Expectations are different this year. Gone are the bloated predictions that the Florida Gators could make it to the Final Four, replaced by a team that from top to bottom of the roster is probably the most talented and versatile in Mike White’s five years on the job. The Gators won’t start the 2020-21 season – whenever it begins – ranked sixth like they were last year. If they do begin the season ranked in the top 25 it will be somewhere in the bottom third, which means far less pressure.
No matter where the Gators start the season, however, they have a chance to win the SEC championship and go a long way in March. The reason is quite simple. Mike White finally has a team athletic enough to play a 94-foot game. Last year, the Gators were only capable of playing a full court game for short stretches due to personnel issues. This year, they’ll have the quickness, athleticism and depth to play it bell-to-bell.
“Going into this season I feel like for the first time in a while we'll have a high level of speed, quickness, and athleticism from our whole roster, and I think we'll be very deep,” White said recently on a Zoom conference call. “We look forward to playing fast, pressing, and just playing to our strengths."
The place where change will be the most obvious is at the point where transfer Tyree Applebee (6-1, 170) takes over for Andrew Nembhard, who has transferred to Gonzaga. Nembhard is a fine player but his game is more suited for a deliberate, half-court style while Applebee will thrive in up tempo situations. Not only is Applebee a blur with the ball in his hands but a tenacious open court defender with a keen sense of anticipation. As a sophomore at Cleveland State in the Horizon League, Applebee averaged 17.2 points and 5.6 assists per game. He nailed a highly respectable 38.9% of his 3-pointers. Nembhard was good for 11.4 points per game last year and his 2-year total of 377 assists is impressive but he took a lot of shots, nailed only 30.8% of his 3-pointers and was a liability in press situations.
White has other options at the point, too. Tre Mann (5.3 ppg), who struggled much of last season after suffering a concussion in the November tournament in Charleston, is healthy and has added some much-needed muscle to his 6-5 frame. He will split time between the wing and the point. Ques Glover (5-11, 182) struggled in half-court defensive sets as a freshman but he’s a very good open court player and a capable scorer (4.4 ppg last year) when it’s up tempo. Freshman Neils Lane (6-5, 206) can defend the point and both wings, plus adds a bigger body at the point when White needs some size in the lineup.
“Now at the point we'll be very, very fast,” White said. “We'll be deep and talented, but not as proven. Not as experienced.”
Up tempo defensively favors Noah Locke (6-3, 207), Mann and Scottie Lewis (6-5, 189). Locke (10.0 ppg) is better known as a streaky 3-point shooter who can carry the team when he heats up but he’s a tough defender who can guard people 3-4 inches taller. He’s a terrific deep shooter in the secondary break. Mann is more scorer than shooter. He’s an excellent driver and better defensively in the press than he is in the half-court. Lewis (8.5 ppg/3.6 rpg) is an elite defender who can lock down anyone. If he can continue to improve as an outside shooter he will be a nightmare to guard due to his 40-plus inch vertical. A wild card on the wing will be Russian import Samson Ruzhentsev (6-7, 192), a pure shooter with seemingly unlimited range.
The Gators have some options with All-SEC Keyontae Johnson (6-5, 229), who finished last season as the leading scorer and second leading rebounder (14.0 ppg/7.1 rpg) while shooting a most respectable 38% from the 3-point line. Johnson can play the high post, run the baseline or go out on the wing depending on the situation. He’s always defended well in the post but last year showed that he’s capable of handling quick players on the wings. Another player who gives UF options is Louisiana Tech transfer Anthony Duruji (6-7, 220), who averaged 12.2 points and 6.2 rebounds as a sophomore before transferring. He plays above the rim and can play all three front court positions. Had he been eligible last season, Duruji would have been in the starting lineup from day one.
Omar Payne (6-10, 230) slumped the last month of his freshman year but showed in the Auburn game (19 points, 11 rebounds) what he’s capable of doing. Payne (3.8 ppg/3.7 rpg) is a good straight up defender who can play the safety and protect the rim in a full court press scheme. His backup figures to be Jason Jitoboh (6-11, 285) who kept earning quality minutes off the bench last year after he shed about 30 or so pounds. The Gators added a long-armed juco in Osayi Osifo (6-7, 225), who can play power forward or center. Florida has applied for an NCAA waiver for Michigan transfer Collin Castleton (6-11, 231), who has two years of eligibility remaining.
With the added size, the Gators should be able to go half-court when the situation demands, but White has made it abundantly clear he wants to play the tempo game.
“Playing fast is really in my DNA,” White said. “It’s what I want to do. It’s what our guys want to do. I know it’s what our fans want to see.”
ELSEWHERE IN THE SEC
ALABAMA: The big question for Alabama in Nate Oates’ second year on the job is can Villanova transfer Jahvon Quinerly, a former McDonald’s All-American, adequately replace Kira Lewis Jr., who will go high in the first round of the NBA Draft? If Quinerly can get the job done, Alabama should be significantly improved over last year’s 16-15 record due to experience at the other four positions. The Crimson Tide also got a helping hand up front in the offseason when 6-10 Yale center Jordan Bruner (10.9 points, 9.2 rebounds) decided to spend a grad transfer year in Tuscaloosa. When John Petty Jr. (14.5 ppg/6.8 rpg/44% on 3-pointers) withdrew from the NBA Draft the Tide got the best defense stretcher in the SEC. The Tide also return 6-9 Alex Reese (8.8 ppg/4.8 rpg) and 6-7 defensive stopper Herbert Jones (7.9 ppg/6.4 rpg) along with sometime starter and explosive scorer Jaden Shackleford (15.0 ppg/4.5 rpg). If Quinerly can distribute the ball and get the job done on defense and Bruner can supply some rebounding, the Tide is going to be a serious contender for the SEC title.
ARKANSAS: You’ve heard that old saying “You can’t tell the players without a program?” Well, that’s what it will be like if you’re an Arkansas fan this season. Second-year HBC Eric Musselman has added four graduate transfers to go with the three transfers who sat out last season and four 4-star freshmen. Gone are last year’s leading scorers Mason Jones (22.0 ppg/5.5 rpg) and Isaiah Joe (16.9 ppg/4.1 rpg). Desi Sills (10.6 ppg/3.0 rpg) is the only returning player who factored last year. The grad transfers are 6-7 Justin Smith (10.2 ppg/5.2 rpg at Indiana); 6-9 Vance Jackson (11.1 ppg/5.3 rpg at New Mexico); 6-6 Jalen Tate (13.9 ppg/5.4 rpg/3.6 apg at Northern Kentucky); and 6-7 Brandon Kimble (4.8 ppg/5.9 rpg at Mississippi Valley State). The transfers who sat out last year are 6-1 JD Notae (15.5 ppg/6.2 rpg/2.4 apg at Jacksonville U); 6-9 Abayomi Iyiola (10.8 ppg/7.6 rpg at Stetson); and 7-3 Conner Vanover (7.5 ppg/3.0 rpg at California). Of the freshmen the two to watch are point guard Khalen Robinson and wing Moses Moody. There is plenty of talent. If the Hogs can find some chemistry they’ll be NCAA Tournament good.
AUBURN: The bad news is the Tigers lost their best six players including leading scorer Samir Doughty (16.7 ppg/3.9 rpg), rim protector Austin Wiley (10.6 ppg/9.3 rpg), assist man J’Von McCormick (11.7 ppg/4.0 rpg/4.4 apg) and stud freshman Isaac Okoro (12.8 ppg/4.0 rpg). The good news is Bruce Pearl signed a stud recruiting class led by 5-star point guard Sharife Cooper, 6-10 4-star center Dylan Cardwell and three other 4-star, all of whom should start. Auburn will be one of the youngest teams in the country but the talent is good enough for the Tigers to make the NCAA Tournament. The biggest concern for Auburn is the long arm of the NCAA. Former Auburn assistant Chuck Person got caught up in the college basketball corruption scandal and it could lead to the Tigers going into the NCAA jailhouse. It’s entirely possible they will get hammered.
GEORGIA: Leading scorer Anthony Edwards (19.1 ppg/5.2 rpg) and glue guy Rayshaun Hammonds (12.9 ppg/7.4 rpg) have gone pro, leaving behind a vertically challenged roster headed up by 5-10 point guard Savhir Wheeler (9.0 ppg, 3.6 apg). They were the gang that couldn’t shoot straight (30% on 3-balls) last year and they probably won’t be any better this year. The Bulldogs will rely heavily on 4-star recruits K.D. Johnson (6-1, 180) and Joshua Taylor (6-9, 210). Tom Crean might be SEC coach of the year if he can match last year’s 16-16 record (5-13 SEC).
KENTUCKY: Last year’s starting lineup will be playing for pay either in the NBA or on another continent which means John Calipari will play with one of the youngest teams in the country. What else is new? The only returning player with any experience is sophomore Keon Brooks Jr. (6-7, 205). Kentucky’s 6-man recruiting class was one of the two or three best in the country, headed by 5-stars Devin Askew, Terrence Clark and B.J. Boston. The other guys are mere 4-stars. Kentucky added grad transfer point guard Davion Mintz (6-3, 185) who averaged 9.7 points for Big East champ Creighton last year. Kentucky will require serious contributions from the kids, but the key to success will be the NCAA approving the transfer waiver of former Wake Forest star and All-ACC Olivier Sarr (7-0, 260), who averaged 13.7 points and 9.0 rebounds for the Demon Deacons. The NCAA should approve since Sarr left Wake when Danny Manning was fired as head coach. If Sarr’s in the middle, Kentucky will be formidable and a likely top five team.
LSU: On paper the Tigers have the makings of a team that can make a deep run into the NCAA Tournament. The paper they’re most concerned with, however, is the one they’ll get from the NCAA that probably disqualifies them from anything in the postseason. Mark Schlabach of ESPN has leaked documents that, if proven true, should put the Tigers in the NCAA jailhouse for some time and banish Will Wade with a lengthy show cause. Any team that has 6-9 Trendon Watford (13.6 ppg/7.2 rpg), point guard Javonte Smart (12.5 ppg/3.5 rpg/3.9 apg) and a freshman class that’s one of the best in the country (5-star Cam Thomas, three 4-stars) is going to be really good but will it matter if the NCAA decides it’s time to neuter the Tigers prior to March? It’s not really a question of if the Tigers go down, just a matter of when.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: The top four scorers from last year’s 20-11 team – Reggie Perry (17.4 ppg/10.1 rpg); Tyson Carter (13.9 ppg/3.1 apg), Nick Weatherspoon (11.6 ppg/3.5 rpg) and Robert Woodard II (11.4 ppg/6.5 rpg) have departed so the Bulldogs will be very young. The building blocks will be D.J. Stewart (8.5 ppg/2.5 rpg) and 7-footer Abdul Ado (5.7 ppg/6.7 rpg/1.9 bpg). Davion Smith, a 4-star point guard, heads up a 5-man recruiting class. Break even would be a great season.
MISSOURI: This should be one of the SEC’s most improved teams. All five starters from last year’s 15-16 team return, the key being 6-10 Jeremiah Tilmon (10.1 ppg/5.9 rpg), who pondered bolting to the NBA. For Cuonzo Martin’s team to make a run at the NCAA Tournament, they’ll have to shoot better than last year’s 29.7% from the 3-point line. The Tigers play great defense but there are too many nights when they can’t find the ocean from the end of the pier when it comes to shooting.
OLE MISS: What Kermit Davis Jr. did in the offseason would qualify for a basketball version of the show Extreme Makeover on HGTV. Davis added two grad transfers in Romello White (6-8, 235 from Arizona State) and Dimencio Vaughn(6-5, 220 from Rider) and Samford transfer Robert Allen (6-8, 230), who will petition the NCAA for an eligibility waiver. White averaged 10.2 points and 8.8 rebounds at Arizona State, Vaughn averaged 14.8 points and 6.6 points at Rider. Allen averaged 14.1 points and 7.0 rebounds at Samford. Additionally, Cal State-Bakersfield transfer Jarkel Joiner (6-1, 180), who averaged 18.6 per game at his previous school, is eligible after sitting out last year. About the only familiar face in the Ole Miss lineup will be Devontae Shuler (11.7 ppg/4.5 rpg/3.3 apg). If all the new parts of the puzzle fit together, the Rebels should contend for the SEC title and make a run in March.
SOUTH CAROLINA: AJ Lawson (13.4 ppg/3.7 rpg/1.9 apg) flirted with the NBA but elected to come back for his junior year. He is the key to the Gamecocks improving on last year’s 18-13 record. They won’t be big, but Frank Martin’s teams are always tough defensively and quite competitive no matter how big they are. If Jermaine Cousinard (12.1 ppg/2.8 rpg/3.1 apg) can shoot straight (29% on 3-balls) and 6-11 Wildens Leveque can defend and rebound in the middle, the Gamecocks will be good enough to scare the bejabbers out of everyone on their schedule.
TENNESSEE: By season’s end last year, 6-9 John Fulkerson (13.7 ppg/5.9 rpg) had played his way into second team All-SEC honors. He’s back along with SEC Defensive Player of the Year Yves Pons (10.8 ppg/5.4 rpg/2.4 bpg) and guards Josiah-Jordan James (7.4 ppg/5.5 rpg) and Santiago Vescovi (10.7 ppg/3.3 rpg) to form the nucleus of a team that will be in the SEC title hunt and should make a deep run in April. A name to remember is former Arizona State transfer Uros Plavsic, a 7-0, 262-pound banger. Rick Barnes added a pair of 5-star freshmen guards – Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer – to an outstanding recruiting class.
TEXAS A&M: The Aggies shocked everybody in Buzz Williams’ first year on the job by going 16-14 including 10-8 in the SEC. They will be better this year thanks to the return of 6-7 Savion Flagg (10.4 ppg/5.1 rpg/37% from 3) and the addition of Quinnipiac grad transfer Kevin Marfo (6-8, 250), who averaged 10.2 points and 13.3 rebounds per game last year. If 4-star freshman recruit Hassan Diarra (6-3, 180) can take over at the point and the Aggies can make a few shots (29.4% from 3) the Aggies should be better than last year. They aren’t ready to challenge for the SEC title yet, but they will win more than they lose and make life miserable for opponents.
VANDERBILT: Any hope of a good record last year went down the drain when Aaron Nesmith (23 ppg through 14 games) went down with a season-ending injury. Second leading scorer Saben Lee (18.6 ppg) has graduated, leaving Jerry Stackhouse with a young, and not so impressive roster. He does have a future stud in Scottie Pippen Jr. (12.0 ppg/2.8 rpg/3.5 apg), who kept getting better as the season progressed. For the Commodores to improve on last year’s 11-21 record, they’ll need Pippen to keep improving and major contributions from transfers DJ Harvey (6-6, 235 from Notre Dame) and Quentin Millora-Brown (6-10, 230 from Rice). The recruiting class was quite average.