Florida's men's basketball season tips off for real on Friday afternoon, with a bizarre 3 p.m. game against North Florida that got shunted to the afternoon by Homecoming scheduling that put together a doubleheader — Florida's women's basketball team plays its opener against Bethune-Cookman at 5 p.m. — before Gator Growl.
There will be an open thread, but I'll be in the O'Dome, and that probably means a recap will be coming a little later than the immediate post-tip recaps I'm hoping to have up for much of the rest of the year.
I expect a rather sloppy first game, with Florida recovering from a lackadaisical defensive performance against Florida Southern in its exhibition opener last week — watch the Gators' 110-88 win here, if you missed it like I did — and I think Florida might well be pushed by the Ospreys, if only because Florida is still rolling with just seven fully healthy scholarship players, thanks to suspensions for Scottie Wilbekin, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Damontre Harris, and maladies that have shelved or limited other players, like Michael Frazier II's mononucleosis.
But that diminished roster, and a staggering football season, are no excuse for not paying these Gators their due. And so we begin our 2013-14 Florida basketball season preview, which will run through much of the month of November, with a countdown of the most important Gators for this season.
No. 14: Billy Donovan
#42 | G | Redshirt junior | 6'2", 195 pounds | 2012-13: Redshirted (transfer from Catholic University)
The son of Billy Donovan the coach (who is, himself, William John Donovan, Jr.) is bound and determined not to add numerals to his name, and so any time I write Billy Donovan this season, SB Nation's tagger is going to link his son's player page. In any case, Billy the Younger didn't play much at Catholic from 2010 to 2012, and is likely to be more Tyler Self than Steven Pearl, to compare him to some other walk-on sons of basketball coaches. If he's playing in games beyond the first two weeks of the year, it'll be in blowouts.
No. 13: F Jacob Kurtz
#30 | F | Junior | 6'6", 210 pounds | 2012-13: Played in 20 games, 0.6 PPG, 0.6 RPG
Florida's beloved walk-on — who went to the same high school, Oviedo's Hagerty High, as Jeff Driskel — played rather often in the Gators' 2012-13 season, by virtue of Florida blowing out opponent after opponent and having a rather limited bench to draw reserves from. Don't expect that to be the case in 2013-14, even if Florida is just as good as it was: Billy Donovan
No. 12: G/F DeVon Walker
#25 | G/F | Sophomore | 6'6", 195 pounds | 2012-13: Played in 25 games, 0.7 PPG, 0.8 RPG
Walker will probably be most important in the first two games of the season, while Finney-Smith and Wilbekin are out, as he's still limited offensively (he made three of nine shots and one of five threes against Florida Southern, which is actually an improvement on his four-for-22 performance as a freshman) and provides mostly depth and defense.
With those two players back, his role will largely be mop-up duty — Kurtz could conceivably see more time than Walker this year, as he's got a bigger body and can better handle larger wings in a pinch. If Walker can develop into an able lead forward in Donovan's press, he could earn more time as a result, but there are other, far better candidates for that role at this point in time.
No. 11: Dillon Graham
#12 | G | Sophomore | 6'4", 186 pounds | 2012-13: 0.5 PPG, 10% 3P%
Graham came to Florida with a rep as a sharpshooter, but he didn't display it in 2012-13, making just one of his 10 threes. And in his limited action — only Kurtz got fewer minutes — Graham looked less than ready to play consistently at the Division I level.
But Florida's more starved for shooting this year than last. If Graham can get his shot to fall, there should be minutes available for him as a sniper with Florida's second team. Additionally, much like Walker, he's likely to get a lot of run early this year, with Wilbekin and Finney-Smith out of the guard rotation, and Eli Carter still recovering from various lower body injuries.
No. 10: G Eli Carter
#1 | G | Junior | 6'2", 200 pounds | 2012-13: 14.9 PPG, .429 FG%, .320 3P%
Eli Carter's the biggest question mark for Florida's 2013-14 season. And the good news is that Florida may not need him all that much.
Carter profiles as a guard very much in the mold of Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, with a little of fellow Scarlet Knight-cum-Gator Mike Rosario. His height hampers his ability to shoot good percentages from the floor, and he's not much more than a decent three-point shooter, making 32.0 percent of his threes in his sophomore year after making 35.3 percent of them as a freshman. But like Rosario, Carter's adept at drawing contact and converting at the line (Carter drew 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes in 2012-13, and made 86.4 percent of his free throws), and with college basketball introducing new NBA-style rules that limit hand-checking, guards who were previously good drawing contact may become far more effective.
And then there's the chance that Carter actually turns out to be a player more like the one he was as a freshman — when he scalded Florida for 31 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in a dramatic overtime win, among other heroics. Carter shot 35.3 percent from deep in 2011-12, and made a respectable 45.0 percent of his twos, while getting a little less work in the Rutgers offense; it's possible that Carter's efficiency is very much a factor of his usage (effiency typically declines with increased usage), and that fitting him into a smaller role at Florida will make him more efficient.
And then there's the matter of why he left Rutgers and was able to get an NCAA waiver to play immediately. Rutgers, which went 11-2 in non-conference play in 2012-13, went into a tailspin in 2012-13 shortly after Mike Rice was first suspended for abusive behavior, and Carter's play took a similar dive in Big East play, bottoming out on an 0-for-11 night against St. John's. After the season, an ESPN investigation into Rice led to his firing, and the NCAA granted waivers to several Rutgers players who transferred out of Piscataway, Carter included, allowing them to play immediately — but while it's probably reasonable to assume that they're all going to play better in less toxic environments, that assumption may not prove true.
And then there's the matter of Carter's health. His horrific broken leg (that's the painful GIF of it), suffered against DePaul in February, ended his 2012-13 season, and while Carter's been cleared to play, I'm expecting a slow acclimation to game speed, not an immediate return to his previous level of play.
Florida's going to play Carter early, because it has few other choices, but Wilbekin's return should give the Gators another, and potentially better, option at the off guard. I wouldn't be surprised to see Donovan get a good season out of Carter, but I have a strong suspicion his 2013-14 may more resemble Rosario's 2011-12 than his stellar senior year.
No. 9: Damontre Harris
#2 | F/C | Redshirt junior | 6'10", 228 pounds | 2012-13: Redshirted (transfer from South Carolina)
Harris is Florida's biggest player, and, until the still-anticipated arrival of Chris Walker in December or January, will be its longest. He's going to have a field day when used as Florida's weak-side defender, as his long arms and shot-blocking instincts helped make him 19th in the country in Block Percentage (percentage of two-pointers blocked while he was on the court) in 2011-12 despite playing for a South Carolina team that had precious little else in the frontcourt — and diehard Florida fans will remember him well, as his play in Carolina's trips to the O'Connell Center in 2011 (eight points, four rebounds, three blocks) and 2012 (12 points, nine rebounds, six blocks, three steals) helped the Gamecocks earn a win in 2011 and hang around forever in 2012.
Harris also scored efficiently in that sophomore season, making 55 percent of his shots from the floor and a very respectable 80.4 percent of his foul shots. If he can merely replicate that performance, without even making improvements, he could be a very, very good player in Florida's system.
Unfortunately, there's some doubt about whether Harris can do that, and that has more to do with how he's conducted himself off the court than on it. Harris was arrested for failure to appear last August after being cited for driving without a license, and will be suspended for the beginning of Florida's season for an unspecified violation of team rules.
If Harris can put it all together, he and Patric Young should be a formidable pair in Florida's frontcourt. If Harris can't, Young may be left to mostly fend for himself — again.
No. 8: Casey Prather
#24 | F | Senior | 6'6", 212 pounds | 2012-13: 6.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG, .622 FG%
First and foremost, it's an insult to Casey Prather that he's on the bottom half of the list. But that is how good, deep, and talented Florida is this year: An insanely athletic defender and efficient scorer whose year-over-year improvements have been significant can't even crack the top seven Florida players in terms of importance.
In part, that's because Prather might not be the player Dorian Finney-Smith is, and hasn't shown the ball-handling skills that Finney-Smith is reputed to have, and because Prather and Finney-Smith have such similar skill sets otherwise that they're going to be battling each other for minutes all year. And in part, it's because Prather's jumper is so weird — he almost whips the ball forward at the net — that I have a hard time believing it's going to ever make him a three-point threat, which limits him in the Donovan offense.
But Prather's still the reigning Most Exciting Gator, and I'm so, so certain that he's going to posterize someone at some point in this season, and I think he could be a terror in the front of Florida's press if he's really as fit as his cyborg-ish shirtless picture makes him seem. He's a very good player, and merely needs to play within himself to be at that baseline all year.
No. 7: Michael Frazier II
#20 | G | Sophomore | 6'4", 199 pounds | 2012-13: 5.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, .468 3PT%
Michael Frazier II could be the next great Florida shooting guard. And because there aren't that many of those, he could potentially be in the conversation as one of the greatest.
Frazier was a revelation as a sniper in 2012-13, sinking a staggering 46.8 percent of his threes even though he cooled off considerably toward the end of the year. (Frazier made 41 of his first 81 threes, but just 11 of his final 30; of course, Frazier also went 0-for-6 from deep in his first game, so he really made 41 of 75 threes for one stretch.) That alone makes him a lethal weapon for Donovan, who will be able to find many ways to get him open threes because he doesn't have to work around mobility limitations as he did with Erik Murphy or height limitations as he has had to with virtually every Florida point guard of the Donovan era.
But Frazier's not just a shooter, and here's where the tantalizing stuff comes in. Frazier came to Florida with a rep as a slasher, not a shooter, and his mid-range shooting was thought of as a bit of a bonus to his scorer's skills. Rounding his game out with more work inside and trusting him to take the ball off the dribble from the wing might just make guarding him a nightmare: Last year, you could reliably expect to have to close out on Frazier, who took just 28 two-pointers, but in 2013-14 and beyond, he might pull it down and make you pay on a drive.
Frazier was diagnosed with mononucleosis at some point, but he's apparently feeling better of late; recovering fully from that, and getting back to his peak physical form will be his first task this year. However, if he can do that, and become more than just the incredibly valuable deadeye he was, while keeping his shooting more or less in line with his fantastic freshman clip, Frazier's going to eventually be in rarefied air occupied by Kenny Boynton, Lee Humphrey — who never topped Frazier's 2012-13 three-point percentage over his four years, mind you — Matt Walsh, Teddy Dupay, and Vernon Maxwell.
Improving his defense will be important, too, but Frazier's size makes him a mismatch for many guards, and with the quantity and quality of Florida's wing defenders, he can be hidden well on defense — especially if he's impossible to miss on offense.
No. 6: Scottie Wilbekin
#5 | G | Senior | 6'2", 176 pounds | 2012-13: 9.1 PPG, 5.0 APG, .359 3PT%
This is where you end up ranked when you mess around long enough to get your job took.
Make no mistake: Wilbekin is a very, very good player, far better than I thought a kid who was taken as an early enrollee for depth purposes and is a year young for his class would ever be. I think Wilbekin's by far Florida's best defender (and I think Patric Young is an excellent post defender), because he's an incredible individual defender and an exceptional team defender, and ran the defense as its de facto captain in last season's year of tremendous defensive efficiency.
He's also underrated as an offensive player, with a nice playground game — very good vision, very good handles, above-average passing, decent penetration skills — and a sneaky-good three-point shot (he made 35.9 percent of his 103 threes in 2012-13 after shooting 45.7 percent on a smaller number of triples in 2011-12). Wilbekin has been a very good point guard for Donovan over his first three years at Florida, and would make a very good off-guard.
The problem is that that is where he's probably going to have to get most of his minutes this year, if Kasey Hill seizes control of the point guard position and doesn't let go, which is exactly what I expect him to do. Hill, if he can restrain his tendencies toward flashier plays and the turnovers that come with it, is probably going to be both a steadier and more explosive player at point guard than Wilbekin, not in his stratosphere as an athlete.
And that may shunt Wilbekin to the suddenly jammed off-guard spot, where he has less height, bulk, and offensive game than Frazier. It's not a bad problem for Donovan to have, this surfeit of guards — but it's a problem for Wilbekin, who faces the dual challenges of working himself fully back into his coach's good graces after transgressions he was dumb enough to make and repeat and working himself into what could be an established guard rotation.
I think he'll probably do it well, and end up playing more than 30 minutes per game by the end of the season, but the five games he'll miss due to suspension and the gradual reintegration he'll go through afterward diminishes his importance.
No. 5: Chris Walker
#?? | F | Future freshman | 6'10", 210 pounds | 2012-13: Five-star prospect from Holmes County High School
He's not on this team — yet — but no 2013-14 Florida player has a higher ceiling, more NBA potential, or a better chance of making Florida a Final Four team than Chris Walker.
Recent rumblings I've heard suggest that Walker's got a pretty good shot of enrolling at Florida, perhaps in December. And he may need some time to acclimate to the college game when he does enroll, even if he's played with his future teammates this fall, and is staying in shape by staying in the gym during this autumn of limbo.
But when he does get to Gainesville — I'm cautiously optimistic that the operative word is when — he'll be the most athletic player on the team, and could be an instant terror up front and in transition.
You've seen plenty of Walker's highlights here and elsewhere, surely, but they're worth gaping at again.
He's a beanpole right now, but he's quicker than most forwards as a result, and has great handles and hops for a forward, too. His long arms are going to make him a pain and a half around the rim on both defense and offense — Wilbekin's getting a new ooper, while Hill's been Walker's running mate for years — and even if he's not at full speed when he first throws on the orange and blue, he'll be a menace in practice, and help sharpen Harris and Young.
The best-case scenario for Walker is having a freshman season like the one Donnell Harvey had way back in 1999-2000, but Walker's not as man-sized as the burly Harvey was, and isn't going to be an equivalent force on the boards until he's spent significant time in the weight room; that might not even come while he's at Florida. But this team is deeper, better, and older than that 1999-2000 team was, and Walker may not need to have a Harvey-style impact to be enough to push these Gators over the top and all the way to Arlington — he may merely need to be another tall and talented big on a team that has suffered for its lack of them of late.
No. 4: Will Yeguete
#15 | F | Senior | 6'8", 230 pounds | 2012-13: 5.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 21.9 DReb%
Words can't describe how hard Will Yeguete plays, nor how much I love him and his game. If he can do what he does best on the court off of it, by rebounding from another injury, he should be most fans' favorite player again.
Yeguete is built like a sturdy Pogo stick, and plays like it: He's constantly around the ball and is fantastic at rebounding because of his skills and relentlessness, and he's probably the closest thing to Dennis Rodman (on the court, anyway) Florida will ever have in its program. Yeguete's been a great rebounder in all three of his seasons, but only broke into the KenPom rankings last year, thanks to a slightly increased workload; he also makes those rebounding skills by frequently getting points off offensive boards, an efficient way of making his mark on offense despite his limited game.
Scoring is Yeguete's main weakness, and if he's scoring in double figures, it's probably a sign that he's having success on the glass. (Just one of his nine career double-digit scoring days came in a game in which he had fewer than two offensive rebounds.) But he's good at other facilitative aspects of offense, and he more than makes up for his limits as a final option by capturing caroms and playing pesky defense.
There is the matter of that injury, a knee ailment involving a missing piece of cartilage and a May surgery: Yeguete's never played well immediately off an injury, and he's suffered enough of them so far in his Florida career that I'm relatively confident he's going to start this season slowly. But Florida will start slow, too, and so Yeguete will have time to work back into form.
No. 3: Dorian Finney-Smith
#10 | G/F | Redshirt sophomore | 6'8", 212 pounds | 2012-13: Redshirted (transfer from Virginia Tech)
Talented transfers all get far, far better in the season they spend sitting out, if only in the imaginations of the observers and reporters who see them in practice and not in games. And few are ever as good as The Year of Transformative Transference makes them seem.
Dorian Finney-Smith might be.
GatorZone's Chris Harry, the guy who sees this team more than any other reporter, has repeatedly hinted at Finney-Smith's ability, given how he played on the scout team. Finney-Smith was legitimately very good in an ill-fitting situation as a freshman at Virginia Tech in 2011-12, too, contributing on the boards and underneath as a small forward asked to play more power forward in the ACC thanks to a very undersized Hokies roster; giving him both more to do and a better fit as a wing in Donovan's scheme may help him flourish.
Also, his nickname is Doe-Doe. If you don't want a kid who answers to Doe-Doe to succeed, you hate fun.
Finney-Smith and his roommate, fellow transfer Harris, each ran afoul of team rules, and both will miss Florida's first two games; that's a worrisome problem, especially given that they roomed together, and thus influence each other. Keeping themselves on the right path will be important.
But transfers have been great at Florida of late. And Finney-Smith's the kind of long, athletic player that Donovan has turned into a playmaker time after time, from Mike Miller to Corey Brewer to Chandler Parsons. And I have full faith that he can do it again.
No. 2: Patric Young
#4 | F/C | Senior | 6'9", 240 pounds | 2012-13: 10.1 PPG, 6.3 RPG, .586 FG%
Patric Young is the face of Florida basketball. But sometimes that face is like this (Daniel Shirey / USA TODAY Sports):
And sometimes it is like this:
Even though the pout in that second picture is a mocking one — Big Pat put it on while mocking Georgia students in last year's come-from-behind win in Athens — it's a perfect illustration of the part of Patric Young that has limited him as a Florida player.
Young's not "soft," though many will say otherwise, and he's not a bad player by any thorough analysis: He's a very good rebounder because of his athleticism and physique — I am mandated by law to write "chiseled" here — and has a decent offensive game, and he's become a phenomenal post defender, great at holding his ground against many good players and at making impact blocks when coming from the weak side. It would be wholly unsurprising for Young to average 12 points and eight rebounds this year — modest improvements on past performance, consistent with his development curve and a likely uptick in usage.
But Young came in as the most exciting Florida post recruit since David Lee — he was certainly more highly-touted than Joakim Noah and Al Horford, the only other candidates from the last decade — and has proceeded to flummox his own coaches and fans almost as often as he does defenses. Young's conditioning has been lacking despite his obvious fitness; his effort as a rebounder and a defender was only supplemented by better technique last year; he's never been a great scorer underneath, but can disappear or pout when he's not getting the ball; he's played through injuries, but has also been strangely hampered by them for longer than expected, at times drawing veiled criticisms from Donovan.
And one other thing has bugged me about him, which I think is telling: He's shut down his usually very entertaining (if sometimes controversial) Twitter account multiple times over his Florida career, claiming a need to shut out the outside world and focus on himself.
On one hand, that's not dumb — no less a great than LeBron James has done the same thing over the last two NBA postseasons, and it's worked out. But Young's like James in another sense: They're both genuinely good and kind people for whom others' opinions matter, and, more like LeBron in his pre-crowned years, barbs sting Young, and poor performances remain on his mind.
It's not playing through pain, or handling adversity, or taking coaching that Young needs to work on: It's his confidence, strange as that sounds for the man whose body looks like marble wrought by a master and whose smile legitimately beams. If Young can be a confident, relentless player — something he has been in fits and starts during his Florida career — for even 27 minutes a night throughout his senior season, he will go down as a legend, for he will probably power these Gators to some major accomplishments. He has room for improvement beyond his effort level, too, and I wouldn't be surprised to see some of that, too.
But as with everything else about Patric Young, that if is a big one.
No. 1: Kasey Hill
#0 | G | Freshman | 6'1", 181 pounds | 2012-13: Five-star prospect at Montverde Academy
Florida has had a lot of recruiting success under Billy Donovan. Donovan got Jason Williams to follow him from Marshall when he came to Florida, and injected excitement into a program that rarely had it. He recruited a ton of talented players that formed the core of the 2000 national runner-up, and the extremely well-regarded 2001 class that fell apart, and the crew of talented players that made first-weekend NCAA Tournament exits in the early 2000s, and the Oh-Fours that brought two straight titles to Florida, and the highly-touted players he had to kick out of the gym before the NIT, and the Reset Gators that rescued Florida from the wilderness and made the Gators elite again.
But Donovan has never recruited a point guard like Kasey Hill before. And because of that, Florida will experience something new this year: A freshman shall lead them.
At no point in Donovan's 17 years at Florida has he had a talent like Hill at point guard. Williams is the closest comparison, but he was more showman than a competitor; Hill's played on elite AAU teams and for national high school titles, and won. Teddy Dupay and Brett Nelson were better shooters and scorers, but neither was the whirling dervish with the ball that Hill can be at his best. Anthony Roberson was a better shooter, too, but he was a shooting guard miscast as a point guard; so was Erving Walker. Nick Calathes had Hill's vision and passing skills, and then some, but his defense was atrocious.
Taurean Green, the most complete point guard of the Donovan era, had the best mix of talents — shooting, ball security, playmaker's verve, defensive ability. But Green was never the star on those title teams, just the guy who put out the fires when he had to and got the ball where it needed to be.
Hill could be that and more.
From what we've seen, Hill's quick, fast, and a great leaper, which covers for his slightly less than ideal height and allows him to finish at the rim, a rarity for Florida point guards. He's a decent shooter with a pretty shot that gives him plenty of room to improve. He's got the swagger of a winner and the confidence of a leader, and has chemistry with Frazier and Walker, two players he might play multiple years with at Florida. And he's unselfish enough to let the rest of his copiously talented teammates win the games he doesn't need to win, but both selfish and smart enough to win the ones he must.
There hasn't been a better fit for Donovan and Florida at point guard than Hill — and that means he's going to be ridden harder than any player Donovan's ever had. He's harder on the great ones, and hardest on the point guards, and he's never had a point guard that fits into both categories. But Hill can handle that, and can handle the challenge of taking over for Scottie Wilbekin immediately instead of gradually. He'll have a learning curve — no freshman doesn't — and he's bound to struggle at times.
And yet I think Kasey Hill is going to lead Florida this year, and that he may well lead them back to heights that have, of late, seemed both so close and so far away.