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Around the World: Florida basketball returns to rankings, lands recruits

Our weekly wrap-up of Florida’s men’s basketball news and notes.

NCAA Basketball: Arkansas-Little Rock at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida is back in the national rankings...

Florida’s men’s basketball team returned to the national rankings on Monday, getting the No. 25 spot in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 after a 94-71 win against Little Rock on December 22.

It’s Florida’s third ranking of the 2016-17 season, as the Gators were ranked for two consecutive weeks in early December before falling to Duke and Florida State in the same week and subsequently exiting the poll.

Florida’s three losses are to No. 5 Duke, No. 7 Gonzaga, and No. 21 Florida State — teams that are a combined 36-2 on the season — and all came in games away from home. The Gators have no wins over teams currently in the top 25, but Miami is also receiving votes.

Florida is also the first team receiving votes outside the top 25 of this week’s USA TODAY Coaches Poll.

...and in line for a No. 6 seed

Bracketology is always an inexact science, but the non-conference schedule drawing to a close has firmed up at least the parts of a team’s résumé that depend on one-off games against unfamiliar foes. And Joe Lunardi’s most recent bit of bracketology has Florida firmly back in the NCAA Tournament field for the first time since 2014, as a No. 6 seed.

Florida actually shifted down in Lunardi’s December 22 projection from a No. 5 seed on December 15, but the pod Lunardi put the Gators most recently looks more appealing to me than the one with the higher seed. A No. 6 seed gets Florida the same trip to Orlando that No. 5 seed did, but the Gators are now matched up with a good but undersized No. 11 seed Rhode Island, not 11-1 mid-major UNC-Wilmington, which will be a popular upset pick if it lands on the No. 12 line.

And while Florida could face a superb Virginia team in the second round in this fantasy world, the Gators memorably shredded Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers in the 2012 NCAA Tournament; the Xavier team projected as a likely second-round of December 15 has Trevon Bluiett, a scorer I think the Gators might struggle to keep in check.

Either way, a No. 6 seed indicates that Florida is firmly within the national field, and probably only needs to hold serve in SEC play to stay there through the winter months.

Not so, Shai — but Gators’ recruiting recovers

The biggest news in Florida’s men’s basketball recruiting this fall was not a commitment, but a decommitment. 2017 point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, one of Mike White’s first commits in 2015, decommitted from the Gators in October, and ended up in Kentucky’s class before the end of November.

That loss was a big one for the Gators, who needed a point guard to pair with Chris Chiozza in 2017-18 and beyond, as Kasey Hill finally rolls off Florida’s roster, and seemed to have landed a diamond in the rough in Alexander. Alexander was a virtual unknown when White and his staff landed him, but has impressed in the months since, rising into the top 50 in some rankings and acquiring a four-star rating along the way.

The Canadian national and Tennessee high schooler dropping the Gators when bigger names showed interest was a big loss for Florida, and a sign that the program is not currently on Kentucky’s level on the recruiting playing field — an unsurprising confirmation, yes, but a vexing one to some. (Though: Alexander is not the first Canadian with Tennessee ties to flit to Kentucky because of the Wildcats’ supposed cool, and the other prominent one has embarrassed himself in Kentucky blue before.)

But Florida has stayed busy on the trail this fall, cobbling together a 2017 class of surprising breadth and versatility.

First, in October, the Gators landed West Virginia tweener Chase Johnson, a 6’8” forward whose baby face both belies a game that has produced highlights of banging underneath that recall Tyler Hansbrough and reinforces that he will inevitably be compared to fellow lanky wing Chandler Parsons.

Johnson’s recruitment has been an odd one: He’s the best player in West Virginia this year, and West Virginia wanted him — but as a 2018 prospect. Johnson seemed amenable to that idea — until this summer, when he transferred from public high school to Huntington Prep, the Mountaineer State powerhouse that was a waystation for Andrew Wiggins before Kansas and then the NBA. (This news was so significant in West Virginia that Johnson gave quotes “in a statement” saying it was “the hardest decision I have ever made.”)

Kevin Brockway noted that Billy Donovan brought two West Virginians — Jason Williams and Brett Nelson — to Florida, where they had excellent, if star-crossed, careers; I’d also compare landing Johnson to reeling in Mike Miller from South Dakota or Matt Bonner from New Hampshire, in the sense that it’s Florida plucking one of a faraway state’s best players. Of course, that was also true of Florida landing South Dakotan Cody Larson, whose Gators career amounted to very little.

After Johnson’s commit, Alexander cut himself loose — but Florida recovered from that, too.

First, the Gators found a prospect with an unexpected lineage in an unusual place, and tried to do something unprecedented with him. 2017 power forward Isaiah Stokes, younger brother of Tennessee great Jarnell and current student at the same IMG Academy in Bradenton that has yet to produce a Florida football recruit, signed with the Gators in November during the early signing period. But that news was revealed by reporters, with Florida attempting to keep that under wraps and allow Stokes to reveal his commitment on his own terms.

That prompted Florida to release the news — with an extraordinary, if rather benign, admonishment from Mike White about the way the news broke in the first place. (Boldface mine.)

"We're incredibly excited about all three guys in this class," head coach Mike White said. "Isaiah had hoped to make his announcement on his own terms when he had his whole family with him, so it's unfortunate for his sake that it leaked how it did. That said, Isaiah is really excited to be a Gator, and we're equally excited to have him as part of the Florida basketball family and think he can be a really good player here. We are proud of this class and think they will all be great fits for our program and our style, and we're happy that they've chosen to be a part of the Gator family."

This issue comes up time and again with recruits, many of whom tip off reporters about their college choices to help those reporters shape coverage, and almost all of whom want to release the news of their commitments on their own terms. But that makes more sense for a non-binding verbal commitment, and Florida having to conceal the news of Stokes signing with the school — which could have been permissibly released as soon as his National Letter of Intent was confirmed, something that likely happened on or around the November 16 ending date for the fall’s early signing period — made for a curious delay in its announcement of the signings of Johnson and Deaundrae Ballard.

It was noble of Florida to want to allow Stokes to announce as he saw fit, and it’s cool and sensible that Stokes — who is from Tennessee, and transferred to IMG this summer — wanted to do so with his family, rather than via a tweet. But it simply wasn’t realistic to expect all reporters tasked with covering Florida and/or recruiting to hold off on both reporting the news of Stokes signing and asking questions about why Florida hadn’t released its signees. If Stokes wanted to keep his commitment a secret until which point he could tell his family, he probably should not have signed — and if Florida wanted that secrecy more than it wanted Stokes, it could have advised him of as much.

Stokes is a three-star power forward who is still trimming down his 6’8”, 285-pound frame after spending much of his adolescence angling toward playing college football, and rounded out that three-man early signing period class by giving Florida its third prospect within the top 250 prospects in the 247Sports Composite. Alexander’s decommitment, though, helped make room for another player in this class — and Florida met its need for a guard last week, by securing the commitment of Michael Okauru.

Okauru, a three-star player who is 6’3” and 175 pounds, is something of a late bloomer, and was regarded as one of the best remaining point guards in the class of 2017 prior to his commitment largely because there simply were not many uncommitted or unsigned point guards left in this class after the early signing period. Florida was very unlikely to land any of the big names still available — IMG’s Trevon Duval is a Duke lean, Oklahoman Trae Young is probably staying in-state, and Oak Hill Academy’s Matt Coleman is projected to Texas — and thus taking a player like Okauru now instead of holding out and risking getting nothing makes a lot of sense for the Gators.

Okauru also hails from Brewster Academy, a hybrid New Hampshire high school and prep school that has a rep as a powerhouse, and has produced blue-chip players who chose other schools over Florida — Kansas point guard Devonté Graham and Michigan power forward Mitch McGary — under Billy Donovan.

White’s recruiting to this point has left plenty to be desired, especially given that Florida lost its best commit under him to a rival SEC school. But in this 2017 recruiting class, he has somehow broken into three prep strongholds — Brewster, Huntington, and IMG — that routinely produce high-major players, but have never before sent those players to Florida.

While his signees and commits may not be the finest players in this class, nor the finest to ever come out of those programs, White getting his — and the Gators’ — foot in the door at those big-name schools might position them well for the future.