Gator Country brings you a special podcast as Brent Mechler who writes for Lindy’s magazine joins us to help us preview the Florida Gators basketball season that starts on Friday night.
Andrew Spivey and Nick de la Torre ask Mechler to gives us his prediction on the starting five for the Gators, plus the outlook for the season.
Andrew and Nick ask Mechler what he thinks is the feeling around the team and what the goals are for Mike White and his team.
Andrew: What’s up, Gator Country? I’m joined by my man, Nicholas de la Torre. Nicholas, we got a special podcast today, an extra podcast, and we’re going to be joined by our good friend Brent Mechler, aka Gatorhoops. Brent, what’s up, man? It’s your season.
Brent: How you doing, guys? I don’t know if I’m a special guest, but I’ll take it.
Andrew: Special, we only bring our special guest on every now and then. If you’re a regular, like Nick and I, you’re just a regular.
Brent: Sounds good. I’ll take it.
Andrew: Brent, first off, basketball season’s kind of overlooked in Florida right now. I guess, in your opinion, what is this basketball team right now? Do you feel like there’s some energy around this team, or is it kind of dead like we think so?
Brent: I think basketball takes a little while to get momentum in Gainesville at the University of Florida. I think the buzz around the team is a little bit dead, just because that’s just the way basketball is viewed. I certainly don’t think the buzz within the team, within the program, is dead. I think there’s a lot of optimism going into the season, and I think that will start bleeding into the stands, and I think you’ll see this game get a pretty darn good following as they get successful. That’s just the way it is for Florida basketball.
Nick: How much of that do you think is maybe some cautious optimism based on the past two seasons, from the fan base at least?
Brent: Yeah. I think, look, we’ve had back to back NIT, and Florida’s not a fan base that is going to be considered die hard, that is going to come back with tremendous enthusiasm, because we ran to the NIT quarterfinals last year. So there’s a little bit of spillover, kind of a hangover from not having two great seasons. I do think this will be, I don’t know if it’d go great, but I think this has the potential to be a good to a very good season for us.
Andrew: In your opinion, you look at this team, and, like we said, it’s not creating the buzz, but it almost is a Billy Donovan kind of team a little bit where it’s they don’t have that one superstar, it’s just a really good team. That’s Mike White, right? That he’s always going to have a really good team, maybe not that great player.
Brent: That’s going to have to be him for a little while, because Mike White is at a national program now, recruiting on a national stage, and, let’s be honest, Mike White has come from Louisiana Tech, doesn’t have an NCA tournament in his coaching pocket, and he’s recruiting against guys like Calpari. So it’s hard to get that superstar for him right now. He needs the momentum of a really good season. I think he has a chance to get that. He does have a really good team. His teams at Louisiana Tech were typically pretty balanced, but he had some very good players relative to that conference.
One thing he proved very good at was finding guys who were a little bit under the radar, who turned into very good players, and he had some guys that were outstanding, guards in particular, at Louisiana Tech, and probably could have played at some pretty big schools, but Mike spotted him early. Mike spotted things that other programs didn’t, and they helped Mike win a heck of a lot of games at Louisiana Tech. I think he will have some superstars if he can get some traction. I certainly think he wants them, but he’s got to go about the business of having good balanced teams right now, because that’s just where he’s at in terms of what he can recruit.
Let’s be honest, it’s going to be hard to go up against John Calipari and get a guy like Trey Young or somebody like that, one of the top prospects right now. I don’t think he’s saying, “That’s not what I want, that’s not what I need.” He does. He’s just not there yet, but he’s got a good balanced team this year.
Andrew: Yeah. I think the thing that I look at, and that is if that team last year shoots the ball better, we’re talking about a completely different outcome to the season. Is that the key again this year, how well they shoot the ball?
Brent: Probably. I mean, last year they shot the 12th lowest in three point percentage in the SEC, and the 13th lowest from the free throw line, and that’s out of 14 teams. Yeah. That’s obviously a big factor. I don’t know that they’re going to be a tremendous shooting team. I don’t know that they necessarily have to, but they got to be a little bit better than that. I think they will. Last year they had a couple guys who could shoot, but I think they add some scorers this year, maybe not dead eye shooters. Canyon Barry’s the biggest one. He’s got a scorer reputation. He’s not a marksman, but the guy can score. Keith Stone has a good offensive game.
Of course, you lose Finney Smith, but you also have another year of maturity with guys like Kevaughn Allen. I think that biggest thing is going to be Kasey Hill. He’s not going to be a shooter ever in his career, but a lot of the misses that you had, especially from him, were at the rim. I mean, when you have a four or six point loss and you leave 10 points on the rim, missing layups, that changes the season. Of course, so does missing shots at the free throw line, and we did a lot of that.
Nick: Speaking of Kasey Hill, and speaking of missing shots at the free throw line, had a chance to go to practice. Mike White’s really making that an emphasis, and they’ll go from a drill where they’re running up and down the court to right into free throws, and he yells, “80%. We have to make 80%.” Then he ends every practice with free throws. If the guy misses his first free throw, the team is running 22s, which is up and back twice. If the guy misses the second free throw, they’re running an 11, which is up and back, and that’s all timed. Kasey Hill is basically shooting a percentage that’s roughly around what John Egbunu was shooting. Is there any hope? How does a guard shoot so poorly from the free throw line?
Brent: I don’t know. I really don’t.
Nick: It just doesn’t make sense to me. It seems like maybe the bigger guys with the bigger hands normally have trouble, but guards. Canyon Barry’s been great from the stripe. Chiozza’s been great. Even Keith Stone, who you brought up, might want to talk about a little bit later, has been good from the maturity stripe.
Brent: You’re right. You usually see the bigger guys, they got the big hands. Almost for some of these guys like throwing a softball at the rim. Their trajectory has to be different, because they’re a lot taller. It’s almost like a line drive. I don’t know how a guard, especially in Division I college basketball, high Division I college basketball, shoots so poorly from the free throw line. I thought it was like a case of the yips for a year or so, but it’s not. I mean, look, he’s just not a good shooter. He never will be. If he can bump it up a little bit, great, by concentrating. I’m not optimistic that he’s going to, I think Mike White is really hopeful by saying this team will shoot 80%. It won’t. It doesn’t have to.
Kasey Hill won’t come close to that. I’d like to see him, the thing that I think he can do that’s attainable, that will change games and change the season, is finish his layups. I’m way more optimistic that he can do that. Down the stretch last year in the NIT, when he had I think four or five games where he finished in double figure scoring, that’s exactly what he did. He got into the lane, which he’s very good. He’s very fast. He creates opportunities for his teammates. He creates spacing, but then most importantly got the ball in the basket. If he can do that, if he can make his layups. I mean, that adds 6, 8, 10 points a game to the outcome. If he can be a little bit better at the free throw line, great. He’s not going to be a good free throw shooter. What’s important though is we now have a second guard that at the end of a game we can throw the ball to him. Last year our guard was Kasey Hill and Kevaughn Allen, and Chris Chiozza. Chiozza didn’t shoot them well down the stretch either.
So if the team’s focused, if the opponent’s focused on denying Kevaughn Allen, we were left putting it in the hands of either a big guy, who they were going to trap for something else, or putting it in the hands of Kasey Hill or Chiozza, who were both shooting it poorly. Now we’ve got a second option where if we get it into Barry or Allen we can convert those. So I think that will important. I’m not sure you see Kasey Hill come off the floor at the end of games, but it’s a possibility. Last year you couldn’t do that. You didn’t have somebody else to bring the ball up or another guard. Now you’ve got a couple guys you could throw the ball into who can convert at the free throw line.
Andrew: Maybe they should teach Kasey Hill to throw it underhanded like Canyon Barry.
Nick: They actually have, shoot, I just blanked. Canyon Barry shoots with Devin Robinson all the time, and I know that Canyon has tried to convert Devin. I think there’s a lot of muscle memory, and a lot of pride that you have to check at the door when you start shooting underhand.
Brent: The biggest thing is pride. Canyon grew up with it. His dad, of course, did it, so as weird as it looks to us and the fans watching, and opponents and teammates, that’s what he saw. Quite frankly, for a guy like Devin Robinson to do it, I think it’s more that they’d be embarrassed to have to resort to that. I think that’s what stops it.
Nick: Yeah. I actually asked Canyon about it, and he said he knew about it, obviously, because of his dad, but he didn’t really start doing it until his junior year of high school, or didn’t really commit to it, and he said he told his dad about two weeks before the start of that season that he’s going to commit to it, and he’s going to shoot them underhand, and his dad goes, “Would have been nice if you started practicing more than two weeks before the season.”
Brent: I remember reading that.
Nick: He said last year is probably when he felt the most comfortable with it, so you got to think that took probably four years.
Brent: I think he was in the 80%+ last year out of Charleston. That’s pretty darn good. That will work.
Andrew: Let’s move a little bit here. You talk about that at the end of the game that you think that it’s a better option there. What in your opinion is the key to this team just to not go through those scoring droughts like they did last season? Of course, it’s going to be the big men inside, whether it be Hayes or Egbunu, one of those two guys, but what do you see? What do you see as being a key? Is it Devin Robinson continuing to get better? What’s the key here?
Brent: I think you’ll have a lot of guys get better, or at least appear that they got better at playing the game of basketball. I think the reality is I think you’re going to see a lot of guys that both got better, but also Devin Robinson and Egbunu missed most of the off season, but they’ll still look better. The team will look better. Not necessarily because they’re better basketball players, but this is Year 2 in a new system. So I think you’re going to see guys, instead of having to think about where they should be and what they should be doing, playing basketball, and that’s a lot easier. I think this year you’re going to see us play a much closer style of basketball to what Mike White wants to run than we did a year ago, just because of comfort, because of familiarity.
The key to this team scoring more and not having droughts, I think, is playing faster. When we got in the half court, and we got bogged down in running sets, it was tough. I mean, when you can’t shoot the ball, and then you get into a half court, and you’re grinding it out, and teams are set up and defending you, it’s very hard. Mike White, when he took the job, bragged about having never had a shot clock violation, and hinting at the team’s going to run, the team’s going to shoot fast, the team’s going to go down there and put the ball up in the air. They didn’t do that as much as I think he wants to.
I think they’ll do that more this year, both Hill and Chiozza are, of course, fast. They were fast last year, but this year they’re going to be fast, and they’ve gotten more options on the perimeter. They’ve got Stone. They’ve got Allen in his second year. They’re going to have Barry, who is going to be a critical part of this team. Robinson has reportedly been playing really well and shooting the ball well. So I think you’re going to see them play faster, score faster, and score more.
Andrew: What do you see the starting five being? Is it Robinson starting, or is it Barry starting? What do you see the starting five being?
Brent: That’s kind of fluid, because we’ve had a couple guys that had off season injuries. Robinson, I don’t think he started the exhibition game at Eckerd, but I think he’s played really well recently and played well in that game, and played well in a scrimmage, reportedly. I think you can start with the obvious. Kasey Hill is absolutely going to be the point guard. Kevaughn Allen, of course, is going to start, and John Egbunu is going to start. Where you have some variance or possibilities comes down to a few players, Devin Robinson, Justin Leon, who are different type of players. Leon’s a grinder, brought a lot of good things to the team, and amazingly, as awkward as he looks, shot the ball really well from the arc, and has had a very good off season also. So you’re going to have those two guys kind of changing.
Keith Stone, little bit of an unknown. I heard very good things about what the redshirt year did for him, and he’s a polished offensive player, a good rebounder. Then, of course, Barry. I think those four, with Chiozza, are the earliest ones off the bench, or the other starters. I would guess that you’re going to have probably Barry in there, and I think Devin Robinson. I think you’re going to see Stone come in quickly. I think you’ll see Chiozza come in quickly.
Hayes is going to be a guy that’s going to be relied upon, because Egbunu sometimes fouls. Banging down low is tiresome. Hayes is going to have a big year, and I think he’s going to see bigger minutes, and he also reportedly had a pretty darn good off season. That’s the way I see the starting lineup shaking up. It might be a little different to start the year. I know they were bringing Devin back a little slowly coming off his injury, but I think that’s how it shakes out, and I think the minute allocation, you’ll see some guys who come off the bench who will have starter minutes. It’s a deep team. We do have some depth.
Nick: I think the biggest thing that I noticed with Keith is the size he’s put on, but also he has some very good hands, not just handles. He can kind of take somebody off the dribble, especially someone that will be guarding him and his size, but I think he can kind of create for himself with his handles and also with his hands, being able to receive passes coming in. I think that was something that impressed me.
There’s one player that won’t play this year that I just want to touch on really quickly. That’s Jalen Hudson. He is an offensive machine. From the two practices that I’ve seen, can create, can shoot. He is Florida’s best offensive player right now. Obviously has to sit out a year after transferring from Virginia Tech, but someone to be excited about moving forward, and somebody that Florida will need in the 2017-18 season when you think of some of these guys that might not be here.
Brent: Yeah. I think he and Ballard, and Gak is raw, but he’s really good also. Those are three guys that we definitely have coming in next year who I think all three of them are pretty good, but, yeah, like you said, I think Hudson could be a big time player. We have him in practice. I think he’ll help.
Andrew: Brent, before we get you out of here I want to get your take on something real quick, and that is, you said it. Mike White hasn’t been to the tournament. If you look at the SEC, and you look at this team, you think that drought gets over with. You think it ends. In your opinion, what do you see this season outlook? What is the, the goal is, of course, to get to the tournament, but what is realistically going to happen, or do you think can happen?
Brent: Here’s what I forecast. I write for Lindy’s Magazine, and here’s what I forecasted. I think Kentucky is going to win the SEC, but I don’t think it’s out of the question for Florida to win that game at home. I think Florida’s a very good deep team. I think Florida is the second best team in the conference. I think they’ll absolutely make the tournament, barring something unforeseen. I’d be very surprised if they didn’t. Last year I thought it was kind of a 50/50 proposition, and most of the season it was kind of looking like a 50/50 proposition, and we ended up on the wrong side of it with a last season swoon. This year I think we absolutely should make the tournament.
Once we get there, I think it has the potential to be a good team, a dangerous team. I don’t think it’s a Final Four team by any stretch, because I think at that point you need to have a different level of guards as it relates to shooting and scoring the basketball, and I think Kasey Hill’s going to have a good year. I think Chiozza, hopefully, will rebound from a year in which he kind of slumped, but you got to have guys that can make free throws. You know how the tournament game goes. When you struggle from the free throw line, and you’re not a prolific scoring team, your season will end in March, but I think that will happen.
I think we’ll have a good year, and I certainly think it’s a sweet 16 type of team in terms of its capabilities. Once you get to March you don’t know what will happen, but I think we break the drought. Florida’s back in the tournament. I think Mike White gets into the tournament for the first time in his coaching career, and if they can make some noise, I think he uses that momentum to help them on the recruiting trail. I think that’s been a little bit of an obstacle. He’s done well, but I certainly think that that comes up.
Andrew: I agree. I think that that is a big key, get that negative recruiting away from him. Alright, Brent, we appreciate it so much, and we’ll definitely have to get you back during the season, and hopefully your prediction goes. I know a lot of Gator fans would love to be back in the tournament.
Brent: Alright, guys. Thanks for having me. Go Gators.