Florida basketball: 10 things to know about the 2019-20 Gators
The Florida Gators’ basketball program kicks off its much anticipated 2019-20 season Tuesday night at home against North Florida (7 p.m., SEC Network).
Mike White’s squad is ranked No. 6, with a balanced roster that includes preseason All-SEC point guard Andrew Nembhard (above) and coveted grad transfer big Kerry Blackshear, who chose the Gators over Kentucky and Tennessee.
White has already done a quality job taking over for the legendary Billy Donovan in 2015. Only Kentucky among SEC programs has won more NCAA Tournament games than White’s Florida program. White also joins John Calipari as the only SEC coaches to win at least 1 NCAA Tournament game in each of the past 3 seasons.
But thanks to consecutive outstanding recruiting classes and good work on the graduate transfer market, this season’s Gators teams appears to be White’s best yet.
Here are 10 things to know about the 2019-2020 Florida Gators.
1. Kerry Blackshear Jr. gives the Gators a star and the big man they’ve lacked
White made waves this offseason when he landed the Blackshear, the nation’s most coveted graduate transfer. An All-ACC performer at Virginia Tech, Blackshear was last seen dropping 18 points, collecting 16 rebounds and adding 5 assists in the Sweet 16 against Duke.
Blackshear is the rare post in college basketball who can be the legitimate fulcrum of the offense. He can play with his back to the basket, is a precision passer who can hit cutters and slashers when double-teamed, can pick and roll and gives the Gators a threat on the pick and pop. Blackshear was one of the ACC’s most efficient players in 2018-19 (closing the season’s final 2 months averaging 18 points and 9 rebounds a night in league play); he now he takes his talents to the SEC, where few rosters have the skilled posts required to defend him.
Blackshear gives the Gators’ talented young roster a veteran presence and the program the talented 2-way post it has lacked for most of White’s tenure.
The last time White’s program had a big body in the post was before John Egbunu’s season-ending ACL injury in the 2016-17 season. That Florida team won its final 6 games with Egbunu by an average of 24 points. Egbunu wasn’t nearly the 2-way player Blackshear is, which makes the idea of a White team having elite balance a scary proposition for the SEC.
2. Andrew Nembhard might be the SEC’s most complete point guard
Andrew Nembhard tested the NBA waters last spring but no one around the program was surprised when he returned for his sophomore season.
A mature-beyond-his-years player who is a leader on and off the court, Nembhard is the sun around which the offense orbits.
Nembhard is a tremendous passer and distributor, especially in transition, where he collected 24% of his 191 assists, the 2nd-highest total ever for a Florida freshman (Nick Calathes). The question with Nembhard was whether he could do enough this offseason to improve his ability as a creator offensively, especially out of the pick and roll.
The Gators were among the worst Power 5 teams in the pick and roll last year, scoring a woeful .57 points out of these actions. Much of that had to do with lacking elite weapons for Nembhard to work with — a problem Blackshear helps — but some of it had to do with defenses not respecting Nembhard’s ability to create.
Nembhard impressed in that area this summer playing with Canada’s senior national team at the FIBA World Cup, showing a new-found knack for finishing and creating through contact. If he adds that to his arsenal, coupled with his strong ability to shoot off the catch and his underrated defense, he’ll have a chance to profile as the most complete point guard in the SEC.
3. The Kids are Alright, part one: Scottie Lewis
White signed the nation’s No. 8 recruiting class, the program’s 2nd consecutive top 20 class. The cornerstones of the class are 3 top 50 players, including Lewis, a 6-5 wing with dynamite athleticism that chose Florida over Kentucky.
Lewis is a work in progress on offense, but with absurd length, a through-the-roof vertical, explosive speed (he ran a 10.6 100 in high school) and lateral quickness, he’s the best defender in the 2019 recruiting class and immediately gives Florida the rangy, lockdown perimeter on-ball defender they’ve lacked since the departure of Devin Robinson.
Lewis is also an infectious personality who plays and acts older than his years. On a team suddenly brimming with offensive weapons, his defense-first, team-first mentality in the body of a future lottery pick is special.
4. The Kids are Alright, part two: Tre Mann
Florida’s “other” McDonald’s All-American and top 25 player in the 2019 recruiting class is hometown hero Tre Mann, the Gainesville native who picked the Gators over North Carolina and Tennessee.
Mann is a creative, electric combo guard who gives the Gators an instant offense threat off the bench for the first time since Canyon Barry won SEC 6th Man of the Year honors in the Elite 8 campaign of 2016-17.
Mann’s ability to create off the bench, extend defenses with his range and play off the pick and roll give Florida the chance to be more effective out of their motion offense in 2018-19 and far less set reliant than they were in 2018-19. That, coupled with Florida’s other new pieces, should make an offense that was tedious to watch last season (61 KenPom offensive efficiency) a much better unit.
5. The Kids are Alright, part three: Omar Payne
If it is possible to be a top 50 recruit and be “forgotten” in a recruiting class, Omar Payne fits the bill. A 6-9 forward with a 7-foot plus wingspan, Payne comes from basketball factory Montverde Academy, which has a history of producing players ready to make an immediate impact.
Payne impressed all summer in workouts, playing with tremendous energy and disrupting offensive flow with his length and shotblocking ability.
On defense, he reminds coaches of Kevarrius Hayes, who was one of the nation’s most effective defensive players per defensive zone rating over the past 2 years. Payne’s growth offsets the sting of a late preseason injury to Gorjok Gak, and should give White the ability to play Blackshear some at the 4, a potential mismatch nightmare for Florida opponents.
6. Finding rotations that work will be an early season challenge
This is the deepest team White has had at Florida, a year removed from basically playing only a 7-man rotation by March. That’s a good problem to have, usually, but what rotations White explores early and bench usage rates could impact team chemistry, especially with a young group.
The Gators have at least 6 outstanding players, which means at least one excellent player will sit at all times. Florida also has the ability to play big and bruising, with nice frontcourt depth, or play fast and small. While a lineup featuring 3 guards in Nembhard-Mann and sophomore Noah Locke, coupled with wings Lewis and Keyontate Johnson might be tempting for White, whose Louisiana Tech teams loved to play frenetic basketball, the Gators would likely be best served by maintaining the roster balance they worked so hard this offseason to acquire.
7. Keyontae Johnson is one of the SEC’s best-kept secrets
A player who didn’t appear on many preseason All-SEC list but very well could have is sophomore Keyontae Johnson.
A jack-of-all-trades glue guy, Johnson is Florida’s most fundamentally sound player. He is under control on the bounce, a strong 3-point shooter off the catch, masterful at attacking closeouts, an excellent offensive and defensive rebounder, an underrated passer and a defender who can use his monster vertical (42 inches) and strength to play bigger than his size.
Down the stretch last season, Johnson was a double-double machine, collecting 5 in the last month of the season, including 2 in Florida’s big wins over SEC regular-season champion LSU in the SEC Tournament and senior-laden Nevada at the NCAA Tournament.
Johnson won’t be the focal point of Florida’s offense or defense in 2019-20, but he’s the type of lunch-pail player that wins you championships.
8. There’s not much depth on the wings
If there’s a reason this Florida team misses out on winning the school’s first SEC Championship since 2013-14, it will be that they are overwhelmed at some point by a roster full of wings that can switch and defend and create mismatch issues for the Gators defensively.
Florida’s wings are Lewis and Johnson, with Mann a bit undersized but capable 3rd option. That’s it. As balanced as this roster is, that’s the weakness, even if only a few teams have the roster to exploit it.
Kentucky isn’t a team with an elite scorer, but they are deep and will wing you to death, for example, as will Florida State, who the Gators play November 10.
9. The nonconference schedule is daunting, but fun
Last year’s Florida schedule was arguably too demanding. The Gators opened at a terrific Florida State team, played a tough bracket at the Battle of Atlantis, tackled West Virginia in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, hosted a veteran Michigan State team and traveled to TCU for the SEC-Big 12 challenge. In the end, Florida’s No. 6 strength of schedule was a big reason they secured an NCAA berth despite only a 19-15 regular-season record.
This year, they play a difficult schedule again but one that is a bit more manageable. Yes, there are early season dates with FSU and road trips to an improving UConn and always tough at home Butler on the slate. But the Gators avoid monster matchups against the Michigan States of the world and replace them with manageable games the computers will still love, such as December neutral floor battles with the likes of Providence and Utah State.
The Charleston Classic awaits later this month as well, which could see tough tests against Xavier, Miami or Missouri State.
10. The program’s 6th Final Four is possible
It has been 6 years since Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and their senior compatriots rolled through the SEC 21-0 and went 36-3, losing in the Final Four. White came within a few plays of making it back in his 2nd year in Gainesville, only to fall just short against Sindarius Thornwell and Frank Martin’s South Carolina team.
On paper, this Florida team is better and more balanced than that Elite 8 team, and while anything can happen in March, the Gators have all the pieces teams need to make a deep run in March and one that could send White and his excellent young staff in their first Final Four.