The time of the year when the hardwood is laid out in the O’Connell Center, the nets set up, with the hopes of cutting them down at the end of the year.
Florida Gators men’s basketball is back.
The Gators kick off the 2014 campaign with an exhibition game Thursday against Barry University. Florida had a record-setting 2013 season, going 18-0 in SEC regular season play, and winning the SEC Tournament. The Gators season ended with a Final Four loss to UConn, who would go on to win the national championship.
Florida looks to replace four starters this year, as Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young graduated in the spring. More will be expected of returning starter Michael Frazier II, who was voted on the preseason All-SEC first team.
The team will also be without forward Chris Walker for the first three games of the season, including Thursday night’s game, due to a violation of team rules. Duke transfer Alex Murphy will miss 8-10 games and USF transfer John Egbunu will miss the entire season due to transfer requirements.
With the Gators tuning up before the season opener against William & Marry November 14, here are three things to look for Thursday:
The New Guys and Returning Additions
With the departure of players comes the addition of new ones. The exhibition will be a chance for fans to see the new Gators in action for the first time, such as Jon Horford, who is projected to start at center. Look for freshman guard Chris Chiozza to get some time in the game behind starter Kasey Hill, as well as freshman forward Devin Robinson. Chiozza and Robinson were heralded signings in the offseason, and both players will bring speed and excitement to a Gator offense that has the potential to be more athletic this season.
Florida will also have two players returning from injury in Eli Carter (broken leg) and Dillion Graham (bone spurts in hips), both looking to contribute to a team looking for players to step up. Eli Carter has the ability to score from anywhere on the court and will provide a much-needed slashing option for the Gators. Graham’s ability to come off screens and shoot from long distance will present the team with different looks.
Defense has been talked about throughout fall practices, and it’s something Florida must improve upon if they want to have success this year. As the new additions learn the schemes and returning players are stepping up to help teach the defense, it is leading to a group looking for team cohesion. Head coach Billy Donovan said the process would take time.
“You know, sometimes it’s a guy has made a mistake and he feels bad about the mistake and he doesn’t need you to tell him he’s made a mistake, he already knows that. He needs you right now to get him excited and fired back up and get onto the next play. And it’s a balance right now, you know, it’s a balance. And right now they’re not equipped to handle that balance and it’s OK. It’s going to be part of our growth, our maturing as a team. It’s going to be a process right now, but I think I’ve got to step in a little bit more as a coach and be able to kind of facilitate some of those things.”
The biggest thing to look for Thursday is their ability to rotate on defense. Earlier in practices there were issues getting to the open man for some of the newer players. If Florida wants to be able to do some of the things they are planning for offensively, they’ll have to create stops on the defensive end.
A New Look For The Gators
As a result of a thin roster early in the year, the Gators may have a starting lineup that consists of a backcourt featuring Kasey Hill, Eli Carter, and Michael Frazier II. The changes are also felt in the frontcourt, as Dorian Finney-Smith may move to the power forward spot and Horford may play center. If this lineup is the one that takes the court against Barry, it will be interesting to see how the smaller guards fair against a Buccaneer starting lineup that has a 6-6 guard in Yunio Barrueta.
Florida’s physicality under this lineup will also be something to watch. The Gators may not have a post presence like last season, but will still need to be active on the boards to have success. Barry will be a good test to see where the team is with rebounding. While Louisville defeated the Buccaneers 91-71, Barry outrebounded the Cardinals and was able to hang around with the ninth-ranked team in the nation.