By Kyle Caron
#9 Florida Gators
Last Year: 27-9 (14-4 SEC) Elite Eight
The Florida Gators have seemingly bounced back from their 2015 slump following the departure of Billy Donovan to the NBA. Any questions surrounding Mike White’s ability to keep this team relevant have been put to rest after their Elite Eight run last season and a second place finish in the SEC. With that, it is looking like the 2017-18 Gators will be the strongest team we’ve seen since their Final Four season in 2014 which is why I am ranking them number nine in my top ten.
For starters this Florida team looks like it will have a stronger front court than last season. Center John Egbunu is back after tearing his ACL last season, although he will likely miss the first few weeks. In the 2015-16 season, Egbunu averaged 11.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, and a team high 1.4 BPG. This 6’11, 265lb Nigerian will completely change the inside dynamic of the team when he (hopefully) returns in time for SEC play. Until then, the Gators will have to rely on backup center Kevarrius Hayes to control the paint although the rising junior showed great potential last year after leading the team in blocks.
Much like in my West Virginia preview, this Florida team shines in their backcourt. Senior PG Chris Chiozza returns to take control of this team after living in the shadow of Kasey Hill last season. Chiozza almost led the team in both assists per game and steals per game in 2016-17, second only to Hill. This year it is his team and his time to show everyone how far this squad can go with him at the helm. In support Chiozza also has KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson, both juniors who will have an immediate scoring impact. Allen is one of the best shooting guards in the conference and led the team with 14 PPG last season.
The real X factor will be how well Hudson can perform after taking a year off as a redshirt due to transfer ineligibility. As a sophomore at Virginia Tech, Hudson averaged 8.4 PPG and saw significant playing time with 20 minutes per game. If he can get back into his stride quickly after taking a season off, this backcourt could be one to watch.
Kasey Hill is clearly the biggest asset from last year that is no longer with the team. As I said before he led the team in both assists (4.5 APG) and steals (1.7 SPG). He also averaged the most playing time and the offense completely flowed through him. Canyon Berry was lost to graduation as well and averaged the most points per game (11.4 PPG) out of any of the departures. Arguably the largest loss is Devin Robinson who declared early for the draft. Robinson had the third most PPG, second most RPG, and played the most minutes out of anyone in the front court. Filling the gap left by him is not going to be easy which brings us to who is joining the roster this year.
Arguably the best newcomer to the team is graduate transfer Egor Koulechov. While at Rice University, this G/F averaged 18.2 PPG and 8.9 RPG. He also was named First Team All-Conference USA and is great from 3-pt range shooting 47.4% last season. He could easily be the plug this Gators team needs to fill the gap left by Robinson. Another key addition is DeAundrae Ballard, a four-star freshman out of Atlanta. Ranked 65 in ESPN’s Top 100, this SF is considered a versatile scorer capable of hitting from 3-pt, mid-range, and finishing at at the rim. He should be able to provide some solid minutes off the bench.
The Florida Gators are looking to be just as good, if not better than last year. However if they want to contend with the likes of Kentucky in the SEC, they will need the new pieces to mesh quickly.
Chiozza will need to step up to the plate and take on the leadership role left by Hill with confidence. Hudson will have to prove that the momentum he gained from his time at VA Tech hasn’t depreciated and Egbunu will have to come out swinging when he returns from injury. This team has a lot of promise and with Mike White as their coach the fans in Gainesville should be confident that they will have a successful season.
Think they should be higher? Lower? Let’s hear it, comment below!