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Florida vs. Gardner-Webb, Game Thread: Gators make their regular-season return

It’s been a long time. They shouldn’t have left us.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Orlando Practice Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I tell you what: It’s good to be writing about Florida Gators team that doesn’t play football again.

The No. 8-ranked Florida men’s basketball team finally begins its 2017-18 campaign in earnest on Monday night, taking on Gardner-Webb in the renovated O’Connell Center’s first November regular-season home men’s basketball game ever — there’s always history being made — at 7 p.m. on ESPNU or WatchESPN. And when I say finally, I mean it: Florida is one of just seven Division I teams that entered Monday having not played a game, and the other six are all outside the KenPom top 50 and unranked.

Florida begins the season with a number next to its name — and No. 8 in KenPom — after a surprising run to the Elite Eight in 2016-17 fueled by an unselfish bunch of players who played ferocious defense and developed into an effective offense by year’s end. The 2017-18 Gators profile similarly, even though three starters (Kasey Hill, Justin Leon, and Devin Robinson) and four players who played 20 minutes in the Gators’ Elite Eight loss to South Carolina (Hill, Leon, Robinson, and Canyon Barry) are now scattered to the four winds.

Chris Chiozza, who may yet try to play through a shoulder injury, is likely to be a pest as Florida’s starting point guard, and KeVaughn Allen and Kevarrius Hayes can play physical defense on and off the ball. They will likely be joined in the starting five most nights this fall by Virginia Tech transfer guard Jalen Hudson, a Mike Rosario-ish player with microwaveable offense and sketchy defense, and Rice graduate transfer guard/forward Egor Koulechov, a sweet-shooting Russian national who can bang smaller wings and rebound. Those five comprised Florida’s starting five for a charity exhibition win over Jacksonville on November 2; forward Keith Stone slid into the starting lineup as Allen slid down to point guard to spell the injured Chiozza in an exhibition win over Tampa on November 5.

Florida won those games by 41 and 37 points, splattering one of the worst teams in Division I and a decent Division II outfit by splashing 12 threes in each contest and shutting down the Dolphins (34.3 percent shooting) and Spartans (23.4 percent shooting) on the defensive end.

And the Gators should simply have too much size, speed, and shooting for Gardner-Webb, a team coming off a 19-14 season in 2016-17 and a season-opening 77-45 loss to Miami, on this Monday night. The Runnin’ Bulldogs — imagine a bulldog running, if you will — spurted to a 7-0 lead over Miami in Coral Gables last Friday, but still managed to trail by 14 at halftime, and things did not get better from there, as Miami shot 67.6 percent from inside the arc while holding Gardner Webb to 34 percent on its twos and forcing 14 turnovers.

Florida should be able to do similar things, especially given that only big man L’Hassane Niangane — you will be shocked to learn that very French name belongs to a Frenchman — tops 6’6” among Runnin’ Bulldogs. While Gators bigs John Egbunu and Isaiah Stokes are likely to make their season and Gators debuts, respectively, in either late December or January, Hayes is an active, versatile defender and showed flashes of an improving offensive game late last season, and center Gorjok Gak and forward Dontay Bassett cleaned the glass well off the bench in Florida’s exhibition wins.

Most of all, though: Florida’s basketball team plays a fun brand of basketball under Mike White, and the Gator Nation that has been starving for some of that fun this fall should take a liking to this team — if it becomes what it promises to be at its best — like the one that fans developed for last year’s gutsy, always-improving, typically excellent Gators.

Florida (men’s) basketball is back. And these Gators could be fantastic. And I can’t wait to watch them.