The Florida Gators men’s basketball season was supposed to start last Wednesday, against Maine or UMass Lowell; at the dawn of this week, after a pause for reasons related to COVID-19, it looked like the Gators would open their year at Oklahoma.
Instead, Florida’s 2020-21 campaign finally gets underway from the Mohegan Sun Casino this afternoon — at 2:30 p.m. on ESPN2, where all auspicious beginnings happen — against Army, in a remade version of the Legends Classic.
How we got here is a story unto itself, of course. But where the Gators will go this season is obviously far more interesting to most.
The 2019-20 Gators were one of the more frustrating teams in recent program history: Laden with talent at several spots, the Gators still mostly scuffled in their biggest tilts in non-conference play, and struggled to find their stride in an SEC schedule that never yielded more than three straight wins. Mike White’s bunch was never really in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament field until the event itself was cancelled due to the novel coronavirus, but also seemed destined for a first game spent in road jerseys and a likely early exit, especially after a collapse against Kentucky on Senior Day.
Keyontae Johnson led Florida in scoring and returns for a junior season as the preseason SEC Player of the Year with Scottie Lewis as his bulldog wing mate, and the more disappointing players of last year — Andrew Nembhard, who seemed to have hit a plateau in his development and whose ball-dominant style was cited as a reason for Florida’s oft-derided slow pace, and Kerry Blackshear, whose ability to dominate the SEC never quite materialized — have moved on, with Nembhard now at Gonzaga and Blackshear hooping in Israel.
In their places will be new faces, or old ones taking on expanded roles: Tre Mann might be Florida’s starting point guard for the near term, and Cleveland State transfer Tyree Appleby is likely to back him up, while Michigan transfer Colin Castleton seems likely to start at center and share the role of Florida’s frontcourt anchor with sophomore Omar Payne.
Noah Locke should continue to orbit the Gators’ offense as a lethal sniper, with an offseason surgery set to improve his ability to play pain-free basketball, and a handful of bench players with upside — Louisiana Tech transfer Anthony Duruji, sophomore waterbug Ques Glover, and freshmen Niels Lane and Samson Ruzhentshev — will fill out what could be a very deep rotation that White is committed to using to press opponents.
This should all be too much for Army, a team with wins worth little over the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and Central Connecticut State and a more impressive victory over Buffalo. While the Cadets have shot very well thus far this year, especially inside the arc, Florida is set to swarm them like no prior opponent could, and the Gators should also shoot much better than the pitiful 19 percent Army opponents have thus far combined for from three.
But if Florida routs this team even more comprehensively than expected, or fails to blow out what should be one of the least talented rosters it will see this year, there will be rushes to judgment on a program that has become brutally bedeviled by wildly swinging expectations from its fan base.
For now, in a season that will be characterized by chaos, Florida simply taking the floor is a good first step into a swirling unknown. For what it’s worth, I think that what follows should be followed, but not fanatically.