Gator Nation, if you’ve been waiting for a basketball team worthy of National title hopes and dreams then we have the team for you.
The Florida men’s basketball team is currently ranked #17 in both the Associated Press and the USA TODAY Coaches Polls. Florida is also eighth in RPI ranking (mostly due to playing so many neutral court games). RPI is one of the metrics that qualify the wins and losses for a team.
I wanted to write this article on Monday after Florida routed a top-10 team (Kentucky), but decided I needed to see how the team would respond on the road, against a rival no less. The Florida team that played Georgia impressed me more than the team that beat Kentucky.
Florida had nothing to gain, but everything to lose with their trip to Stegeman Coliseum on Tuesday. If Florida had lost, it would significantly diminish the value of the win against Kentucky, but if Florida won, their shot at winning the SEC was still alive. Florida fought hard and earned the victory. Despite allowing Georgia to come back from a 30-14 first half advantage, Florida held on, and more importantly got the win. These are the types of games Florida has lost the last two years.
Follow along as I tell you why you should believe in this Florida Gators team.
Mike White was relatively unheard of when Florida announced his hiring May 7, 2015. White had coached at Louisiana Tech for the previous four seasons, but never made the NCAA Tournament. Many fans disliked this hiring, figuring that a program as established as Florida should be able to hire a much more distinguished head coach.
White had the unenviable task of taking over a Florida program in the wake of the Billy Donovan departure to the NBA. Billy Donovan’s last team at Florida finished with a 16-17 record. Mike White wasn’t exactly dropped into a “perfect situation.”
Gator Nation has been tough on White, and sometimes deservedly so. Florida played terrible down the stretch last year, seemingly playing their way out of the NCAA tournament. The Gators made it to the quarterfinals of the NIT before falling to George Washington.
White’s coaching this year has been exceptional. White calls time outs when it feels like it’s necessary and is willing to make tough decisions (such as subbing in your entire second unit in the first minute of the second half). White also has an exceptional memory as he often remembers specific plays during press conferences. White has also proven that he can adjust on the fly, which is necessary, especially in the SEC with Kentucky and South Carolina.
White has used the same starting lineup for much of the season. John Egbunu at center (when not injured), Justin Leon at forward, Devin Robinson at forward, KeVaughn Allen at guard, and Kasey Hill at the point. Allen leads the team with 13.3 points per game. Robinson averages 11.8 while Hill adds 10 per game. Egbunu leads the Gators averaging 6.5 rebounds per game while Hill paces the team in assists with 118 on the year.
But when the starters are ineffective at the beginning of games (or halves) as we’ve seen several times this year:
THE BENCH (DEPTH):
Perhaps the most important aspect to the Gators impressive run thus far has been the play of their bench. Florida easily and often runs with a five-deep bench. G/F Canyon Barry should easily win the SEC Sixth Man of the Year award. Barry plays an important role as he has the ability to drive the lane, but is best known for being a sharpshooter. Barry shoots free-throws so well that he is often on the court at the end of the game. Barry is averaging 12.7 points, while shooting 44% from the field.
Chris Chiozza plays backup point guard, but would be starting on many teams in the country. Chiozza earned a triple-double last week and was named the SEC Player of the Week for the effort. Chiozza’s triple-double off the bench was the first such instance in the nation since 2008.
KeVarrius Hayes has subbed for Egbunu and played well while Egbunu was out with a hamstring injury. Hayes has played well against some of the top talent in the SEC, and has allowed Florida fans to breathe easier when Egbunu is subbed for.
Freshmen Eric Hester and Keith Stone have also contributed when called upon. Walk-on Schuyler Rimmer has proven that he can spell Egbunu and Hayes when both are in foul trouble.
Florida’s depth is one reason you can’t count this team out of any game.
Every player on the Gators roster has bought in to a defense-first mentality. Florida has allowed the opposition to score eighty or more points only twice all season, not surprisingly, those are two of Florida’s losses. Florida has also held their opponents to sixty or less points in nine contests. The Gators have held teams to their season-lows in points scored and shooting percentage on several occasions, including most recently against Kentucky.
Florida has four seniors. Hill, Leon, Barry, and Rimmer are the only seniors on the roster, but the team has much familiarity. Robinson, Allen, Chiozza, Hayes, and Egbunu have all spent multiple years in Mike White’s system.
Barry is often seen on court encouraging the Rowdy Reptiles to get louder while Hill is leading with strong, passionate drives. Chiozza dazzles with passes that leave you with your mouth hanging open, wondering, “how?” Every player on this team has a role, and no one seems to have an issue with theirs. That alone, may be the single biggest thing that Mike White has accomplished in Gainesville.
Maybe it’s time to get excited about Gators basketball again. Maybe we can finally start to believe that Mike White was the right hire and will lead us to the promised land. Maybe, just maybe, this team is much more special than any of us realized at the beginning of the season.
When the 2005-06 Florida team won the first championship in program history, no one had expected it. Why does this have to be different? In the age of the one-and-done, any team that has familiarity has a chance. So what do you think Gator Nation? Why not Florida?
(I’m not saying that Florida will win a title this year, but I am saying it wouldn’t surprise me.)