Mike White also added the incredibly named Phlandrous Fleming, Jr as a wing grad transfer out of Charleston Southern. Fleming was one of the few scoring options on a pretty bad Southern team last year, but he was really good attacking the rim with some pretty average shooting numbers on spot ups.
To complete the transfer backcourt White added Brandon McKissic from UMKC. McKissic spent most of his career off the ball but played point his last year. The move paid off and McKissic boosted his point output from 11 points per game to 17.2 per game. His usage went up, and so did his efficiency. But what makes McKissic an intriguing player is his moderate turnover rate and good spot up numbers.
CJ Felder, a Boston College transfer, is a combo forward with the ability to stretch the floor, though his shooting has been inconsistent. He was a starter for most of the season last year and should fit into some immediate playing time.
White has recruited well since landing in Gainesville, and while his new class is mostly transfers, he did land 4-star wing Kowacie Reeves. Reeves is a long, rangy athlete with a developing jump shot. Elijah Kennedy was a late signee and an unranked recruit, so it’s hard to project where he might end up.
When it comes to projecting starters the easiest place to start is with returning starters, right? Tyree Appleby started 17 games, missing only one start in the last 18 games. Colin Castleton started 21 of 24 games, and Anthony Duruji started 17 of 25 games. That leaves open the combo guard and wing spots, and there’s competition. With the team in need of scoring, Myreon Jones makes a lot of sense at the two spot. He could easily flex to the wing also, slotting Brandon McKissic into the starting point guard spot and giving the Gators two ball handlers. Phlandrous Fleming could play on the wing also, and of course your top 40 talent in Kowacie Reeves will get a look. Reeves is the upside play, Fleming is the experienced play, and moving Jones into that spot is the ball security play.
If Keyontae Johnson gets cleared, that could change the ball game altogether. Provided he’s healthy and the player we saw two years ago. Whether or not we ever see that player again remains to be seen.
My Projected Record: 20 – 11 | KenPom Projected Record: 21 – 9
One thing I do admire about Mike White is he’s never been afraid to schedule tough. They’re scheduled to match up against Florida State again this year, despite the 7-game losing streak. The last four games have not gone well for the Gators as they’ve lost by an average of more than 15 points a game. That’s followed by Milwaukee, who might seem like a cupcake but the Panthers feature all-star freshman and likely lottery pick, Patrick Baldwin. Then a long trip to Fort Myers, FL for the aptly named Fort Myers Tip-Off where they’ll face a bad Cal team, and then either Ohio State or Seton Hall. Plus a road trip to Oklahoma, where Porter Moser might have the advantage in Norman. And a neutral court matchup against an always solid Maryland team, in Brooklyn. Then they drew the Oklahoma State Cowboys in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. Mike Boynton’s squad is in the post-Cade Cunningham era but they’ve got a lot of good players back from a really good team a year ago, so even a home game will be difficult to win.
Florida gets a little bit of a break in their permanent rivals with Vanderbilt, Georgia, and Kentucky. Obviously the Wildcats are really good every year, but Georgia and Vandy have been down more than not recently. The Gators are 10-4 against Georgia, 10-6 against Vanderbilt, but just 8-12 against Kentucky since the SEC expanded. 3 of those losses to Vandy came in 2017 when the Gators lost each matchup and it basically snuck the Commodores into the NCAA Tournament. This year they also drew Auburn (tough), and Ole Miss (less tough but stingy) in the other home and home games. They also have tough home games against Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State and some easier road games against Texas A&M, Missouri, and South Carolina. This schedule sets up for UF in a way that if they’re ready, it’s very easy for them to hold serve and even improve on these standings.
There’s a growing mistrust of Mike White amongst SEC Basketball fans. We’ve already spent time talking about what White inherited versus what the program has become, but it’s easy to look past that and still remember that Florida is really pretty good.
Not having any kind of answer on whether Keyontae Johnson will see the floor this year, or ever again, has to be difficult on the coaching staff. Approaching the season with a nearly full reset on the roster isn’t anything new, and if anything, the Gators return as much production as almost anyone. But for the Gators to be good this year it comes down to what’s coming back, and mainly it lands on the broad shoulders of Colin Castleton.
White has imported replacement guards to make up for the production lost when Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis left for the NBA, and when Noah Locke bounced for Louisville. So while you have to feel good about the return of Castleton, are Myreon Jones, Brandon McKissic, and Phlandrous Fleming, Jr better than what the Gators had last year?
Assuming that overlooks just how good Mann was last year. The addition of Jones was a great one. Mann averaged about 16 points per game, and Jones did that for Penn State. He was much more of a spot up shooter who could occasionally attack off the dribble than Mann, who was a ball dominant lead guard.
White appears to be attempting to replace the shooting of Locke with a combination of Jones and McKissic. Locke was about as consistent of a shooter from behind the arc as anyone in the country over the last three years, and McKissic and Jones hit for over 40% last year.
But more than anything this looks like a lot of other more recent Gator teams over the last few years. They look like they’re going to be good, but not great. Even the preseason KenPom rating of 25 seems high. Keeping in mind that since White’s second year when the Gators finished 5th in KenPom, they’ve since gone 22nd, 26th, 32nd, and 41st. They haven’t been better than 11-7 in conference play, and it’s a struggle to see how this team is any better than some of those teams.
So there’s this weird middle ground of teams with a roster you don’t like so you put them towards the bottom of the conference, and teams with rosters you love and they’re at the top. Then there’s Florida. Whose roster is… fine.
It amounts to, what does Mike White want to accomplish at Florida? Where do they hang their hat? White’s best teams have been defensively sound, forcing really tough shots and ballooning turnover rates. But as the defense has fluctuated, the offense has usually just been solid.
When you look around the rest of the league there are teams forming real identities. What is Florida’s identity?
White has also dealt with a high amount of turnover on the bench next to him. He was able to hold onto Al Pinkins with a title change and a pay bump, but had to replace Jordan Mincy and Darris Nichols, both of whom accepted head coaching positions. As replacements, White brought in Erik Pastrana from Oklahoma State and Akeem Miskdeen from Florida Atlantic.
So when you couple good, but mostly middling results on the court, and a lot of turnover on the bench, this feels like it could be a pretty important season for Mike White. If he’s able to put it all together and finish in the top four of the league, you’d feel a lot better about his future. But what if it’s just another so-so season in Gainesville? Will that be a signal saying White has reached his ceiling?
Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC
Colin Castleton should be an All-SEC First Team big, surrounded by two 40%+ 3-point shooters with experience, and some guards who can attack and get downhill. If White can help the defense improve a little, there’s no reason why Florida can’t be one of the top 4 teams in the league and be in the conversation for a protected NCAA seed. Add in a fairly friendly schedule and it lines up a bit for a breakout season.
Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC
The program under White has plateaued. Sluggish offensive teams have held back respectable defensive teams, and everything has just been ok for the last 4 years. Without any sure-fire pros on the roster, there’s no reason to expect any different for the Gators this year.
About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.
If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.
* – an asterisk denotes a walk-on player
GP – Games Played
%min – percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury
%ov – offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) – %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team
%poss – percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.
%pts – percentage of teams points scored
ts% – true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.