March was supposed to bring the Gators one last chance to redeem themselves after several missed opportunities throughout the season. A run in the SEC Tournament and perhaps a win or two in the NCAA Tournament would have made many feel more confident in the program and the direction it’s going.
Instead, much like the rest of Florida’s season, only unanswered questions remain.
Gators fans won’t mourn the premature end of UF’s basketball season like they might for the school’s baseball or gymnastics teams, but this wasn’t the ending anyone had in mind for this team.
What went wrong for the Gators?
The script is pretty obvious at this point, though the beginning of conference play feels like an eternity ago. The Gators were the preseason No. 6 team in the country and completely failed to live up to that standard throughout the season. A blowout loss to Florida State at home in the third game of the season was a sign of what was to come.
Florida’s inability to defend was arguably the biggest reason behind its struggles. Coach Mike White’s teams at Florida had never finished the season outside of the top 25 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. But this season, UF plummeted from being 16th in the country last season down to 61st to end the year.
White was not hiding his team’s difficulties defending the basket.
“Our level of pride defensively is different than every other team that I’ve had,” White said after a 78–71 loss to Mississippi State on Jan. 28. “Our numbers are not very pretty, and they’re getting uglier every day and it’s being communicated very clearly.”
The other issue was that the Gators’ lack of depth was exposed multiple times. Any time forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. had early foul trouble, Florida’s bigs were a revolving door of junior Dontay Bassett and freshmen Omar Payne and Jason Jitoboh. Payne was likely the best of those three, but after his 19-point game against Auburn, he scored more than five points just twice in 13 games while averaging 13.6 minutes per game.
That was the story for most of the team’s freshmen as well. Point guard Ques Glover looked lost for much of the season, Tre Mann was a shooting guard who was by far the worst shooter on the team and Jitoboh barely played. When your team is mostly freshmen and the freshmen fail to make an impact, the results are going to be ugly.
Lastly, the Gators had a run of bad luck, losing seven games that were decided by seven or fewer points and capped off by a second-half collapse to Kentucky in a one-point loss. Florida ended the season ranked 296th out of 353 teams in KenPom’s Luck statistic, meaning that it lost more games than it was expected to.
What went right for the Gators?
Primarily the offense.
It wasn’t flashy. In fact, it was often ugly and slow.
But it was effective.
Florida ranked 27th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency, its best mark since 2017 and a significant improvement over its finish in 61st last season.
The turnaround was led by sophomore forward Keyontae Johnson, who averaged 14 points and seven rebounds per game. Johnson was also the team’s best shooter from the field out of players with at least 100 attempts and landed on the All-SEC first team.
Blackshear Jr. had another effective season offensively, averaging nearly 13 points per game and leading the team with 7.5 rebounds per game. The senior, while not a game-breaker, was a valuable piece for the Gators offensively, and his performance this season put him on the All-SEC second team.
Point guard Andrew Nembhard also had a solid 2019-20 campaign, registering 5.6 assists per game. He also improved as a scorer, averaging nearly 3.5 more points per game and improving his field-goal percentage by 34 percentage points.
Sophomore guard Noah Locke was a streaky three-point specialist who was more hot than not throughout the season. Nearly 70 percent of his field goals were three-point attempts, and he sank 43.2 percent of them, which was second in the conference. The sophomore was a big reason why the Gators were also second in the SEC in three-point percentage.
Freshman Scottie Lewis, while showing limited offensive upside for much of the season, showed flashes of why he was one of the top recruits in his class, displaying tremendous athleticism and being the team’s leader in blocks. Lewis was tied for second on the team with Blackshear Jr. in defensive win shares (an estimate of how many wins a player was worth defensively).
Where do the Gators go from here?
The 2019-20 season was a massive disappointment for the Gators without a doubt. But disappointment should not be confused with ineptness. Florida wasn’t a bad team, it was almost guaranteed to go to the NCAA Tournament, finished 32nd in the country in the KenPom rankings and won 19 games against an incredibly challenging schedule, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.
The good news is that UF will likely return much of its young squad this season. Lewis already announced that he is returning to Gainesville next season, and the Gators are hoping that him scoring double-digit points in three of his last four games this season is a sign of what’s to come.
Nembhard and Johnson are the most likely to explore the NBA Draft, though neither are likely to be selected until the second round. Having both return would be a huge boost for Florida moving forward.
As for departures, Blackshear Jr. is graduating, and Bassett decided to transfer to Weber State. Other than that, it looks like Florida’s roster next season will be very similar to this year’s.
It will be bolstered by the introduction of guard Tyree Appleby, a transfer from Cleveland State who averaged 17.2 points and 5.6 assists per game in 2018-19, and Louisiana Tech transfer Anthony Duruji, a 6-foot-7 forward who averaged 12.2 points and 6.2 rebounds per game in his one season with the Bulldogs.
UF’s incoming recruiting class features four-star forward Samson Ruzhentsev, four-star guard Niels Lane and three-star forward Osayi Osifo.
The Gators’ hopes for next season will likely hinge upon improvement from players already on the roster and continuity, something it lacked ahead of this season.
There will be no excuses for more disappointment in White’s sixth year at the helm.
You can follow Brendan on Twitter @Bfarrell727 and contact him at [email protected]