Florida forward Devin Robinson puts up a shot against South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell during the second half of the East Regional championship Sunday in New York. [Frank Franklin II/Associated Press]
UF basketball: Goal now to build off success
NEW YORK — As Florida players and managers packed their belongings to return to Gainesville late Sunday afternoon, second-year coach Mike White was asked about looking ahead to next season.
The pain of UF's Elite Eight loss to South Carolina had only slightly subsided. But White gave his best effort to forecast the future.
“I've got to think about who is coming back, who is not,” White said. “We've got a couple of guys who probably have decisions to make and I want them to do what's in their best interests. I want them to do what's best for them, period. And then we'll figure out who is going to be on board with the Gators.
“Assuming a handful of these guys return and assuming I want all of these guys to return, and they are doing the right things on and off the floor the next couple of months, we've got, not only good talent, but we've got great kids who have now been part of a culture re-change, a culture recharge, a recreation of the culture that Coach (Billy) Donovan created here, that obviously was very, very successful.”
Florida made a six-win improvement, finishing 27-9 after going 21-15 last season. It was a testament to White, who guided the Gators through a series of challenges in his second season. Florida played its first 11 games away from campus, going 8-3 against a challenging schedule that included NCAA Tournament teams Seton Hall, Miami, Gonzaga, Duke and Florida State. Then, on Feb. 14, Florida lost 6-foot-11, 255-pound starting center John Egbunu for the season with a torn ACL.
Egbunu's presence in the paint was missed Sunday as South Carolina scored 42 points in the paint in its 77-70 win over the Gators at Madison Square Garden.
For sure, the Gators will lose four seniors from this year's squad, including starting forward Justin Leon and starting point guard Kasey Hill. Senior forward Canyon Barry was valuable all season off the bench, averaging 11.4 points in earning SEC sixth man of the year honors. Walk-on senior center Schuyler Rimmer provided emergency depth and size inside.
Junior starting forward Devin Robinson hasn't decided whether he will return or declare for the NBA draft. Egbunu, a redshirt junior, could also decide to turn pro despite recovering from another offseason surgery. There's an outside chance that sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen could put his name in the draft. Allen was UF's leading scorer at 14 points per game and scored a career-high 35 in UF's thrilling 84-83 overtime win over Wisconsin in the Sweet 16.
Junior point guard Chris Chiozza, who hit the dramatic, game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer in UF's win Friday over the Badgers, will get his chance to run the offense as a senior. Chiozza averaged 7.2 points and 3.8 assists off the bench this season with a sterling assist-to-turnover ratio of 135-56.
Rising sophomore 6-3 guard Eric Hester, who averaged 2.2 points and shot 57.9 percent from 3-point range (11-19) in limited action,should see more time next season in UF's guard rotation. Another intriguing addition will be 6-6 swingman Jalen Hudson, a Virginia Tech transfer who was unable to play due to D-1 transfer rules but practiced with the Gators. Hudson projects as a versatile scorer capable of providing instant offense off the bench, the way Barry did this season.
Up front, center Kevarrius Hayes will be back for his junior season after maturing as a sophomore. Hayes finished with a team-high 60 blocked shots, averaging 6.2 points and 4.4 rebounds. Hayes said he's motivated to get back to March Madness after Florida made a significant run in its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014.
“We've been here, we know what it feels like and it's a good feeling to come here and win,” Hayes said. “So we probably just want to get back to the NCAAs and continue to win and see if we can take it all the way next year.”
Redshirt freshman forward Keith Stone also showed signs of promise, scoring 17 points off the bench in a UF overtime win over Georgia and 15 points off the bench in a win over Miami. Freshman 6-11 center Gorjok Gak contributed off the bench in all four of his NCAA Tournament appearances. Forward Dontay Bassett, who added bulk to his 6-8 frame after sitting out the season on a redshirt year due a sprained ankle, is capable of providing toughness and rebounding inside next season.
Florida's incoming 2017 class includes an inside presence in 6-8, 273-pound forward/center Isaiah Stokes, a versatile swingman scorer in 6-6 wing DeAundrae Ballard and an inside-out scorer in 6-8 power forward Chase Johnson. In addition, 6-4 point guard Michael Okauru is expected to sign in the spring and should be capable of spelling Chiozza for some minutes next season.
The 2016-17 season will be remembered for Florida re-establishing itself as a nationally feared program. The goal now is for the Gators to try to sustain that success.
“I'm proud of everybody that's in here,” Hayes said. “We've all put in some piece, some effort, some bit of ourselves just to get in here. That's probably why it hurts the most because it was a team effort.”
Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or email@example.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.
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