Friday, November 7, 2008

Florida Basketball Preview

It's not quite right to say that no one cared about the 2007-2008 Florida basketball team. It's not quite right to say there was no consternation when the team missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in years. It's not quite right to say last season didn't matter.

But...well, it kind of didn't matter. When you win back-to-back national championships, the fans cut you a lot of slack. When you lose just about every player of consequence from those teams and lean heavily on true freshmen, the fans cut you a lot more. So there wasn't a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth last year when the Gators plummeted to a 24-12 record and the NIT. (Where, to be sure, they actually played fairly well)

No, Florida fans didn't call for Billy Donovan's head after missing the tournament, which was a stunning bit of of restraint from that group. Expectations are higher this year, but they should be tempered by a few hard realities.

The Back Court

Florida's best guard and best overall player is point guard Nick Calathes. (Cuh-lay-thus) Nick was the SEC Co-Freshman of the Year, led the Gators in scoring last year and put up statistics '04s point guard Taurean Green never did. (Calathes' turnover ratio was better than anything Green put up) He's got impressive, occasionally unbelievable, court vision and routinely turned in highlight reel passes. In fact, one of Florida's biggest early-season issues last year was the inability of some players to anticipate and reel in Calathes' no-look passes.

We probably shouldn't expect much improvement from Calathes. "Upside" can be roughly defined as what we expect to happen when a player's wisdom matches his talent, and Calathes has the wisdom thing down pretty well. There aren't a lot of things he'll learn with additional experience. It's not that he's a flawless player; his defense is spotty and his jump shot isn't worthy of the label. The thing is, the shot part of that phrase isn't the problem; he hit 36 percent from beyond the arc last year. It's the jumping thing Nick has issues with. He simply doesn't have much of a vertical leap; he's 6'6 but plays like he's barely 6'0. Calathes doesn't have the explosiveness or athleticism to truly improve his game. He'll always be when he is right now, which is kind of a depressing thought, existentially speaking.

The old man of the team is Walter Hodge, the only senior on the team and the only player who was on both national championship teams. He's a great slasher, streaky shooter (39.8 percent from beyond the arc) and pesky on-ball defender, but he lacks the size and ball-handling ability to be anything more than a useful supporting player. Unfortunately, he's UF's starting shooting guard now that sophomore Jai Lucas (son of former NBA coach and point guard John Lucas) has transferred over concerns about his role.

That decision will press fascinating freshman Erving Walker into a bigger role than was perhaps anticipated for him. Walker is listed on Florida's web site at 5'8, 161 pounds; his profile on has him at 5'8, 140 pounds, and he's probably closer to 5'7. It'll be interesting to see how Donovan utilizes Walker, who comes in with a reputation as a dynamic offensive player willing to chuck a three-pointer from any point on the floor. I'm hopeful that, in the long run, Walker will become UF's version of Devan Downey, South Carolina's Death Dwarf. Downey hectored Florida's guards through two games and nearly shot the Gamecocks to a couple upsets. For this season, however, Walker's probably going to be a defensive liability. But the Gators don't have a lot of options at guard. Mighty Mouse plays, whether he's ready for it or not.

The Front Court

Florida's weakness last year was pretty simple: they didn't have as many tall guys as most other teams. UF's one true big man, Marreese Speights, was a solid player, but didn't live up to the absurd expectations placed on him by the fans. He had great numbers in limited minutes as a freshman, a year crowned when he hit a jumper over Greg Oden in the Championship Game. When he didn't instantly become Wilt Chamberlain, the fans turned on him, and hard. By the time the 76ers drafted him in April, Speights was about as popular in Gator Nation as Darnell Dockett. They'll realize what they're missing this year, because the Gators again have serious issues with tall people.

In Wednesday's exhibition game against some school called "Rollins," the starting small forward position was occupied by 6'9 sophomore Chandler Parsons. Parsons was a high school teammate of Calathes, but wasn't the same caliber of prospect; he earned a scholarship only after busting his ass in his senior year. He's a weird player; 6'9, but only 213 pounds, and that's after an off-season of serious weight lifting. He's got an impressive long-range shot, good ball-handling skills and impressive passing ability. Like Calathes, he lacks the athleticism and explosiveness to play up to his size, and he's a decided liability in the post-up game. He's added some bulk, so he should be better this season, but he's not going to be a positive in the paint.

Parsons will be backed up by fellow bizarre sophomore Adam Allen, a 6'8 forward Florida started recruiting when he was a 6'5 guard. Allen hit a major growth spurt his senior year and was forced to quickly move from perimeter player to interior presence. He didn't handle that transition terribly well last year; he's more comfortable on the perimeter, but he lacks the athleticism and coordination to really handle the area. He is, however, an outstanding three-point shooter; he drained 42.1 percent of his shots from beyond the arc last year despite inconsistent playing time. An offseason of weight lifting should give him the bulk needed to be a little more helpful in the paint.

Nor will starting "power" forward, junior Dan Werner. Werner's one of those dangerous type of players: just good enough in the right areas to make a coach fall in love, not good enough to actually be a positive force. He's a smart guy, knows where he needs to be on the court and knows where everyone else should be on the court. He makes the right pass and plays well fundamentally. Theoretically he can stretch the floor with his jumper. In reality, he's a career 28.4 percent three-point shooter who lacks the size to bang down low (he's the least impressive-looking 6'8, 230-pound man I've ever seen), the athleticism to play small forward and the ball-handling ability to deal with any kind of pressure. He's a place-holder type, but Donovan loves him for those strengths I detailed earlier.

The starting center will probably be sophomore Alex Tyus, another undersized post player at 6'8, 220 pounds. He's an athletic, explosive kind of player with surprising touch on his shots. He's hopelessly raw, relatively short and lacks any kind of game away from the basket. Ladies and gentlemen, your starting center!

The Great Freshman Hope is Kenny Kadji, a 6-10, 245-pounder who was one of the best prospects in the country coming out of high school. Donovan's going to lean heavily on him, as Kadji's the best chance Florida has to actually field a legitimately effective big man this year. It's not a good thing you can say that about a true freshman.

Fellow freshman Eloy Vargas was another four star prospect and might be more talented than Kadji. But he's listed at 6'10, 215 pounds and is more of a developmental prospect than someone who can jump into the SEC right now and play with the big boys. He has a decent perimeter game, and Donovan loves big men who can shoot the three (Matt Bonner, anyone?), so he'll get some playing time. But his main contribution to the classic big man game will be as a designated fouler.

There are two other freshman I'm not terribly familiar with: 6'5 guard/forward Ray Shipman and 6'8 power forward Allan Chaney. Both will be asked to do a lot, especially Chaney, who seems like a bulldozer type.


One year out of the tournament is OK, but two straight seasons without any dancing would be a serious setback for the Florida basketball program. The Gators need to reach the tournament, even if it's as an eight seed that loses in the second round.

They can do that. Paradoxically, while Florida wasn't particularly close to making the tournament last year, they really were just two games from sneaking in: flip the loss at Vanderbilt and the home loss to Tennessee into wins, and the Gators are probably a tournament team.

The SEC isn't particularly good, and the Gators might be able to eek out 10 wins on talent alone. If they do that, they should be a tournament team. Those are the expectations for this year. Anything more is really a bonus.

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