Early returns

Gators receiving recognition following Elite Eight tourney finish

Florida players huddle during a break in play in a game against Texas A&M at the Exactech Arena in Gainesville, Friday Feb. 10. The Gators came from behind in this game to beat the Aggies 71-62.

Brad McClenny/Staff Photographer
Published: Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 9:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at 9:17 p.m.

National pundits are high on Florida next season.

USA Today has Florida ranked fourth in the nation in its early preseason 2017-18 Top 25. NBCSports.com has Florida at 6. ESPN.com’s Joe Lunardi has the Gators projected as a one seed in his first 2018 bracketology.

But Florida coach Mike White is aware that championships aren’t won on paper. Every season presents different challenges. Even with a productive core returning from a team that made an Elite Eight run in the NCAA Tournament, nothing is guaranteed.

“We could be good and potentially have another really good year,” White said. “But know there is a lot of improvement to make throughout the roster. Individually, each guy can get better in certain areas. And if we do have some attrition, the guys you take this spring will have a big factor in how good you could potentially be.”

White revealed in his season-ending news conference Tuesday that junior center John Egbunu, along with junior forward Devin Robinson, will test the NBA draft waters without an agent. Both players have until June 12 to decide whether to return for their senior seasons.

“We’ll support him as best as we can support him,” White said. “We want the best for John. If John wants to really, really come back we’ll welcome him with open arms. But both of these guys have options and decisions to make.”

Egbunu putting his name into the draft comes as somewhat of a surprise considering he’s recovering from a season-ending torn ACL he suffered Feb. 14 against Auburn. The 6-foot-11, 255-pound Bauchi, Nigeria, native is due to graduate in May as a fourth-year junior who transferred from USF. Egbunu averaged 7.8 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds in 24 games before the injury.

“It makes for a really tough process for him,” White said. “I feel for him. He's in a tough spot where I don't know how much thorough feedback he's gonna get. He can't go try out. He can't travel. He can't do individual workouts. He can't do a vertical jump test, you know? And he'd actually grade out really well in all those areas. So, he and Devin both have some tough decisions to make.”

Asked about the chances of Robinson returning for his senior season, White said: “I would be somewhat surprised. I'd be excited. I think that Devin, with this being his second go-around pursuing this thing, I think that it may be difficult for him to not follow through this year … Obviously a big recruiting coup this spring would be if Devin re-committed to being a Gator."

This much we know for sure, Florida will again return an experienced backcourt, with rising senior point guard Chris Chiozza and rising junior shooting guard KeVaughn Allen. Chiozza put his name in NCAA Tournament lore with his running, 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift the Gators to an overtime, Sweet 16 win over Wisconsin. The Memphis native will get a chance to run the team from the point full-time with senior Kasey Hill’s departure.

The 6-2 Allen led UF in scoring at 14 points per game and will enter his third straight year as a starter.

“KeVaughn in his first two years, especially with this year’s amount of depth, we’ve been able to get away with every four or five games him having a subpar game, and he’s going to shoulder a lot more burden,” White said. “As I told him, I met with all of our guys last week, he shouldn’t feel pressure from that, he should feel excitement from that.

“Same with Chris Chiozza. Chris Chiozza cannot be a guy that plays like a starter two games in a row, and then plays like, ‘Oh my goodness thank god Kasey played really well’ because it wasn’t Chris’ best game.”

White said forward Keith Stone needs to make “a big jump” to help offset the potential frontcourt losses. Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson will be eligible to play next season, and White said the 6-6 swingman could be UF’s best offensive player on the roster.

“The guy's as talented an offensive player as we have along with KeVaughn Allen,” White said. “He's that talented offensively. My challenge to Jalen is to defend and rebound at a higher level.”

As for UF’s incoming freshmen, White said 6-8, 270-pound center Isaiah Stokes underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL and didn’t rule out the possibility of him taking an injury redshirt year next season.

“He has a chance to be a really good player,” White said. “I’m not sure how much of an impact he’s going to make next year or if he will even play next year. Those are decisions that him and (trainer) Duke Werner will probably end up making next fall.”

The rest of the class includes 6-8 forward Chase Johnson, 6-6 swingman DeAundrae Ballard and 6-4 point guard Michael Okauru, who is due to sign in the spring. White is high on the potential of Ballard, comparing his well-rounded game to that of South Carolina guard and SEC player of the year Sindarius Thornwell.

“He’s so far away from this guy of course, you can see a little bit of Sindarius Thornwell in him, some Thornwell in that he can drive it, he can shoot it, he can pass it, he can defend, he can do a lot of things pretty well,” White said. “Doesn’t hang his hat on one thing, good player, really excited about DeAundrae.”

Florida took a significant step forward in White’s second season, but work needs to be done to sustain success.

“We’re in a good spot,” White said. “But we’ve got to capitalize.”

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or kevin.brockway@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

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