The Florida Gators began their return to Gainesville on Tuesday night with one star senior scorer on the bench and another having a relatively quiet night.
And by the end of the evening, Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen had both managed to make their marks.
But it was the children who led the Gators in their 98-66 win over North Florida.
Freshman Noah Locke led all scorers with 18 points, sophomore Deaundrae Ballard finished with 15 points off the bench and sparked the Gators in the first half, and freshman Andrew Nembhard dished a career-high 11 assists and committed no turnovers as the Gators blew out the Ospreys for the second consecutive year. Florida sank 16 threes and pilfered 11 steals to fuel an up-tempo offense, but also cleaned the glass admirably, pulling down 15 offensive boards to UNF’s mere 16 defensive rebounds.
To be fair: Allen would end up having his best night of the year — he filled the box score with 13 points, seven assists, five boards, and three steals — and Hudson had six points, six rebounds, and three assists in his own right. But this night belonged to the hungry underclassmen like Locke, Ballard, Nembhard, and Keyontae Johnson (11 points, four boards) who have crowded into the starting lineup and the top of Mike White’s rotation alongside Allen, Kevarrius Hayes (12 points, five rebounds), and Hudson.
And increasingly, it feels like, on a team with four players with at least four years of collegiate experience (Allen, Hayes, Hudson, and Keith Stone), it is those underclassmen who will set the tone for Florida.
Nembhard is the steady hand at the top of the arc. Locke is the most reliable and dangerous shooter. Johnson is the most physical wing on the roster. Ballard is the assertive scorer who aggressively works to get his shot.
Florida has been better when that quartet has been better, and Florida can be better still if its quartet elders can play well alongside them.
But right now, the youth movement is animating these Gators.