For the first time in 19 years, Florida's men's basketball team is opening a season with a head coach other than Billy Donovan. Fortunately for Mike White, whose Gators open the 2015-16 season this Friday night with a road game at Navy in the second game of the 2015 Veterans Classic, there have been harder openers.
Navy finished at No. 266 in KenPom in 2014-15, with a 13-19 record that was bereft of wins against top-150 schools. Former Penn State head coach Ed DeChellis mans the helm for the Midshipmen, and he's been gradually steering them out of deep waters — Navy went 3-26 in his first season in Annapolis in 2011-12, and has improved every year since — couldn't steer them out of the middle of the pack in the Patriot League. Navy hasn't owned a winning record since shortly after Thanksgiving in 2013, and strung together more than two wins in a row just once in 2014-15.
And without the graduated Brandon Venturini and Worth Smith, each of whom had usage rates right around 25 percent last year, Navy must turn to seniors Tilman Dunbar, a pint-sized (5'10") point guard, and Will Kelly, an undersized (6'9") center. Dunbar played almost three-quarters of available minutes for the Middies in 2014-15, so he'll be ready to accept a larger role, but Kelly played just under half of available minutes, and while he posted an impressive 11.9 percent block rate, he also committed 5.4 fouls per 40 minutes, making him a feast-or-foul rim protector.
It's also likely that junior Edward Alade will assume a bigger role. Alade made 58.3 percent of his two-pointers last season, and the 6'9" power forward was the most efficient of Navy's top eight rotation players other than Smith as a result.
But without Smith, Navy doesn't have a shooter who made more than 35 percent of his threes while taking more than 20 returning. (Earl McLaurin's 35.3 percent from beyond the arc came on just 17 shots.) And the Middies simply weren't very good at anything in 2014-15, with only their defensive block percentage ranking among the nation's top 100 in KenPom-tracked major team stats.
Florida, on the other hand, was good at some things in Donovan's final season, despite its disappointing record and failure to make a postseason tournament. The Gators' defense finished 11th nationally in per-possession efficiency, and in the top 100 in seven other defensive categories. And even their woeful offense managed to make more than 50 percent of its twos.
White will be charged with trying to make sure the defense maintains its acuity while resuscitating the Gators' offense, and it will likely have to start with both generating defense from offense and finding better shooting. The former might not be all that hard; White's press-heavy defenses at Louisiana Tech ranked among the nation's top 20 in each of the last three seasons, and the Bulldogs also did a fine job of both protecting the rim and limiting threes despite that full-court style.
But White also inherits a team that lost sniper Michael Frazier to early entry into the pros, and had just one other player — do-everything Dorian Finney-Smith — make more than 35 percent of his threes. Eli Carter's departure may be addition by subtraction, given his inefficiencies, but Kasey Hill's junior season (and, indeed, his Florida career) will likely be defined by whether his shot has improved at all from past years. Hill shot under 40 percent from two and under 30 percent from three, allowing defenses to sit on his extraordinary athleticism and stymie Florida's offense in the halfcourt; if he and/or Chris Chiozza can make defenses pay for sagging off, it will be the single most important improvement for the Gators' offense this year.
Apart from that, expect a much faster pace for the Gators. Donovan's teams hadn't averaged 65 possessions per game since 2009-10; White's topped 67 possessions per game in all four of his years in Ruston. And while a commitment to that pace produced a turnover-strewn mess in Florida's exhibition win over Palm Beach Atlantic, it could also help the Gators maximize their athletic advantages, especially against overmatched non-conference teams.
That should be the plot for this game: Florida's got too much talent not to outdo the Midshipmen with that alone, even if things get sloppy. White's debut should be a winning one.