Florida basketball is back, and although it is just beginning, the Gators will need to be in mid-season form by time for the season opener.
There is no time for a warmup or a confidence booster. When Florida takes the court in less than two weeks, it will be in Tallahassee to take on the 17th ranked Seminoles, who defeated the Gators for the fourth consecutive time last year on the way to an Elite Eight run.
Florida will, however, have a single exhibition game next week against Division II Florida Southern in the O’Dome before the real work begins. The exhibition will help Mike White and his staff get a better idea of this team’s toughness, leadership, shot selection, defensive accountability and so on.
“We’ll be at a really tough environment against a really good team coming off a great year in Tallahassee,” White said of the opener. “And just to have one game, of course we had the secret scrimmage that we can’t talk about, but one game. It’s different than the scrimmage, because there’s people in the stands. It’s very, very important, especially for your young guys. So that’ll be last tune-up, if you will, and a really important opportunity for us.”
While the Gators will face a tough test right off the bat, White seems to be feeling good about where they are at. He pointed to his seniors as guys who have really stepped up in the first month of practice.
KeVaughn Allen has had an up and down career at Florida. High expectations were put on him after a stellar freshman season, but he just hasn’t been able to find offensive consistency, and even got lost in the mix at times with the Gators’ other offensive weapons last year.
Whether he is realizing his remaining opportunities are numbered or has just started to find himself, White and other Florida players raved of his improvements.
“From a wind standpoint, he’s sprinting the court, he’s playing hard defensively, he’s flying around,” White said. “He’s making plays—some blue-collar plays—steals, digging in the post, rebounding down versus contact. And he’s playing with a green light offensively. He’s not overthinking stuff right now. He’s in a good place from a confidence standpoint. He’s been as good as he’s been in practice since he’s been here in the last couple weeks.”
White spoke very highly of senior center Kevarrius Hayes as well. The Gators relied heavily on him inside for the last couple years due to an extreme lack of depth at the position.
Now, there is much more depth once a few players can finally get healthy. But no one can replace the energy, work ethic and leadership Hayes provides on the court.
“Kevarrius Hayes has made a big jump,” White said. “He’s the guy right now. I don’t know how many minutes he plays, I don’t know how many points he averages, but he is the guy that has become very vocal, very demanding … We challenge our guys to be more and more vocal, and he has embraced it. I’m very pleased with his leadership characteristics so far. Whether he gets 18 points against Florida Southern or plays one minute, we need that to continue moving forward.”
With so much young talent and some veterans taking charge, Florida seems to be in a good place as the season quickly approaches.
“I think we’ve gotten a little more accountable,” White said. “Again, Kevarrius has led that charge a little bit in terms of his leading and communicating. I think both Jalen [Hudson] and KeVaughn are better defenders today than they were late last season. There are still mental mistakes, for the most part made by younger guys, that we have to clean up. But I like our overall intensity level and attention to detail. I think this team has a pretty good level of focus and buy-in, especially for this early in the season. This is a team that pretty much every day gets a little bit better.”