2016-2017 SEC basketball preview: Florida Gators

After a slightly disappointing first season under head coach Mike White, the media predicted Florida to finish second in the SEC this season. Will the Gators meet those expectations, or fall short again?

KNOXVILLE,TN - JANUARY 06, 2016 - Guard Kevin Punter #0 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Florida Gators and the Tennessee Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Donald Page/Tennessee Athletics

Last season, in their first year under head coach Mike White, the Florida Gators finished a bit underwhelming. The team ended with a record of 21-15 (9-9 SEC) and a loss to George Washington in the NIT quarterfinals.

Now, in White’s second season after replacing long-time coach Billy Donovan, the Gators will look to build on their marginal success of last season and return to being a perennial contender. The media appears to believe in this team — they picked Florida to finish second in the SEC – but can the Gators get the job done?

Strengths

Luckily for coach White, this team returns its fair share of experience.

There are currently eight upperclassmen on the roster for the Gators, and all of them figure to play a role in how far this team is able to go.

With freshmen Gorjok Gak and Dontay Bassett both ineligible to play this season (due to a violation of NCAA rules and a medical redshirt, respectively), the upperclassmen will make up a bulk of the impact players on this squad.

One of the underclassmen that will undoubtedly make a major impact, though, is sophomore KeVaughn Allen.

As a freshman, Allen became the clear-cut No. 2 option behind Dorian Finney-Smith. Allen averaged 11.6 points per game, while shooting 39.9 percent from the field. Of the 36 games the Gators played last season, Allen scored in double digits 22 times — his season high was 32 against Florida State.

Now that Finney-Smith is no longer in Gainesville, Allen has become the go-to guy for Florida.

Leading the team along with Allen, will be two upperclassmen that have proven themselves to be extremely reliable and valuable — senior Kasey Hill and junior Devin Robinson. Hill will likely be the starting point guard, while Robinson will be relied on to provide the efficiency and post-presence that he did last year.

Perhaps due to the experience that the team had, Florida only committed 11.4 turnovers per game last season — the fourth fewest per game in the SEC. The Gators also ranked No. 2 in the conference in rebounds per game at 40.1.

With a good mixture of experience and newcomers — along with a star who can pour in points — Florida is poised to return to the top of the SEC.

Weaknesses

Although the Gators should be very good this season, they aren’t without their faults.

Last season, Florida ranked below average in both field goal percentage and three-point percentage. The team shot 42.2 percent from the field (ninth in the SEC) and just 31.2 percent from the three-point mark (13th in the SEC).

These numbers are particularly troubling now that Finney-Smith is gone.

He shot 43.7 percent from the floor, and was also the Gators’ primary three-point threat, shooting an efficient 36.8 percent from deep. Without him, Florida lacks a player who has proven to be truly deadly from beyond the three-point line.

The team’s shooting woes also affected the performance from the free-throw line.

On the season, Florida shot just 64.3 percent from the charity-stripe — the third-lowest rate in the conference.

The Gators have the talent to make a run in the SEC tournament and make an appearance in March Madness, but to do so, they will have to improve on these subpar shooting percentages.

Players to Watch

G KeVaughn Allen, Soph. — With Finney-Smith graduated, the preseason second-team All-SEC selection is now the unquestioned No. 1 option for Florida. He will be the go-to player for scoring, and he’ll have to have a solid season if the Gators hope to return to the NCAA tournament.

F Devin Robinson, Jr. — Last season, Robinson was very efficient for the Gators, and he’ll likely have an increased role this season. In an eight-game stretch from Feb. 20 through the first round of the NIT, Robinson averaged 11.6 points per game. However, he’ll need to improve his rebounding numbers to help negate the loss of some talent from last season.

G Canyon Barry, Sr. ­— Over the offseason, Florida landed College of Charleston transfer Canyon Barry — the son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry. Last season, Barry averaged 19.7 points and 3.4 rebounds per game. If he can adjust to the increased level of competition, he can provide some much needed extra scoring and rebounding for the Gators this season.

Matchups to Watch

Dec. 6 vs Duke — Early on in the season, Florida will have the opportunity to test itself against the preseason No. 1 Duke Blue Devils. The teams will face one another in the Jimmy V. Classic, and it’ll be a great chance for the Gators to see just how good they are — and maybe even pull off an upset.

Jan. 7 vs Tennessee — Although the rivalry between these two schools is fiercer on the football field, there’s certainly no love lost between the basketball teams, either. Although Tennessee is predicted to finish near the bottom of the SEC, Rick Barnes has the program going in the right direction. And Florida never wants to pass up an opportunity to win bragging rights over the Vols.

Kentucky (home and away) — This is it, this is the matchup that could determine the top of the conference. These two teams are clearly at the top of the SEC, and the only other team that can be put with them is Texas A&M. Florida and Kentucky are perennial SEC elites, and its shaping up to be that way again this season. If either team can win the edge over the other, they’ll likely head into the NCAA tournament as the SEC regular season champion. The Gators host the Wildcats on Feb. 4 and head to Rupp Arena on Feb. 25.

Prediction

For the first time in the post-Billy Donovan era, Florida will once again be a legitimate contender in the SEC. The Gators will finish second in the conference, make a run in the SEC tournament and return to the NCAA tournament for the first time under coach White.

Edited by Dalton King 

Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics

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Adam is the Assistant Sports Editor for the Tennessee Journalist and a Junior at UT. Most of his free time is spent watching sports, listening to good music, and enjoying life. If you wish to contact him, you can email him at amillike@vols.utk.edu, follow him on Twitter, @AdamMilliken14, or find him at https://www.linkedin.com/pub/adam-milliken/109/a89/a32.