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SEC Hoops Preview Series: Florida

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To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: Florida, where Billy Donovan must replace some departed seniors but still has a lot of talent on his hands.

Might be angry I picked Kentucky.
Might be angry I picked Kentucky.
Tom Pennington

We're counting down the days to basketball season, and to get everybody up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams.  All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics.  Teams will be previewed in reverse order of projected finish (according to me), so as this is the thirteenth of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 2nd in the conference.

Florida Gators 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

Billy Donovan is the dean of SEC coaches, entering his 19th year at Florida, and in his first 18 years he's made the NCAA Tournament 14 times, made it to at least a regional final seven times (including each of the last four years), and won two national titles.  So it would be an understatement to say that he has a track record of success.

But his most recent effort might have been one of his most impressive.  After losing three seniors off the 2013 team, including the #2 scorer in school history in Kenny Boynton, and with John Calipari bringing in one of the most talented recruiting classes ever, Florida was expected to drop off a bit in 2014.  Instead, the Gators only went 18-0 in the SEC and won 30 in a row before falling to eventual national champion UConn in the Final Four.

One of the hallmarks of Billy Donovan's tenure at Florida has been his ability to not only recruit talented players, but also keep them in Gainesville for three or four years.  The strength of this approach is that a player like Casey Prather can have a breakout senior year after barely playing as a freshman and sophomore and then playing a supporting role as a junior.  How many programs would Prather have transferred out of if he rode the bench for two years?  What's more, while Donovan doesn't have a great track record of having players drafted in the lottery after one or two years in the program, he does have a track record of turning out solid NBA players like Chandler Parsons (a second-round pick), David Lee (drafted with the last pick in the first round), and Udonis Haslem (now playing his 12th year in the league after going undrafted.)

All of this is why, even with 47 percent of minutes returning from last year and losing valuable seniors Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, and Will Yeguete, exactly no one is expecting Florida to drop off all that much this year.  If you're doubting Billy Donovan's ability to put a good team on the floor, then you obviously haven't been paying attention.

Projected Depth Chart

Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be listed otherwise on the roster, so you may see guards listed as forwards, forwards listed as centers, etc.  Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com.

Losses
  • Casey Prather (27.9 mpg, 13.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg); graduated
  • Scottie Wilbekin (33.8 mpg, 13.1 ppg, 3.6 apg); graduated
  • Patric Young (26.1 mpg, 11.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg); graduated
  • Will Yeguete (23.3 mpg, 4.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg); graduated
Starting Five
  • PG Kasey Hill (6'1", 182 Soph., Eustis, FL)
  • SG Michael Frazier (6'4", 194 Jr., Tampa, FL)
  • SF Dorian Finney-Smith (6'8", 218 Jr., Portsmouth, VA)
  • PF Chris Walker (6'10", 220 Soph., Bonifay, FL)
  • C Jon Horford (6'10", 245 Sr., Grand Ledge, MI); transfer/Michigan
Top Reserves
  • G Eli Carter (6'2", 200 Jr., Paterson, NJ); redshirted last season
  • F Devin Robinson (6'8", 178 Fr., Chesterfield, VA); #4 SF and #17 overall
  • F Alex Murphy (6'8", 225 Soph., Wakefield, RI); transfer/Duke, eligible midseason
  • G Chris Chiozza (6'0", 160 Fr., Memphis, TN); #8 PG and #44 overall
Bench
  • G Dillon Graham (6'4", 185 Soph., Orlando, FL); redshirted last season
  • G Jacob Kurtz (6'6", 210 Sr., Oviedo, FL)
Out for season
  • G Brandone Francis (6'5", 205 Fr., La Romana, DR); #11 SG and #32 overall; ineligible
  • C John Egbunu (6'11", 266 Soph., Bauchi, Nigeria); transfer/South Florida; sitting out
  • G/F DeVon Walker (6'6", 203 Jr., Winter Haven, FL); injured

While it's generally difficult to take much away from exhibition games, Florida's close shave against D-2 Barry did raise a couple of red flags: the Gators got outrebounded and 37 of their 67 field goal attempts came from three-point range.  Chris Walker did miss the game (and will miss the first two of the regular season), but it's a bit disturbing that a top 10 team allowed a D-2 team to get on the offensive glass that much and was overly reliant on three-pointers.

If there's good news, it's that in Michael Frazier, Florida has perhaps the best pure shooter in the SEC and one of the best in the country.  Frazier shot 44.5 percent on threes and 84.2 percent at the line last season, though expect his percentages to drop a bit now that he doesn't have Prather, Wilbekin, and Young around.  Although Frazier was Florida's third-leading scorer last season, he functioned as more of a role player last year and probably will be playing more of a featured role in the offense this season.

Still, Frazier isn't the only player on this team who can shoot.  Eli Carter missed last season with an injury, but as a sophomore at Rutgers he shot 32 percent on threes and 86.4 percent from the line; the latter might be more reflective of his shooting ability as the former can be explained away by playing on a bad Rutgers team.  Dorian Finney-Smith, who transferred from Virginia Tech, averaged 8.7 ppg last year and while not strictly a three-point shooter, he has enough range to stretch the defense.  The Gators are so well-stocked on the wings that freshman Devin Robinson, a top recruit who would start for most programs in the country from day one, will come off the bench behind Frazier and Finney-Smith this year; and also well-stocked enough that the losses of DeVon Walker (torn ACL) and Brandone Francis (NCAA eligibility issues) aren't that big of a deal.

The Gators will also get Alex Murphy eligible at semester break; Murphy is a former top recruit who played sparingly in a year and a half at Duke.  Sophomore Dillon Graham, who redshirted last year, and walk-on Jacob Kurtz provide depth at the guard spots.

At the point, sophomore Kasey Hill will step in to replace Wilbekin; Hill struggled a bit with the transition to the college game, but after a year backing up Wilbekin he should be ready to run the offense.  Hill's backup will be Chris Chiozza, another highly-regarded recruit who is the rare Memphis player to slip away from Josh Pastner.  Like Hill was last year, Chiozza will get a full year as a backup to adjust to the college game but is talented enough to give Donovan good minutes as a freshman.

If there's a problem with this team, it's that Florida is pretty thin up front.  Donovan was hoping to get South Florida transfer John Egbunu eligible, but he'll sit out this year.  Michigan transfer Jon Horford is eligible, but he and Chris Walker are the only players taller than 6'8" on the roster.  Finney-Smith can play the four if necessary, but if either Walker or Horford gets hurt or gets in foul trouble (a particular concern with Horford, who committed 5.9 fouls per 40 minutes last season), the Gators don't really have anyone else to turn to.  Or, alternatively, if Walker continues to have off-the-court issues; as mentioned above, he'll be out for the first two games due to a suspension.

The good news is that Walker, if he's playing, is very talented.  Florida didn't need him last year with Patric Young and Will Yeguete on the low block, but Walker should step into a bigger role this season.  Horford probably won't provide much scoring punch but is plenty useful as a rebounder and shot-blocker down low.  And Donovan, more than a lot of coaches, is fairly well-suited to winning with a smaller lineup, though of course his most successful teams have generally featured good bigs like Young or Joakim Noah before him.

Schedule

Non-Conference
11/6 Barry (exh.)
11/14 William & Mary
11/17 Miami
11/21 Louisiana-Monroe
11/26 vs. Georgetown
11/27 Battle 4 Atlantis
11/28 Battle 4 Atlantis
12/5 at Kansas
12/8 Yale
12/12 Texas Southern
12/14 Jacksonville
12/20 vs. Wake Forest (Sunrise, FL)
12/30 at Florida State
1/3 Connecticut
Conference Home-and-Home

LSU, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Texas A&M

Conference Home

Mississippi State, Auburn, Arkansas, Tennessee

Conference Road

South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Missouri

The non-conference schedule is tough, with road games against Kansas and a decent Florida State team, home games against Miami and UConn, a neutral-court matchup against Wake Forest in its first year under Danny Manning, and a loaded Battle 4 Atlantis field; after starting with Georgetown, the Gators could face Wisconsin in the second game and potentially UCLA, North Carolina, or Oklahoma in the third game.  There's little reason to think Florida's non-conference strength of schedule will be an issue.

The SEC schedule is fairly average, with Kentucky and LSU on the schedule twice, but also two games apiece against Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M.  But again, Florida's non-conference SOS should more than make up for that and it's fairly unlikely that the Gators will be fighting for an NCAA bid; if this team lives up to expectations, there should be little doubt that the Gators are an NCAA team by February.

Outlook

Most programs would be in for a rebuilding year after losing players the caliber of Prather, Young, Wilbekin, and Yeguete; but then, most programs are not Florida.  While it's reasonable to expect some drop-off (after all, it's not every day that a team goes 18-0 in the SEC and wins 30 games in a row), Donovan's track record is such that nobody would be surprised if this team wins another SEC title (yes, even with a loaded Kentucky team in the league) and makes another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Yes, the senior foursome from last year were talented, but the players replacing them are just as talented, if not moreso.  The recruiting rankings are nice, but remember that Donovan can win even with a player like Wilbekin who wasn't all that highly regarded coming out of high school.  Much like the past couple of years, guys who played supporting roles like Frazier and Finney-Smith, or reserve roles like Kasey Hill and Chris Walker, will simply step up their game to account for all the departed production.

The particularly scary thing for the rest of the SEC is that there's only one senior on scholarship, though of course Chris Walker could be gone to the NBA and there will be a roster squeeze with Florida currently at its full scholarship load and four talented freshmen coming into the program next year.  So this could be a slight off-year for the Gators, but don't expect it to last long.