Florida Gators basketball: 2016-17 season in review

It is finally sinking in that Florida Gators basketball season is over. Florida finished the season with a 27-9 overall record while playing the seventh-ranked strength of schedule in the country.

The Gators were road warriors to start the season, playing their first 11 games away from home while Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center was in the final stages of reconstruction. Florida was 8-3 over that span, with its three losses coming to strong opponents in Gonzaga, Duke and Florida State.

Florida won the very first game to be played in Exactech Arena over Little Rock 94-71 on December 21. That was just the beginning of a short, but outstanding, season at home for the Gators as they went on to finish with a 9-1 record there.

The Gators won their first four home games in the midst of a seven-game winning streak that was snapped by a mid-season slump with losses at South Carolina and to Vanderbilt, the first of three losses to the Commodores.

Following the loss to Vanderbilt, Florida regrouped and went on to defeat LSU, Oklahoma, and Missouri all by more than 30 points over the next three games. It was arguably the most dominant three-game stretch in program history and was just the beginning of a nine-game winning streak for the Gators, the longest streak since 2013-14.

Florida defeated seven of its nine opponents by double digits during the streak. Most notably, the Gators defeated Kentucky 88-66 in their biggest home game of the season, ending a five-game losing streak to the Wildcats.

Florida went on to score the most points in a SEC game in school history with an 114-95 win at Auburn a couple games later. The streak was finally capped off with an 81-66 win over South Carolina, now a Final Four team.

The Gators finished right behind Kentucky for second place in SEC regular season play, with a 14-4 conference record.

Florida made an early exit from the SEC Tournament with a loss to Vanderbilt in quarterfinals but still went on to earn a No. 4 seed in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament.

The Gators were on upset alert going into the tournament after a rough finish to the season but went on to defeat East Tennessee State and Virginia convincingly in the first two rounds in Orlando, Fla.

A hot Florida team then traveled to New York, N.Y., to compete in the East Regional at Madison Square Garden. Wisconsin gave Florida a run for its money in the Sweet 16, as the Gators won in dramatic fashion thanks to a Chris Chiozza overtime buzzer-beater.

Florida then went on to face South Carolina in an unexpected SEC matchup in the Elite Eight. The Gators simply didn’t have enough in the tank to finish things out against the Gamecocks, falling 77-70 to end their Final Four hopes.

While Florida could not finish off a great run with a Final Four appearance, this team achieved above and beyond what it was expected to this season.

By the fourth week of the season, Florida moved into the AP Poll for the first time since December of 2014. The Gators were ranked 14 weeks throughout the season and were in the poll for 12 straight weeks from late December to the final poll.

Mike White inherited a program with high expectations when he took over two years ago, but it was also a program headed in the wrong direction. White took over for Billy Donovan following Florida’s first losing season since 1997-98.

He began righting the ship in his first year with a 21-15 record, but his vision really started to take shape this season. White is the winningest coach in Florida history in his first two seasons, with 48 wins. As Florida’s culture continued to improve this season, so did the level of play.

Top Moments

  1. Chiozza’s Sweet 16 buzzer beater

This play was not only the most memorable moment of the season but will go down as one of the best moments in Florida basketball history.

Down by two with four seconds remaining in overtime and no timeouts, Chiozza rose to the occasion. Canyon Barry inbounded the ball to him and the season was in his hands from there. Chiozza raced down the floor past two Wisconsin defenders and made it to the three-point line just in time to get a shot off.

Chiozza had the presence of mind not to rush his shot while knowing exactly where he was on the floor and how much time was on the clock. He also might’ve had just a little bit of luck on his side as he drained a shot that doesn’t go in nine times out of 10 to send the Gators to the Elite Eight.

  1. Defeating Kentucky at home

The largest home crowd of the season (11,171) filled the O’Dome to cheer on the Gators in the always anticipated Kentucky game. Both teams entered with identical records (18-5, 8-2 SEC), but Florida came out with the win. A dominant win.

After dropping five straight in the series, the Gators showed no mercy, defeating the Wildcats 88-66. It was Florida’s fourth win of more than 20 points and by far the most rewarding game of the regular season.

  1. The entire nine-game winning streak

While this was not necessarily a single moment, the culture change that was in the works under White became apparent during this time. It was not just the winning, but the way the Gators were winning.

It was hard to tell which direction Florida’s season was headed after losing two consecutive games to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The team was playing selfish, pointing fingers and showing no sense of togetherness.

The Gators had a team meeting the day after the Vanderbilt game where players recommitted to their teammates and to playing the game the right way, and that meeting might have saved the season.

As mentioned before, seven of the next nine games were won by double digits, including five wins on the road. The nine-game stretch defined Florida’s season.

Looking Ahead

The Gators lose four seniors this season. In senior guard, Kasey Hill, Florida loses an outstanding defensive player, but a guy who could be unpredictable on offense. While graduate transfer guard Canyon Barry was only a part of the program for one season, he was a key to the offense as the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year, scoring 11.4 points per game and leading the Gators from the foul line.

Florida also loses senior forward Justin Leon and walk-on center, Schuyler Rimmer. Leon averaged 7.4 points per game and 4.0 rebounds. He was praised by White as the hardest working player on the team all season.

The Gators also have a couple of unknowns in junior forward Devin Robinson and redshirt junior center John Egbunu.

Robinson is expected to put his name into the NBA draft pool for feedback on his stock, but following Florida’s Elite Eight loss to South Carolina, he said he could be motivated to come back for his senior season to try to make another run.

He averaged 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds this season and came on as a major factor late in the season. His return would be huge for the Gators but is unlikely.

As for Egbunu, he suffered a season-ending injury with a torn ACL back on February 14. He would likely be able to return by time for SEC play next season, but he graduates in May, leaving him with a possible decision to make as well.

Chiozza is poised to take over Hill’s starting spot at point guard as a senior. He averaged 7.2 points while totaling 48 steals and 135 assists to 54 turnovers this season.

Leading scorer KeVaughn Allen, who averaged 14.0 points per game for the Gators, is expected to return for his junior season. He will need to be a more consistent scorer next season to make up for some pieces Florida will lose.

Junior guard Jalen Hudson will finally be eligible and could be in the mix as one of Florida’s top scoring threats. He averaged 8.4 points per game as a sophomore at Virginia Tech before transferring to Florida.

Keith Stone will need to step into a bigger role as a probable starting forward for the Gators next season. He shined at times throughout the year but is another player who needs to develop a more consistent game.

Power forward Dontay Bassett sat out his first year, earning a medical redshirt after undergoing foot surgery in the fall. He will be cleared to go back full-time soon and begin competing.

Kevarrius Hayes and Gorjok Gak return at center. Hayes took over as the starter after Egbunu’s injury and held his own. He led the Gators with 60 blocks this season while averaging 6.2 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Gak should bulk up some in his first offseason at Florida and compete for more valuable minutes as a sophomore.

With that, there are some questions that will need to be answered and spots that will need to be filled next season. Some of those questions may be answered by Florida’s incoming freshman class or by a surprise return.

While there are still some things that need to be worked out before the Gators take the court next November, the Florida basketball program is continuously making strides and the future is bright.

 

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Bailiegh Williams
Growing up the daughter of a baseball coach in a household that revolved around Gators sports, Bailiegh’s future working in sports was her destiny. She played four years of varsity softball at Suwannee High School and one year on softball scholarship at Gulf Coast State College. In her first year she discovered a love for journalism so she packed her bags and moved to Gainesville to finish her A.A. and begin interning for Gator Country. She is now on track to graduate from the University of Florida in 2019. In her free time, Bailiegh enjoys binge watching her favorite TV shows and spending time with her family and her two fur babies.