Transfers bringing experience, balance to Gators’ roster

Like it or not, the “free agency” model of roster construction is here to stay in college basketball.

Gone are the days of recruiting high school prospects who fit into your system and developing them over the course of three or four years. Instead, today’s game is all about finding a way to come out on the plus-side of the transfer portal chaos in March and April.

It’s not so much about building a program now as it is as about piecing together individual teams that are capable of winning championships.

Just look at this past offseason, and it’s clear which direction this sport is headed. Twelve of the SEC’s 14 teams lost at least four players to the transfer portal, and 10 schools added at least four players through the portal. Georgia lost an astounding nine players to transfer and added five.

The Gators, of course, have been an active participant in the portal in recent years, both on the giving and receiving ends. The 2020-21 team featured a big-time transfer from Michigan in forward Colin Castleton plus two more players who became eligible after sitting out the previous season due to transfer restrictions that are no longer in effect. The 2019-20 squad featured Kerry Blackshear, perhaps the most coveted transfer of all time.

But coach Mike White hasn’t found that winning formula yet. The 2018-20 teams typically defended well but endured long scoring droughts that prevented them from finding any sort of consistency in the win column.

Last year’s group led the SEC in shooting percentage and three-point marksmanship, but they didn’t defend well, take care of the ball, pass the ball well or defend the defensive glass. The offensive lulls continued to show up at the worst times, including in their NCAA Tournament second round loss to Oral Roberts.

It seems like every time that White fixes one of the weaknesses from the previous team that two more things break.

The Gators are confident that they’ve assembled a more balanced roster this time thanks largely to the additions of four transfers from Division 1 programs: CJ Felder (Boston College), Phlandrous Fleming (Charleston Southern), Myreon Jones (Penn State) and Brandon McKissic (UMKC).

The quartet has combined for 3,882 points in their careers, the second-most of any transfer class in the country behind only Arkansas’ six-man group.

But perhaps the biggest thing that they bring to Florida is some much-needed experience. After being one of the nation’s youngest teams over the past two years, they’ll be one of the oldest teams this season. The four of them have played in a combined 338 games throughout their careers. They’ve seen just about everything that there is to see in college basketball, so they shouldn’t be caught off guard or overwhelmed by anything at UF.

Their experience also gives them the ability to be strong leaders. The Gators still have four scholarship players who are freshmen or sophomores, so it’s imperative that the four transfers assist the coaches in developing them.

“I think biggest goal really is just to lead, on and off the court,” Jones said. “This is an older team, but we still have young guys, and they really haven’t experienced the real college experience with the big crowds, big road games with the sold-out crowds. So, just being a leader and having my experience on a high level, I think that’s my biggest role right now on the team.”

Each of the transfers should also improve at least one of the Gators’ areas of weakness from a year ago.

McKissic and Fleming should help replace Tre Mann and Noah Locke’s scoring production in the backcourt, and they should be upgrades on the defensive end of the floor.

McKissic, from Ferguson, Missouri, averaged 11 points, 2.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game during his time at UMKC. He shot 48.4 percent from the floor and 38.5 percent from behind the arc.

His statistics improved each season, culminating in 17.2 points per game last season. He shot nearly 43 percent from three-point range. While his offensive numbers are impressive, he’s better known for his defensive prowess, as he was named the Summit League Defensive Player of the Year.

“I shot the ball really well last season,” McKissic said. “My defensive presence is always going to be there, but my biggest thing is being a leader, being a voice of this team. Being one of older guys that is well-seasoned and had a lot of games played, regardless of level, I’ve got to be that guy that can be a voice that can be by you through adversity.”

Fleming was named the Big South’s Defensive Player of the Year and a First Team All-Big South member in both 2020 and 2021. He turned in 30 games of 20-plus points, including seven games with 30-plus points, en route to averaging 15 points per game in four seasons at Charleston Southern.

Fleming, from Athens, Georgia, led the Buccaneers in scoring (20.1), rebounding (7.4) and steals (33) last season and posted seven double-doubles. He only shot 39.5 percent from the field and 32 percent from three-point range, though. Those numbers need to improve this season.

“Being that I have this one more year of eligibility, I’m looking at it as my rookie year, as if I’m on an NBA team or an overseas team,” Fleming said. “This is my rookie year. I’m here to do a job and be as professional as possible. I only have one year, and I’m gaining friends along the way and lifelong bonds along the way, but I need to do what I need to do to get to where I want to be.

“I want to grow in my three-point shooting. I want to grow in my percentages, my efficiency, and just continuing to grow in strength and athleticism and everything all around. I’m a very all-around player. I don’t like to just be one type of dude that plays his defense or plays his offense or just shoots the three or just passes. I want to be able to do it all. Versatility is the new norm in this game, so I want to be able to be versatile and growing in all aspects, and that is my goal here.”

Having guys who can create their own shots like McKissic and Fleming could eliminate some of those pesky scoring droughts that have plagued the Gators throughout White’s tenure. Their sterling defense should also lead to more transition opportunities.

“I always look forward to going against Phlan because it’s kind of like, in a way, playing against myself,” McKissic said. “I feel like he’s very, very, very skilled offensively. So, it’s always a great guard, someone that I can really put my best effort against. Sometimes, he still hits great shots. It’s great defense, better offense, so it’s just the guy that, when he’s on your team, it’s real nice to have.”

Jones, who calls Birmingham, Alabama, home, provides backcourt versatility, as he’s practicing at both point guard and shooting guard. His emergence as a viable option to run the offense could take some of the load off of Tyree Appleby, who turned it over 72 times last season.

Jones is also an excellent three-point shooter, as he’s a career 37.7 percent shooter from deep. He led Nittany Lions in scoring in 2020-21 at 15.3 points per game, and he shot 39.5 percent from deep. He recorded six games of 20-plus points last season, including a run of four consecutive games at one point. He’ll have two seasons of eligibility left at Florida.

“I think they’ve been giving me the opportunity to play more one, more at the one spot,” Jones said. “So, I’ve been getting better every single day, and, really, I just feel like I’m going to have a big role on this team. I don’t know if that’s a starter or off the bench. I don’t know yet, but, as of right now, it looks like I’ll have a big role on this team.”

Felder, meanwhile, is the least flashy of the newcomers but is certainly no less important. He only averaged 7.2 points and 4.7 rebounds in two years at Boston College, but he’s an athletic freak. Despite being listed at 6-foot-7 and 231 pounds, the Gators believe that he can guard all five spots. If true, that’ll be a huge help to their ball-screen defense.

He should also be a high-energy glue guy who pairs well with Castleton, who was named Preseason First Team All-SEC on Tuesday.

“I definitely look to take the biggest defensive challenge there is on the court and look to make that my own challenge, shutting down the opposing offense’s best player, blocking as many shots as I can, just getting as many rebounds [as I can], anything I can to help the team win,” Felder said.

“I think the mentality, the dog mentality really comes from where I grew up and where I played – grew up all my life in Sumter, South Carolina – because you’ve got to be tough growing up there. I think that’s what really developed the mindset.”

He’s also hoping to emerge as a legitimate stretch-four. He shot 26.7 percent from beyond the arc on 101 attempts at Boston College. If he can bump that number up into the low-30s, he’ll draw defenders out to the perimeter and create space for Castleton in the post and give the guards some larger driving lanes.

“I really started shooting more threes last year because I gained a lot more confidence than what I played with the years before while also really working on my jump shot,” he said. “I worked on a lot since then, with just being in the gym by myself, with Coach White, with some of the other coaching staff. I should definitely look forward to a better shooting percentage with more attempts this year.”

Of course, one of the biggest concerns that comes with replacing more than half of the team in one offseason is chemistry. UF’s four transfers came from different backgrounds, and they didn’t know each other before they got to campus. They chose to play for White and the Gators and not necessarily with each other.

Despite only knowing each other for a few months, the core of this team seems to have strong relationships with each other.

“Me, Phlan, Myreon and CJ got here two weeks before Summer B,” McKissic said. “Those two weeks, we got really close through individual workouts, just us four with the new coaches and the staff as a whole. But then when Summer B came, and the whole team was there, and you had Strongman and these things that really just brought us together as a team through adversity because Strongman is a lot of adversity.

“Just being there for each other, getting through that, I felt that brought us closer. And then just off the court, everything was so natural. Like, everyone hangs out with everyone. Honestly, I feel like we had no issues off the court. We all hang out together. We have that bond, so I really feel like this is a close team on and off the court. And, since it’s so close off the court, it translates.”

That cohesion will be tested in a few weeks when the season starts. All four of the transfers were starters at their previous schools, and McKissic and Fleming fell into the category of star players.

There’s a good chance that two of them will come off the bench at Florida, and even those who are in the starting lineup will have to adjust to just being one of the guys instead of being the guy.

Sure, they like each other and want to work toward a common goal now, but what will happen when the games start and someone doesn’t think that they’re playing as many minutes as they should? Will they stay committed to each other or crumble apart?

They believe that they’re old enough and mature enough to handle any adversity that might come their way as far as playing time is concerned.

“When starters get named, roles get put out, that comes with a little challenge,” McKissic said. “I feel like, though communication, anything can be solved. I feel like this team communicates a lot, not just with each other but with this coaching staff. As a team, I feel like if adversity comes or if we have those issues come about, I think we’re mature enough as a team to work that out.”

Fleming looks at having way more talent around him as a positive. He’s not going to have to play all 40 minutes, score 30-plus points and lead the team in rebounding for his team to have a chance. He can play an imperfect game and still help his team win games, which must feel like a boulder being lifted from his chest.

“When I was [at Charleston Southern] … I think I went nine games straight playing 40 minutes,” he said. “So, that’s just a toll on my body. I know that’s going to hurt a little bit in the long run, but, here, I feel great about not having to do so much because the next man or the man before me is right there with me or a little bit better than me. So, it’s definitely a relief.

“For us to have a chance to win or have a chance to compete in winning, I had to do those certain things, but, here, we have talent all over the board. Everybody can score, everybody can pass, everybody can shoot. We just have a lot of versatility and a lot of weapons, and I don’t have to do that. So, it’s easy for me to defer to other players.”

The Gators’ four-man transfer haul chose Florida for a variety of reasons. They want to improve their chances of playing professionally, test their skills against tougher competition and enjoy the warmer weather.

Ultimately, though, they all came to UF with one purpose – to win a bunch of games. That shared goal bonds them together like glue and checks their egos.

“I feel like, with this team, we all want to win,” McKissic said. “I feel like that’s why we all came here, why all the transfers came here, because we want to win. This is a school that’s used to winning. It has a history of winning. We all came here [because] we want to win. That’s our main goal.”

Ethan was born in Gainesville and has lived in the Starke, Florida, area his entire life. He played basketball for five years and knew he wanted to be a sportswriter when he was in middle school. He’s attended countless Gators athletic events since his early childhood, with baseball being his favorite sport to attend. He’s a proud 2019 graduate of the University of Florida and a 2017 graduate of Santa Fe College. He interned with the University Athletic Association’s communications department for 1 ½ years as a student and has spent the last two football seasons writing for InsideTheGators.com. He is a long-suffering fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Tampa Bay Rays. You can follow him on Twitter @ehughes97.