Previewing Teams Florida May Battle For A Final Four

This year’s iteration of the Gators sees a team loaded with talent that looks like it will be contending for a Final Four and even a National Championship. While Florida has fielded some solid teams recently, this is the first time since the 2014 group that the Gators have been talked about as Championship contenders entering the season and for Florida fans that means viewing the college basketball landscape through a different lens.

In a normal season you might be watching the non-conference schedule taking note of SEC teams that the Gators will obviously be playing in the league, figuring out whose good, whose not, and how Florida will match up. In a season like this, it’s time to start looking at some of the best teams in the country to see what the Gators could be dealing with if they match up with them in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament or beyond.

The teams discussed are some of the consensus top-10 rosters no matter who you ask. For the Gators to go on a National Championship run they’ll likely have to go through a few of these teams so this could give you a list of who to keep an eye out for this year.

Here are some of the best teams entering this college basketball season and how the Gators might match up against them if they were to go head-to-head in March.

Michigan State

Tom Izzo’s Spartans are number one in just about every preseason ranking and it’s largely due to the play of their returning senior point guard Cassius Winston, a player who is also getting all kinds of preseason player of the year buzz. It’s not hard to see why he’s getting that kind of attention as he was an 18.8 points, 7.5 assists per game player a year ago. Shooting guard Joshua Langford joins him in the backcourt at 15.0 points per game while providing the element of athleticism that’s missing from Winston’s game. The third wheel is Xavier Tillman, a bruising big man who has carved out an important role controlling the glass and laying in immaculate passes from Winston.

A lot of the hype Michigan State is getting is centered on the Winston-Langford backcourt and luckily for the Gators they’d be able to match up with it pretty well. Nembhard has a big length advantage over the 6’1” Winston and the Gators would have a few options to match up with Langford. One of the holes on the Spartans’ roster is at the forward positions and without a scoring threat at the 3 Scottie Lewis could be cross-matched to hound Langford. While Tillman is extremely physical down low he’s a thick 6’8” and will be giving up both speed and length to Kerry Blackshear, a matchup the Gators would love to go to. Izzo is a master at developing talent and he’ll need to be this year with a bench unit that lacks many proven players and once you start looking at guys 7-10 on the roster the Gators have a talent advantage.

The Spartans have a lot of buzz and it’s justified but it’s a roster that doesn’t overwhelm you with talent, it’s one that have strong players that compliment Izzo’s system. They’ll be really good but they don’t have the talent, size, and athleticism that truly dominates and the Gators would have the chance to win those categories.

Memphis

The Tigers might have the biggest range of any team when it comes to various preseason rankings but with the #1 recruiting class they’re bringing in you can see why there are people high on them. It’s probably fair to point out that if Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, or North Carolina were to have pulled in the identical recruiting class they’d almost certainly be a consensus #1 or #2 team in the polls.

A major difference between Memphis and the schools I just mentioned, however, is coaching continuity. Memphis bringing in Penny Hardaway meant they were going to land an elite recruiting class but he’s a rookie D1 coach and no one can be quite sure how he’ll be able to bring together a young team that’s loaded with talent.

Memphis’ class looks like this:

James Wiseman (#1) C
Precious Achiuwa (#15) PF
Boogie Ellis (#38) G
DJ Jeffries (#52) SF
Lester Quinones (#58) SG
Malcolm Dandridge (#106) C
Damion Baugh (#115) G

In terms of returners they aren’t really bringing anyone back of major relevance and it’s likely they’ll be starting five freshman. Freshman team, freshman coach…we’ll see how this works out but there could be a lot more reason to be cautious than to be optimistic as recently it’s been experienced teams that have dominated the NCAA Tournament.

It should also be noted that this class isn’t exactly what you think of when you hear #1 recruiting class. Usually the top class has a lot more top end talent than this Memphis class which is more top-100 quantity than it is top-30 quality. It’s still an absurdly good class for them going forward as only Wiseman and Achiuwa are projected one-and-dones but when it comes to this season they will probably struggle with inexperience and if they were to match up with Florida they would likely struggle to score against the Gators’ speed on defense and they don’t have the shot making to make things happen late in the clock.

Duke

You’ve heard this script before for Duke.

Star-studded group of freshman. A few savvy returners. High preseason ranking.

That looks to be the case again as returning point guard Tre Jones is likely to running with four freshmen in the starting unit. Javin DeLaurier, Alex O’Connell, Jack White, and Joey Baker are other returners that will offer some intrigue but really, this group is all about the freshmen which is what we’ve come to see from Coach K as of late. Vernon Carey (#6), Matthew Hurt (#12), Wendell Moore (#29), and Cassius Stanley (#37) are who make up one of the best recruiting classes in the country and it offers far more chemistry and versatility than most Duke recruiting classes. Stanley is an electric perimeter scorer while Carey can dominate down low, Hurt is a perfect stretch 4, and Moore is a slashing athlete. Duke teams of late have been loaded with talent that hasn’t meshed particularly well but this group looks to fit together perfectly.

If the Gators were to match up with Duke they’d have to show they could get the ball into the paint against this really long Blue Devils squad. Tre Jones is an excellent defender who could cause Andrew Nembhard some frustration and Moore and Stanley would have the athleticism to run with Keyontae Johnson and Scottie Lewis. Duke lacks the explosive player of the year candidate they normally showcase but have much better rotation pieces than we’ve come to expect and they could be a tough out in March.

Kentucky

You better get used to this Kentucky roster because the Gators may see them a whole lot this season between their two games in the regular season as well as the opportunity to match up in the SEC Tournament as well as maybe even the late stages of the NCAA Tournament.

Kentucky is going to be picked near the top in a lot of preseason polls due to established institutional success, another shining recruiting class, and the incoming graduate transfer Nate Sestina.

Tyrese Maxey, a 6’3” freshman guard, is a name you’ll need to become familiar with as he is the most electric offensive talent and the roster, offering the biggest perimeter threat the Wildcats have had on their roster since Jamal Murray or Malik Monk. He offers straight-eyed shooting from deep, something that Coach Calipari’s rosters often lacked. Another player offering shooting upside is Bucknell grad transfer Nate Sestina who is dangerous as a catch and shoot guy and it’s safe to say he’ll have those opportunities playing alongside Maxey as well as returning guard Ashton Hagans. Athleticism, defense, and rebounding will be the focus for Kentucky just like they always are but this team should have a bit more scoring punch than usual with Maxey featured on the perimeter.

Here is the thing about Kentucky. For them to maximize scoring opportunities they’re going to need to have Sestina on the floor and for that to happen they’ll have to put junior Nick Richards or sophomore EJ Montgomery on the bench and when you lose one of those guys you lose some frontcourt toughness that has been the calling card of Calipari teams. Freshmen Khalil Whitney and Johnny Juzang will offer some shooting but weren’t lethal enough from deep on the grassroots circuit to suggest they’ll be anything more than average shooters in the SEC. Ashton Hagans is a great defensive guard that will be able to hound Andrew Nembhard but they don’t offer a decent matchup for Kerry Blackshear Jr. (part of the reason they were pursuing him so hard) and if they start trading jumpers with the Gators than Florida has a huge advantage with Noah Locke, Keyontae Johnson, and Tre Mann. The Gators look to be a team that has similar defensive upside to Kentucky but with much more potent offensive options than the Wildcats. I truly believe the Gators are the better team but if they end up matching up 3 or 4 times things could start to get wacky.

Kansas

The Jayhawks are a unique team on this list due to the fact they are the one school that everything thinks will be really good that isn’t going to be reliant on freshman in their core 6 or 7 players. That isn’t to say that incoming recruits Jalen Wilson and Isaac McBride won’t have the chance to contribute but the Jayhawks are simply returning some key pieces from last year’s team and adding a graduate guard in Isaiah Moss from Iowa that is keeping up the level of experience.

Two of the clear leaders of the Jayhawks are point guard Devon Dotson (a player the Gators recruited hard) and mammoth 7’0” 270 pound center Udoka Azubuike. Dotson is a crafty ball handler who can really get into the paint and finish with Azubuike is simply a mountain of man who can bulldoze smaller players into oblivion before dunking the basketball. Silvio De Sousa and Ochai Agbaji are two high-motor forwards with great size who are going to make the Jayhawks tough to score on and Isaiah Moss and Marcus Garrett will help facilitate the offense. Kansas is going to have the opportunity to overmatch a lot of teams physically and that could cause the Gators some issues in the same way that Florida State has given the Gators problems. This isn’t an awfully skilled Kansas team but it’s one that could keep you from scoring and kill you with second chance opportunities on the glass.

One thing that could hurt them is their lack of three point shooting. In the past two seasons the Gators have defended the paint at all costs while forcing teams to shoot contested threes and Kansas isn’t a team that’s going to hit a lot of guarded threes. Their physicality could cause issues for Florida’s frontcourt, however, and that could be a problem.

Quick Hitters

North Carolina

Brings in two great transfers with Christian Keeling (Charleston Southern) and Justin Pierce (William & Mary) to pair with one of the best freshman in the country Cole Anthony. They have the speed to devastate in transition as well as the interior size to pound the pall inside in the half court. Lots of their players could provide matchup issues for the Gators and the Tar Heels’ breakneck speed could be a challenge for the Gators who love to control tempo.

Louisville

The oldest team on this list, the Cardinals boast a whopping four 5th-year seniors and three juniors, one of which is Jordan Nwora who could very well be the best player in college basketball this season. They have four proven double digit scorers, a talented and well-rounded recruiting class, and a methodical style of play that has historically worked well in the dance. This is as versatile a roster as you’ll see in the NCAA this year and their experience could challenge the younger Gators if they match up late in the bracket.

Gonzaga

Mark Few has built the Bulldogs into a team that will contend every single year and looking at their talent this season they’ll once again be relevant at the top. Killian Tillie and Filip Petrusev will make for one of the most skilled frontcourts in the country and stretching out Keyontae Johnson and Kerry Blackshear Jr. could have some seriously negative effects on Florida’s defense. They also activate Admon Gilder, a Texas A&M transfer who had to sit out last season. He was one of the better players in the SEC when he played for the Aggies so now in his fifth year of college basketball he could be a threat.

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.