There are many reasons to be high on the Gators going into the 2020-21 season but there is definitely a question mark at one position—center.
Kerry Blackshear Jr. was a master of consistency with the Gators a year ago and replacing his production will be a challenge.
Currently Florida’s center rotation has a few names, starting with Omar Payne who is the returner with the most minutes played. He definitely doesn’t have the offensive upside that Blackshear did but he brings length and athleticism that makes him one of the most exciting shot blockers in the SEC.
Jason Jitoboh showed some great flashes at the end of last season demonstrating a fantastic ability to hedge ball screens despite his massive frame. Offensively he also showcased a great set of hands when it came to both catching the ball and finishing, something that makes him rather unique on the roster.
It’s unclear if Michigan transfer Colin Castleton will get a waiver but if so the Gators will have a skilled center who can put the ball on the deck and make nice passing reads out of the short role. He’s not particularly imposing but he still has good positional size and good length.
Junior college transfer Osayi Osifo could also factor into the center mix at 6’8” and his athleticism would make him a lob threat while guards like Tyree Appleby and Tre Mann attract defensive attention.
While there are certainly some intriguing pieces there isn’t a lot of certainty you can be 100% confident in and for that reason there is at least some level of concern for the center spot.
What exactly will Florida’s crop of centers be going against? To see what challenges they’ll be up against, here are some of the best centers on Florida’s schedule to be aware of.
Always known for hulking bigs at the center position, Florida State will be no different this upcoming season. They return 7’1” Montverde product Balsa Koprivica who is certainly going to pose a problem. He’s extremely skilled for a player of that size making for a matchup problem with just about anyone he faces.
For the first time in seemingly forever the Seminoles didn’t last a >7’1” player in recruiting but instead had to settle for 6’11”, 240 pound Quincy Ballard. He is quite raw and it’s a bit tough to imagine him really contributing as a freshman but if there is any coach that can utilize a big-bodied player it’s Leonard Hamilton.
The Seminoles got an interesting name on the transfer market in an unique way—Tanor Ngom from Ryerson University in Canada. He is 7’2” (of course, did you even need to ask for a future Seminole) with fluid athleticism and if he’s granted immediate eligibility he’ll be a problem. You might hear that he came from a Canadian university and think that means he’s not much of a player, but out of high school he picked Ryerson over UConn and that should speak to the caliber of player he is.
In a world of teams looking to play smaller Illinois still loves to play two bigs at a time and they’ve built their roster with multiple difference makers at the center spot.
Kofi Cockburn is the first player you need to be aware of and at 7’0” and 290 pounds he’s tough to miss. If you haven’t seen him play well…he plays exactly what your stereotype of a 7’0”, 290 pound player is. A monster inside he finishes just about everything around the rim and walls off the paint defensively.
Illinois also has a more skilled but still physically tough center in Giorgi Bezhanishvili who at 6’9” and 235 pounds has some of the quickest feet you’ll see. Using a variety of post moves on the inside he’s a talented scorer and he’s also fantastic at drawing fouls, something that could put pressure on Florida’s center depth.
The Illini also return a notable freshman in 6’10” Jermaine Hamlin, an energy guy off the bench who can give opponents fits with his constant motor.
Florida will be looking for some revenge in the return game of the two-game series with UConn but in doing so they’ll face a formidable frontcourt.
The Huskies are heading back to the Big East this season and in anticipation of moving up to the physical style of that league they bolstered their roster with a number of quality centers.
Akok Akok isn’t big at 6’9” and 190 pounds but he’s a tremendous shot blocker and his activity level gave the Gators fits a year ago. Most of the bulk is brought by 6’11”, 260 pound Josh Carlton who enters the game and instantly tries to throw his weight around.
A sleeper player to watch is going to be sophomore Richie Springs. He committed to UConn rather late in the cycle a year ago and was the 120th ranked player in the class and at 6’9” he perfectly balances foot speed and skill with the necessary muscle to bang with bigger centers. He’s an excellent player who Florida will need to be aware of.
Now, some quick hitters on a few SEC bigs to take note of.
The Razorbacks will be attempting to get a waiver for transfer Connor Vanover, something they have some confidence in because he’ll be transferring from Cal back to his home state.
He’s 7’3” so if he’s able to play he’s definitely going to have his presence felt. At Cal he showed some nice touch inside but is mostly known for his shot blocking and rebounding ability.
6’10” Khadim Sy was impressive against the Gators this past season and they’ll have to contend with his endless energy again. Every time he was on the floor he was the one setting the tone physically and the Gators will need to be prepared for his level of toughness when they match up this year.
Known for playing big and physical frontcourts Missouri will bring the same in 2020-21 with a number of bruisers.
Jeremiah Tilmon has been a tough matchup for years in the SEC and now in his senior year he’ll be looking to go out with a bang. Their offense is almost certainly going to revolve around him on the block and if the Gators can’t stop him they’ll be in trouble.
7’0” Axel Okongo from France didn’t play much last season but came in as a fascinating player and with that size he could provide an impact by simply standing in the paint. That goes for 7’3” freshman Jordan Wilmore, someone who isn’t particularly polished yet but could still have a massive impact by being, well, massive.
One of the great agitators in college basketball is Tennessee center John Fulkerson and the Gators will have to battle him once more before he graduates. Though not the biggest center at 6’9” and 215 pounds he plays much bigger than his frame and pushed around the much larger Kerry Blackshear Jr. last season. Not only is he strong but he knows how to get to his spots and finish and it makes him a productive scorer.
His numbers have been modest but whenever Abdul Ado is on the floor his presence is felt as a lob threat, rebounder, and shot blocker. Mississippi State has been an imposing team recently and while they’re losing a bit of their muscle to the NBA draft Abdul Ado at 6’11” and 255 pounds is going to ensure the Bulldogs are still stout in the middle of the floor.
A player that could really explode onto the national scene this year is Trendon Watford, a high-profile recruit in 2019 that had a productive freshman season and is ready to make a massive leap. A superb athlete he can take just about any opposing center off the dribble from the mid post area and that is going to present a problem for whichever Gator gets the assignment of checking him.
Always known for bringing in great center recruits this year will be no different for Kentucky as 30th ranked Isaiah Jackson is entering the mix. He’s just what you expect from a UK center recruit, a great athlete who will dominate defensively but has some work to do on the offensive end.
It’s unknown whether or not he’s actually going to end up playing for the Wildcats but if Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr does end up suiting up—watch out. He is arguably the best pick and roll big in the country and at 7’0” is extremely skilled. There is a chance he’ll be going the pro route instead of spending more time in college but if he ends up hitting the NCAA floor he’ll be one of the best centers in the county.
As you can see, Florida has a lot of challenges on their hands from a center perspective. They’re going against some fantastic big men and that means they’re going to need their group of post players to really step up and compete. If they lock down defensively, control the glass, and finish an occasional drop-off pass around the rim while the talented perimeter players go to work, things should flow just fine for the Gators.