SEC Burning Questions: Florida Gators

Posted by David Changas on November 9th, 2017

This team preview is part of the RTC SEC microsite’s preseason coverage.

Burning Question: Can Florida’s Frontcourt Produce Enough Offense to Carry the Gators?

In his second season on the bench in Gainesville, Florida head coach Mike White erased many of the doubts about whether he was a worthy successor to the legendary Billy Donovan. After missing the 2016 NCAA Tournament from the bubble, the Gators ran all the way to the Elite Eight with a robust 27-9 overall record last season. All that success led to White receiving a healthy raise and extension through the 2023 season. Now that he has settled in nicely and appears to have things rolling on the recruiting trail — White signed a consensus top 25 class and his recruiting for next season is off to a strong start — expectations are that his teams regularly make the NCAA Tournament and do some damage when they get there.

After a rough first season, Mike White has things rolling at Florida. (Madison.com)

For this year’s Florida squad, things appear to be relatively set in the backcourt. Despite losing four-year starter Kasey Hill to graduation, White returns preseason all-SEC guard KeVaughn Allen and senior point guard Chris Chiozza. Additionally, Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson should seamlessly transition into the lineup and provide significant scoring punch while freshman DeAundrae Ballard appears poised to be a solid contributor as well. But the biggest addition is likely to be Rice graduate transfer Egor Koulechov, who averaged 18.2 points and 8.9 rebounds for the Owls last season and brings a refined offensive game to the Gators. White will look for Koulechov to do what last year’s graduate transfer, Canyon Berry, did.

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Can the SEC Carry Last Year’s Tournament Success into the New Season?

Posted by David Changas on October 20th, 2017

When the 2017 NCAA Tournament began, it appeared to be business as usual with respect to the SEC’s potential success. Kentucky, as always, was very young, but seemed like the only school from the conference capable of making a deep run — and even that possibility seemed dubious. South Carolina limped into the postseason with a golden opportunity to start the Big Dance in its own backyard, and used the de facto home court advantage in nearby Greenville to pull off a shocking Second Round upset of Duke. That win became a springboard to subsequent wins over Baylor and fellow SEC member Florida on the way to the school’s first-ever Final Four appearance. Kentucky took eventual National Champion North Carolina to the wire in another Elite Eight match-up before succumbing to the whimsy of Luke Maye. It was the biggest showcase the downtrodden basketball conference had put on in over a decade, and while the Gamecocks fell short of their ultimate goal, their run to the sport’s final weekend far exceeded anyone’s reasonable expectation.

South Carolina’s surprising run may be the start of something special in the SEC. (cbssports.com)

The question for the the SEC now is whether it can carry last year’s momentum into any sort of sustained success. Based upon the improved level of coaching and recruiting outside of Lexington, it appears well-poised to do so. The SEC on paper appears strong enough that Frank Martin‘s Gamecocks — coming off that Final Four appearance — were picked to finish 11th by the assembled media in this week’s preseason poll. As usual, Kentucky, which brought in another monster recruiting class that is rivaled nationally only by Duke, was picked to win the league. The Wildcats will once again be extremely young but incredibly talented. Florida’s near-miss last year is proof that Mike White is a worthy successor to the legendary Billy Donovan, and the Gators are themselves primed for yet another deep run.

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A Closer Examination of Florida’s Clutch Play

Posted by Brian Joyce on March 26th, 2017

It is only fitting that Florida‘s unexpected berth in the Elite Eight came from the most unlikely source. The Gators are on an improbable run, given very little chance by anyone to make it this far despite hanging out in rarefied air among the top four of the KenPom rankings. Even after holding Virginia to 0.65 points per possession in the Round of 32, still nobody expected the Gators to be the favorite in the East Region until late Friday night. After Canyon Barry chased down a sure Wisconsin bucket at the rim with a block that nobody knew he had in him, Chris Chiozza hit an epic buzzer-beater to beat the Badgers by one point. Chiozza was the hero nobody expected for the team nobody thought would still be playing.

Chris Chiozza hits a miraculous buzzer beater.

Every point scored in basketball counts the same, but we tend to place more significance on time and place. Chiozza’s miraculous shot couldn’t have come at a better spot for either qualifier. Clutch performances are part of what makes March special, and Chiozza came up with the biggest clutch shot of 2017. We examine Florida’s clutch play this season to determine if the Gators have another big shot left in them.

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In Hoops We Trust: Trust Coach, “It’s OK”

Posted by Joshua Lars Weill on January 5th, 2017

When Grayson Allen suited up for Duke on Wednesday evening against Georgia Tech, much more than just an interesting news story erupted on social media. Writers and fans all jumped in to add their two cents on whether Allen’s remarkably swift return from his “indefinite” suspension for tripping an Elon player in a game last month was appropriate, adequate or even necessary. Predictably, most (presumably non-Duke) fans said Allen’s sentence was too short. And just as predictably, scribes across the spectrum said it was just enough and to trust the judgment of the legendary coach. Which, of course, (predictably) sent those same (non-Duke) fans into fits of eye-rolling at what they deemed as the writers’ (predictably) pro-Mike Krzyzewski response. Adding another layer to this is the news that Coach K is about to take a month-long leave of absence for back surgery, effectively handing over his team to assistant Jeff Capel. Toss in that Allen is the prototypical Duke “villain” personality (in attitude, demeanor, and, yes, race), and that the Blue Devils badly lost the only game Allen was “indefinitely” suspended for, and you have quite a little tempest brewing in Durham.

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski answers a question during the 2016 ACC Men’s Operation Basketball in Charlotte, N.C., Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Photo by Nell Redmond, theACC.com)

With back surgery looming, Mike Krzyzewski might have ended Allen’s suspension earlier than expected to ease the transition to Jeff Capel. (Photo by Nell Redmond, theACC.com)

It would be easy to see this as a craven move by a coaching lifer who is regularly given a tremendous benefit of the doubt by anyone in the basketball community. Or to see it as a sign of injustice for a white kid at the NCAA’s ur-basketball location. But to me, it’s pretty simple. Krzyzewski had Allen return after a one-game absence because the pressure would have been on Capel to mete out a punishment he didn’t inflict, and then to end that punishment when Capel deemed appropriate. That would be unfair to Capel and unfair to Allen. The coach who punished him should be the one that he signed with and the one absolving him, whatever that punishment might have been. You could argue that Allen deserved to miss more games, but not many more. Could Krzyzewski have handled the entire thing better from the beginning? Yes. Is this some case of malicious intent? Unlikely. Read the rest of this entry »

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Reassessing the SEC as Conference Play Looms

Posted by David Changas on December 29th, 2016

Today brings the rare pre-New Year’s Day start to SEC play, with Georgia-Auburn tipping off at 7:00 PM ET and two orther games on tap. Now that most of the league has completed its pre-conference schedule, let’s reassess expectations for how things will play out over the next two-plus months.

The Favorite

  • Just as in the preseason, Kentucky remains the prohibitive favorite to win the SEC. The Wildcats were beaten twice in December (UCLA and Louisville) but showed they will be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament. The objective for John Calipari’s club over the next 10 weeks is to position itself to as a #1 seed in the Big Dance.
John Calipari was not happy with Kentucky's defense, but it's the offense that is more concerning in the long run. (cbssports.com).

As usual, John Calipari and Kentucky are the heavy favorites to win the SEC (cbssports.com).

The NCAA Tournament Contenders

  • Florida has been a bit better than expected, with its three losses coming against top-10 teams Gonzaga and Duke along with archrival Florida State. The Gators should coast to an NCAA bid by racking up plenty of wins in a relatively weak league. They will have a tough start to conference play tonight, though, as they travel to …
  • Arkansas, which has exceeded all expectations in getting off to an 11-1 start. The Razorbacks will still need a strong showing in SEC play to secure their place in the Big Dance, but a finish higher than fifth, which is what the media predicted in the preseason, seems very attainable.
  • Perhaps the biggest surprise in the SEC so far has been South Carolina. The Gamecocks have played stifling defense on their way to a 10-2 start against a strong schedule. They currently rank third nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom, and, although they have lost a couple of games since Sindarius Thornwell was suspended, they appear significantly better than where the media expected them in the preseason (eighth place).
  • Texas A&M doesn’t have many quality wins to date, but given its talent base, anything less than an NCAA bid will be a major disappointment for Billy Kennedy’s squad. Expect A&M to win a lot of games in SEC play.

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SEC Feast Week Preview: Part II

Posted by David Changas on November 24th, 2016

Earlier this week, we took a look at four SEC teams in action at various tournaments around the country. Today we’ll take another look at three other teams that will be in action over the next few days (we won’t mention LSU, which was blown out by Wichita State in its opening round matchup of the Battle 4 Atlantis on Wednesday).

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

Tyler Davis has been as good as expected so far for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

  • Advocare Invitational (Lake Buena Vista, FL) – Florida. The Gators have easily disposed of four solid opponents in racing to a 4-0 start. They have been good on both ends of the floor and rank as the nation’s 11th best team overall, per KenPom. Things will get tougher today when Florida faces the defending Big East champion, Seton Hall. The Pirates are off to a 3-0 start of their own, including a nice win at Iowa. The teams appear to be evenly matched, and it should be a terrific game. Florida has thus far benefited from the solid production of graduate transfer Canyon Barry, who leads the team in scoring (13.3 PPG) off the bench. The Gators are also getting excellent play from Devin Robinson and preseason all-SEC pick KeyVaughn Allen, but could use more consistency from point guards Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza. If the Gators can beat the Pirates, they could earn an interesting match-up with Gonzaga in the semifinals, with Iowa State after that. So while Florida is off to a great start so far, we will know a lot more about the Gators after this weekend.

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SEC Team Capsules: The Top Tier (#4-#1)

Posted by David Changas on November 11th, 2016

Per usual in the SEC, there is very little question that Kentucky is once again the prohibitive favorite to win the league. While there is always some early-season speculation about how things will turn out, there is often little doubt that the Wildcats will roll into Nashville as the #1 seed at the SEC Tournament. We finish our capsule-sized preview of the league with a look at of course Kentucky, but also the three teams with the best shot of dethroning the SEC giant. Within the last week we published capsules on the SEC’s bottom tier of teams (#14-#10) as well as the middle tier (#9-#5). Today we tackle the top tier.

No. 4 Texas A&M Aggies

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

Billy Kennedy Looks to Build Off a Sweet Sixteen Appearance (USA Today Images)

  • 2015-16 overall record (SEC) – 28-9 (13-5)
  • Key returnee – Tyler Davis, 11.3 PPG, 6.2 RPG
  • Key newcomer – J.C. Hampton, graduate transfer from Lipscomb
  • Team Analysis: The Aggies lost quite a bit from last year’s Sweet Sixteen team, including their two leading scorers, Danuel House and Jalen Jones. But along with Davis, a preseason all-SEC selection who has a great chance to break out, and guard D.J. Hogg, expectations remain high in Aggie-land. Anything short of a return to the Big Dance this season will be a disappointment.
  • Burning QuestionCan Davis make the jump? Texas A&M had the luxury of two great scorers in House and Jones last season, but the 6’10” center Davis benefited most from an experienced point guard (Alex Caruso) who could deliver the ball to him in positions that allowed him to be effective. Much more will be expected from the sophomore this year, and for Texas A&M to come through on expectations, Davis will have to become one of the elite players in the SEC.

No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs

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Tyler Davis’ Emergence Gives Texas A&M Hope For March Run

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Texas A&M, which had not been known previously as a destination for college basketball’s top recruits, signed one of the nation’s best classes last year in bringing in four players ranked in the Rivals top 70. On Friday, in the Aggies’ 72-66 win over Florida, one of those highly-prized recruits was critical to Texas A&M’s advancement. All season, center Tyler Davis, the Aggies’ third-leading scorer (11.2 PPG) and second-leading rebounder (6.0 RPG) has been an important part of his team’s run to a share of the SEC regular season championship. Without Davis anchoring the middle, Texas A&M would likely not be where it is today. From that standpoint, Davis’ 15 point, eight rebound performance on Friday was not only not a surprise, but it was also expected — even against Florida’s stout frontcourt defense.

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

Tyler Davis has been a force in the middle for Texas A&M. (Sam Craft/AP)

After the game, Florida coach Mike White could not stop talking about how impressed he was with the freshman from Plano. “He is just really good. It’s hard to believe he’s a freshman. He’s enormous. He’s strong. He’s physical. He likes contact. He knows how to seal [in the post], and he has great hands,” White said. Based upon the way he performed both against the Gators and in the Aggies’ six-game win streak to close the regular season, a strong case could be made that Davis has become A&M’s best player. While most of the attention is paid to Aggie seniors Jalen Jones and Danuel House, Davis’s efficiency sets him apart. That was evident again Friday. Jones and House combined to go 11 for 35 from the field, while Davis was made six of his 10 field goal attempts. On the season he has shot over 65 percent from the field; when teammates get the ball to Davis in the post, good things happen.

At 6’10”, 265 lbs., Davis is no ordinary freshman. He has clearly been the biggest addition to a team relegated to the NIT a season ago. Pairing the talented freshman with a core of talented senior leaders has led to a successful regular season, as well as the potential for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Last year the Aggies were heavily reliant upon their perimeter offense. Now, however, when shots aren’t falling for Jones, House, and fellow seniors Alex Caruso and Anthony Collins, Davis has been able to afford a steadying offensive alternative. He made the difference against Florida today, and if the Aggies are to make the sustained March push many believe them capable of, expect Davis to be as prominent a figure as any.

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SEC Tournament Takeaways: Second Round

Posted by David Changas on March 11th, 2016

Thursday was the first full day of action at the SEC Tournament, and even though the league’s top four teams have byes into Friday’s quarterfinal round, there were still plenty of important happenings that could impact which of the league’s teams are invited to the NCAA Tournament.

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday (John Bazemore/AP)

Tennessee pulled off a stunning upset of Vanderbilt Thursday. (John Bazemore/AP)

Florida Stays Alive. In Thursday’s opener, the Gators took down Arkansas in a win that kept the Gators’ faintly flickering NCAA Tournament hopes alive. It wasn’t pretty — the two teams combined to commit 50 fouls (thanks, Pat Adams) — but Florida played just well enough to get the job done. Center John Egbunu, who was expected to miss the game with an injured right hand, gutted out an eight-point, nine-rebound performance in 24 minutes, while also helping hold Arkansas center Moses Kingsley to just 10 points. Florida moves on to play #1 seed Texas A&M on Friday, in what will be quite surely be another must-win for the Gators’ still-faint Tournament hopes.

Vanderbilt’s NCAA Hopes Damaged. Vanderbilt came into its game against Tennessee as a 12-point favorite and its regular season sweep of the Vols hinted that this was a touch matchup for Rick Barnes’ team. After all, big men Damian Jones and Luke Kornet had dominated Tennessee inside in both of the prior meetings. Things were different on Thursday, though, as Vanderbilt failed to consistently feed those mismatches in the post. The Commodores instead fired up 25 threes (making nine) and generally didn’t seem all that interested in battling as if its postseason life was on the line. A valiant second half comeback nearly saved Kevin Stallings’ team, but Wade Baldwin‘s game-tying layup at the buzzer was released fractions of a second after the horn sounded. Now the Commodores will have a few nervous days ahead, as a loss to a team that entered the SEC Tournament with six conference wins puts Vanderbilt squarely back on to the bubble.

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Florida is Quietly Building a Strong NCAA Resume

Posted by David Changas on February 2nd, 2016

Heading into the Big 12/SEC Challenge, Florida had quietly managed to put together a solid NCAA Tournament-quality resume. It may not have contained any wins over top-50 opponents, but the loss column was also largely limited to teams ranked among the top 50. After getting thrashed by Tennessee in early January in Knoxville, the Gators narrowly lost at Texas A&M and Vanderbilt in working their way to a good-not-great 5-3 SEC record. That profile changed on Saturday, however, as Florida enhanced its resume significantly with a resounding 88-71 home win over #9 West Virginia. It’s the kind of win that will pay significant dividends on Selection Sunday, and one that head coach Michael White hopes will become a springboard to even more success in the second half of conference play.

Michael White has Florida positioned for the NCAA Tournament (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

Michael White has Florida well positioned for the NCAA Tournament (Rich Barnes/USA Today)

Florida has lived in the NCAA Tournament for nearly all of the last two decades, missing the Big Dance only twice in the prior 17 seasons. Small note: All that was accomplished with a Hall of Fame coach pacing the sidelines. When Billy Donovan fled Gainesville last spring for the bright lights of the NBA, athletic director Jeremy Foley turned to a coach who was about as accomplished as Donovan when he arrived at the school in 1996. While the early returns on White’s tenure are mixed – the Gators’ pre-conference losses came to Purdue, Michigan State, Miami (FL) and Florida State, prior to the ugly loss at Tennessee — the new head man in Gainesville has since steadily righted the ship. Some questioned his hiring around the holidays, but Florida would easily be in the field of 68 if the season ended today. Most of the focus in the SEC has centered on the rise of Texas A&M, the fall of Kentucky, and the superstardom of Ben Simmons, allowing the Gators to fly well under the radar for the first time in a long while.

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