Three and a half years after Florida Gulf Coast fans spent time during a pep rally chanting “FUCK THE GA-TORS,” the Eagles and Florida will meet (7:30 p.m., SEC Network Plus or WatchESPN) for the third time since then, in a third different city that is not Dunk City, to begin the 2016-17 basketball season.
This year, it’s less clear who should be envious.
Florida will tap a talented, deep roster — at least by many definitions of talented and deep — in Jacksonville. The Gators should start Kasey Hill, SB Nation’s No. 93 player KeVaughn Allen, Devin Robinson, and John Egbunu, four top-100 recruits that have all spent at least a year in Gators coach Mike White’s system. They might pair that quartet with Canyon Barry, the son of NBA Hall of Famer Rick Barry, and a player who dropped 20 or more points eight times in 12 games in an injury-shortened 2015-16 season with the College of Charleston, or with lanky forward Justin Leon, whose pogo stick athleticism made him an integral part of White’s pressing defense last year.
Behind those starters, Florida has pesky backup point guard Chris Chiozza, lanky forwards Justin Leon and Kevarrius Hayes, burly slasher Keith Stone, and freshmen Eric Hester and — the newly-cleared — Gorjok Gak.
It is possible that Florida Gulf Coast doesn’t have a single player who would have been recruited by White or Billy Donovan, in contrast — and yet it is the Eagles who are coming off an NCAA Tournament berth last season.
Florida Gulf Coast won the 2016 Atlantic Sun Tournament by crushing the same North Florida team that the Gators would later stomp in the NIT, then edging Stetson in overtime, and FGCU made the NCAA Tournament without a single win over a team that finished in the top 150 of KenPom. Relentless forward Marc-Eddy Norelia will lead the Eagles on most nights after averaging 17 points and nine rebounds per game last year, though he’s missing this evening’s contest after suffering a broken hand this offseason. When he returns, he’ll have help from a host of guards — sophomores Zach Johnson and Rayjon Tucker chief among them — in coach Joe Dooley’s third season.
The Eagles were picked to win the Atlantic Sun by the league’s coaches and beat writers, and there’s not a great reason to pick against them, given that North Florida lost two of the great shooters that made the Ospreys the Birds of Trey last season. FGCU could be an NCAA Tournament team again, if the Eagles make good on that prognostication.
Florida? Florida might be on the outside looking in for a third straight year.
I don’t know how this team, which is now — except for Hill — comprised entirely of players who arrived in Gainesville after Florida’s run to the 2014 Final Four, will play this year, because we got so many different data points of ups and downs over the last two seasons that it’s hard for me to find a trend line. If Florida plays like it did in dismantling West Virginia last January, it can be a Final Four team. If Florida plays like it has on this or that day on the road in the SEC, it may struggle to win 20 games.
And given that these Gators will be road warriors, playing no more than 10 home games this season as they barn-storm Florida in advance of the late December opening of the renovated O’Connell Center, it’s possible that both that quality of play may slip as degree of difficulty rises. If the SEC is down again, and Florida’s non-conference schedule — nearly devoid of obvious big-name pelts to take, because the Gators obviously couldn’t invite those teams to Gainesville — provides little that is up, this team’s fate in March could be as maddening as the last two iterations’ were.
That’s all a ways off, though, and all we have for the moment — and, to be clear, for the next six weeks or so — is a team that will operate largely in the shadows, away from the spotlight, while Florida fans focus on football.
Such is life for the Gators of the hardwood, who will have to work to return to dominance and prominence. There’s much work to be done.
It begins tonight.