How Much Chemistry Is Florida Basketball Returning?

Which team lands the 5-star recruits or gets the top available graduate transfer often garner most the preseason attention of college basketball media but oftentimes looking at what incoming players are impactful isn’t an accurate way of predicting what teams will be great.

Sure, everyone loves something shiny and new and feels that the grass is always greener on the other side but when it comes to college basketball banking on continuity has, in recent history, been a much safer bet than teams changing their chemistry with incoming recruits or new transfers to the program.

Specifically, teams that have experienced greatness recently have had the fortune of fringe NBA players who might have snuck into the last round of the draft or gotten signed as a two-way player returning to college. Let’s take a look at the last couple of seasons in the NCAA.

Kansas was considered the best team in college hoops by some last season, and when you look at their roster you’ll see they were led by Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike, both players who were expected to go to the NBA a year before but came back. Gonzaga had Filip Petrusev and Killian Tille, both players in the same boat, and Dayton was led by Obi Toppin who had two-way deals waiting for him in the NBA before deciding to return to college before exploding.

In 2019, Virginia’s championship was in large part due to De’Andre Hunter and Kyle Guy deciding to return against the odds. Such was the case in Villanova’s 2018 championship featuring the unlikely returns of Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson.

Florida will be hoping to taste some of that success with the return of Keyontae Johnson and Scottie Lewis, both players who were expected to go pro by many pundits. While their return far from guarantees a Florida championship, the history of fringe NBA prospects returning shows just how pivotal these types of talents are to prominent college basketball programs.

Even if you’re not dealing with near-NBA talent, continuity matters greatly in college basketball, something you have seen with the Florida basketball program. Last season the Gators were 212th in minutes continuity nationally, something a savvy college basketball fan could have noticed to help predict Florida’s inability to reach their perceived ceiling.

Florida wasn’t the only one whose lack of continuity hurt them. Memphis, arguably the most disappointing team in the country after hauling in the top recruiting class before going struggling mightily, was 331st in continuity.

Looking towards the 2020-21 season the Gators will likely do something they haven’t done in multiple seasons–start five players that were on campus the year prior. For many, the expected starters are Tre Mann, Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, Keyontae Johnson, and Omar Payne. Some people will have Tyree Appleby starting at the point and while he didn’t suit up last season he was practicing as a redshirt and will be more than familiar with the system. The last time the Gators had a starting lineup made up of five returning players? 2017, when they made an Elite Eight.

For the last three years Florida has been bringing in graduate transfers and freshmen to bolster the starting lineup, something that has made for rocky starts to the season as chemistry develops. The Gators are 24-12 in conference play over the last three seasons, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story as there are plenty of low and mid-major buy games to juice that number. They’re 5-12 against KenPom top-75 opponents and only 2-10 against top-30 opponents, of which both of those wins were by the 2018 team. Frustrating losses and the inability to play against the highest caliber of competition has a regularity of the last three seasons and turning around their early season fortune will be a big part of getting back to the culture Florida basketball wants.

Having a starting lineup made of returning players will be a welcomed sight for this team but there might not actually be as much continuity and established chemistry as you’d expect. Andrew Nembhard and Kerry Blackshear were heavy minute getters for the Gators last year, and for that reason most of the lineups the Gators employed featured at least one of them, and often both. So, how much did Florida’s returning players actually get to play together a year ago?

Using Pivot Analysis, a basketball analytics software, every lineup the Gators utilized and every possible combination of players can be isolated and looked at statistically. This is a great way to see which grouping of players have chemistry, and which don’t.

For starters, let’s look at the starting group many people are projecting.

Tre Mann
Noah Locke
Scottie Lewis
Keyontae Johnson
Omar Payne

Since this group is all returning players you might think there was some chemistry built in the past but in reality–no. This lineup played only 6 minutes together last season. Unfortunately, while this group will have continuity as teammates, they have essentially zero on-court experience together. This is something to keep in mind when you look at the Gators in early season games. As much as you might expect a lot of cohesion as returners, it’s not like this group has actually seen meaningful game action together.

A lineup that has seen slightly more action is switching out the point guard position.

Ques Glover
Noah Locke
Scottie Lewis
Keyontae Johnson
Omar Payne

This group has played 17 minutes together. In those minutes things didn’t go particularly well, and they have a -3 net rating.

Let’s see what else we’ve got.

Ques Glover
Tre Mann
Scottie Lewis
Keyontae Johnson
Omar Payne

14 minutes together. They also went disastrously, with an unheard of -71 net rating.

What about something with Jason Jitoboh starting? Not so easy. He was only on the floor with two lineups made up of all returners.

Ques Glover
Tre Mann
Scottie Lewis
Keyontae Johnson
Jason Jitoboh

They played 6 minutes together.

Ques Glover
Tre Mann
Noah Locke
Omar Payne
Jason Jitboh

3 minutes together, so, not much.

When it comes to five-man lineup combinations there really isn’t any notable continuity. Is that a bad thing? Well, no. Most teams in the country aren’t carrying over starting lineups that played a bunch together a year before so it’s not like the Gators are worse off than the average team here. It’s just worth pointing out that Florida might not have the advantage in chemistry that you might think at first glance with so many returners.

While there might not be many five-man combinations to look at there is still a lot of interesting data that can be found when looking at smaller groupings of players. For example, the wing trio of Noah Locke, Scottie Lewis, and Keyontae Johnson played a whopping 436 minutes together and had a net rating of +12. While the center and point guard positions around those three might be fluid they have great continuity on the perimeter and that should really help Florida’s offense and defense flow.

In terms of frontcourt, Keyontae Johnson and Omar Payne actually showed great chemistry as a pairing. They played 259 minutes together and had a +11 net rating. The duo could get a lot more burn this year and knowing that they played well together a year ago should bring some comfort. Johnson played with Jason Jitoboh for a total of 82 minutes and in that brief sample size they had a monster +15 net rating.

Where things get a little more dicey is in the backcourt. Here are the combinations of Tre Mann, Noah Locke, and Ques Glover.

Tre Mann
Noah Locke

Minutes: 247
Net Rating: -9

Ques Glover
Noah Locke

Minutes: 242
Net Rating: -3

Ques Glover
Tre Mann

Minutes: 170
Net Rating: -13

You can take this for whatever it’s worth. Obviously Tre Mann and Ques Glover were freshmen last year and that meant some tough minutes, especially as inexperienced ball handlers playing the point guard position in the SEC. Large jumps are expected from both of those guys and looking at their freshman numbers hopefully won’t be an accurate representation of who they are as sophomores.

Once again, this exercise isn’t to look at numbers from last year and project the same level of production in 2020-21, it’s more a look at how many minutes these players were able to get on the floor together and how much chemistry they might have been able to develop.

In the case of this Florida team it looks like chemistry is going to be developed more in practice than it was on the floor, and there is nothing wrong with that. Very few teams in the country have the luxury of making up a starting lineup of all returning players so Florida is already going to be ahead of lots of programs. Additionally, some of the new players to the mix are Tyree Appleby and Anthony Duruji who aren’t normal incoming players, they’re veterans who will be in their fourth year of college basketball both with a year in the program under their belts. That type of experience is what makes the Gators’ different from the last three seasons and could be a huge part of their success if they play to their potential.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.