Even though the dust has mostly settled from Saturday’s Round of 32 loss to Texas Tech and most of the basketball world has moved on from the seasons of the teams that have fallen to the gauntlet that is the NCAA Tournament, I’m not quite finished with this year’s Florida Gator team.
Look, I’m not quite sure if it was roller coaster of success and failures that had me hooked or the rise to national prominence of undersized senior Chris Chiozza, or maybe just the fact that this was my first year employed to cover the Gators (shout out to Gator Country for giving me the opportunity!) but whatever it was, I’m not prepared yet to turn the page on this season. The image of game tying threes from Egor Koulechov and Jalen Hudson spilling out is still burned in my mind, and the wounds from the loss still feel a lot fresher than I thought they would for a guy who generally prides himself on being able to turn a blind eye to the emotional side of the game when needed to provide nitty-gritty basketball analysis.
Whatever it is, I’m in desperate need of putting pen to paper (err… fingers to keyboard) and laying out some of the more memorable moments from the season to relive some of the more memorable moments and see how takeaways from this year will affect future teams.
This is the requiem for the 2017-2018 Florida Gators Men’s Basketball season.
We all remember the PK80. Well, maybe some of you don’t, some of those tip times were on the wrong side of 10:30 PM EST and I’m sure some of you watched the games and woke up the next morning in a groggy state where you had to check your phone to remember if we won. Anyways, the PK80, with all it’s explosive offensive performances and some of the most stylish jerseys in recent memory, put the Gators on the map and had many people thinking the Gators were a Final Four contender. Putting up over 100 on a Stanford team that was expected to be a Pac-12 contender and a Gonzaga team coming off a national title game that’s currently in the Sweet 16 and primed for another deep run was a feeling like non other. With last year’s Florida team leaning on it’s defensive prowess and the previous years seeing the Gators miss the NCAA Tournament you have to go back to 2014’s Final Four team to see a really good offensive team. Even though they achieved a top-20 offensive ranking they played really slow and worked their opponents deep into the shot clock, which if we’re all being honest didn’t impress in the same way that Florida’s PK80 fireworks did. However, what comes up often comes down and the Gators weren’t able to keep up that torrent pace all year, actually ending up as a team that ranked near the upper-middle of power conference teams in offensive production and efficiency. Despite popularity around the notion of fast paced run-and-gun offense in college basketball it hasn’t actually been shown to have much success in major conferences or especially the NCAA Tournament so maybe it’s good the Gators didn’t hitch their wagon to that style of play but during that time in Portland, man, it was fun. Egor Koulechov’s deadly stroke had me googling what the record was for threes made in a season and Jalen Hudson’s ridiculous shot making off the bounce alerted me to enjoy every moment he was on the floor as I knew he’d likely declare for the NBA Draft after the season (which he, of course, still might do). We see now that the team was probably playing above it’s head but it gave us a look at some of the most exciting basketball of the entire season and I will always have that memory.
Unfortunately, you could probably take your pick between one of several moments. Fortunately, one of those moments actually might look a lot better now that you see it in the rear-view mirror. At the time, losing 4 of 5 games in late November and early December felt awful and part of the reason was because three of those losses were considered to be too mediocre-to-bad teams. Where are those teams now? The Sweet Sixteen. Florida State, Clemson, and Loyola-Chicago were losses that had many fans frustrated (particularly falling to the Ramblers) but now you can see those losses weren’t anywhere as bad as they looked though those games were still winnable and you would have liked to see the Gators get at least one back. Lesson we can learn from this? Don’t overreact to losses early in the non-conference season because things can change quickly in college basketball and you don’t always know what is really a good or a bad loss. One of the other low moments? Losing 3 of 4 games to South Carolina, Georgia, and then particularly Alabama which was the most crushing of the losses as the Gators were pounded 68-50 at home and put them on many bracketologists’ bubbles. Or, maybe the lowest point for you was the three game losing streak to Georgia, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee that put the pressure on the Gators to win during a difficult final stretch against Auburn, Alabama, and Kentucky to secure their place in the Big Dance. All stressful moments that took the team from second weekend NCAA Tournament favorites to many people’s bubbles or upset watch.
A takeaway from these moments for me is that even though we had a lot of losses I am glad the team scheduled difficultly. Many of these losses stung and made for a record that wasn’t particularly glamorous, but the difficult schedule allowed for the Gators to have several rough patches in the season but still win enough quality games to get a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament. So many losses were frustrating and some of them made fans question the players and coaching staff but in the end no matter how low it felt like the season got, the Gators still ended up with a favorable seed in the Tournament. That doesn’t happen if you don’t schedule aggressively and have the quality wins, RPI, Strength Of Schedule, KenPom, Sagarin (I could go on forever), etc. that the Selection Committee desires. Had the Gators played a soft non-conference schedule but had similar struggles during SEC play, this team could have been a 10-seed or even an 11-seed in Dayton for a play-in game. I hope the team continues to schedule difficultly to best position themselves for the Tournament.
And please, as a knowledgeable fan base, if in the future if the team schedules a laborious slate of non-conference teams and we take some losses don’t overreact to them and know these challenges are in the best interest of the program.
We got great basketball out of our seniors and they can leave Gainesville with their heads high knowing they accomplished great things.
To Chris Chiozza, thank you for controlling what you could control and making the best player out of yourself that was possible. When you committed to the Gators Kasey Hill was one of the hottest names in college basketball, a top-10 recruit that you, him, the fan base, and the coaching staff probably thought would be declaring for the draft long before becoming a senior. That, of course, didn’t happen and you ended up being a secondary point guard for three seasons, something I’m sure you didn’t expect when you signed your letter of intent. You never complained and instead thrived in a role that expanded to not just the backup point guard but a player that needed to be on the floor at the same time as Hill for stretches because you earned those minutes and the coaches couldn’t keep you on the bench. Then, as a senior, you became one of the top-10 point guards in the country as recognized by the Bob Cousy Award committee, using your incredible defensive awareness and unmatched court vision to demand the honor. I’ll miss your unselfishness, and though your shot against Wisconsin will always be your most famous highlight I thought your “pick 6” against Missouri this year embodied who you are as a player more than any other play ever could. Best of luck with whatever is next.
To Egor Koulechov, I am so glad you chose the Gators when you could have picked just about any program in the country. In a day and age where players are becoming allergic to the post and to the physical interior brand of basketball you wanted the challenge of going against bigger and badder frontcourt players even though many coaches would have wanted you to just hide on the other team’s worst perimeter player. With your shooting stroke many players would have just coasted around the three-point line, but instead you chose to take pride in rebounding, often securing balls from players much longer and stronger than your 6’5”, 205 pound frame. You could have went to play professionally in Europe last year but instead came to Gainesville and I hope the University of Florida made up it’s side of the bargain to you as you definitely gave this team all they could have asked for.
To John Egbunu, I’m glad you made the decision to come to Florida after you could have transferred to many elite programs after your start in South Florida. Players of your size and athleticism don’t grow on trees and I know you were heavily sought after. I’m so sorry your knee betrayed you, but Gators fans still have great images of you throwing down dunks with ruthless aggression and swatting shots into the 6th row when an offensive player thought they had a layup. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for you seeing your rehab not always happen on schedule despite your hard work, and watching the time left in the season slip away must have been heartbreaking. You never let that affect your attitude and you remained an outstanding teammate and a gigantic cheerleader on the sideline. We know there is a chance you could return as a rare 6th year senior but we also recognize that might not be what you want in this stage of life. Whatever you choose, know that Gator fans everywhere support you.
I’m still incredibly impressed by the way Mike White and his coaching staff were able to turn this team that lacked traditional defensive tools like length and athleticism into one that was sound on their own side of the floor. The way things went defensively to start the year was fairly concerning and instead of conceding that they were going to have to play fast and loose and try to outscore teams, they reshaped the team into one that understood defensive responsibilities and played a style that is more consistent and more likely to have success at the power conference level. Related to their defensive success was their ability to play solid interior defense despite being undermanned and undersized at those positions. The team was expected to struggle inside until the life raft that was John Egbunu showed up and even though he was never able to play the team stayed strong in the paint and didn’t have many games where they were so dominated down low that they didn’t have a chance to win. Another success to me was the emergence of freshman Michael Okauru, a player that I didn’t expect to break into the rotation much this year that instead became the most utilized freshman on the roster. The book on him was that he was going to struggle to shoot but instead he knocked down threes at a 40.4% clip and helped the Gators out of a lot of tough situations off the bench. I can’t wait to see where his career with the Gators takes him.
How Will This Season Be Remembered
This season was different for most Gators fans as it was a rare campaign where the Gators were just a good team. If you look at the past decade, when the team makes the NCAA Tournament they made the Elite 8 or better but if they don’t achieve that they usually missed the Dance entirely. In the last nine years the Gators have had one Final Four and four Elite Eights while missing the Tournament twice and losing in the first weekend twice. That means this year’s iteration of the Gators is a pretty rare team to just be a 6-seed and make it as far as that seed expectation suggested they would. Though if you’re a long time Gators fan you’ve been lucky with some truly outstanding basketball it’s important to remember that a season like this is still a success, even if their first weekend loss made them leave silently in the night with a large variety of other first weekend teams. Regular Tournament births build momentum for a program and seasons like this where you make the Round of 32 and return much of your roster are building blocks for major successes.
Basketball-wise, I’ll remember this team as one with a lot of unique pieces that was able to come together with a decent amount of unity and success. Jalen Hudson’s ability to shoot off the dribble made him one of the most rare offensive tools in the country, and Egor Koulechov’s ability to catch and shoot off the dribble was juxtaposed by his desire to post up down low and a pint-sized power forward. KeVaughn Allen was as streaky as they come, and Kevarrius Haye’s defensive versatility that demanded floor time came with the added challenge of how you’d use him offensively. I’m not suggesting this was a team of odds and ends, but one like an exotic car shop with parts from boutique companies around the world. I’ll remember this team as undersized but positionally sound, not particularly athletic but extremely quick to the ball. Not absurdly offensively efficient, but with a penchant for making the big shot. I’ll remember Keith Stone being the most under-appreciated piece (heck, it took me until this long in the article to reference him) with his ability to stretch defenses and make timely defensive plays, and I’ll remember the man games lost to injury, particularly all the head injuries that seemed to plague the Gators like no other team.
Lastly, I’ll remember a team that was battle tested. A team that didn’t fold through rough patches that left similar teams in similar situations dead in the water throughout the college basketball season. If you look across the landscape of college basketball you will see the battle field littered with teams that had a rough spell that they couldn’t bounce back from. This team had their backs against the wall on multiple occasions this year, faced with preseason expectations and clipped by the losses of one of the country’s toughest non-conference and conference schedules, but instead battled every inch of the way and didn’t leave anything left in the tank.
Though the games are finished for some time I’m looking forward to continuing to bring you Gators basketball coverage throughout the offseason. Recruiting coverage, player stories, statistical analysis, and more. Thanks for making my first season with Gator Country an incredible one and I can’t wait to keep writing for you.