Last year, the Florida men’s basketball team improved from a middling NIT attendee in the 2015-16 season to a legitimate NCAA contender in 2016-17.

Now, heading into the first official practices with a little over a month remaining before the start of the season, expectations are high.

But instead of shying away from it, the team is embracing the challenge.

“I feel like it’s added a little pressure,” junior forward Kevarrius Hayes said. “Everybody’s looking at us now more than they were last year ... so it’s actually like a target on our back.”

Florida finished last year with a 14-4 conference record, earning notable wins against top-conference opponents like Kentucky and South Carolina. UF's conference win total was the highest it's been since the 2013-14 season.

But instead of dwelling on the past, the Gators want to see what this year’s team is capable of.

“I think we could really win a lot of games,” freshman guard Mike Okauru said. “It’s a great team, everybody is gelling together, I think we could really do some big things.”

If the Gators want to repeat their success from last season, they will need some immediate help from their incoming freshman class.

Okauru, guard Deaundrae Ballard and forwards Chase Johnson and Dontay Bassett will all don the orange and blue for the first time and will need to mature quickly with injuries already depleting the roster.

Senior center John Egbunu will remain sidelined until at least January with an ACL injury he suffered Feb. 14, and freshman forward Isaiah Stokes is still recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in his senior year of high school.

Add that with a lack of depth behind starting point guard Chris Chiozza, and there will be some glaring voids to fill.

But head coach Mike White is already impressed with his younger players' willingness to improve.

“One thing I can say across the board with our freshman class, I’ve been blown away by their work ethic,” White said. “My freshman class lives in the gym... they’ve been terrific in that regard.”

White also understands the team’s limitations. The possibility of multiple freshmen earning important minutes means the defense, which was a large part of last season’s identity, might take a lapse.

“I think we could be better offensively,” White said. “I’m not sure we could be quite as good defensively. If this team is as good defensively as last year’s team, we’ll be really good.”

Florida has a lot to figure out in terms of players, rotations and expectations, but the desire to match or surpass last season is already alive.

“It tasted real sweet, just winning so many games,” redshirt sophomore forward Keith Stone said. “Dudes just want to experience that.”

You can follow Skyler Lebron on Twitter @SkylerLebron, and contact him at slebron@alligator.org.

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