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How Florida won college basketball’s offseason

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The Gators have all the pieces to be a national contender this season.

Replacing a legend was never going to be easy for Mike White. Billy Donovan was the coach who changed everything at Florida, winning back-to-back national titles and altering the Gators’ perception from a football school with a basketball program to a legitimate national brand that annually threatened Kentucky’s reign in the SEC. Donovan still had it rolling when he jumped to the NBA, reaching three straight Elite Eights and one Final Four from 2011-2014 before leaving for the Oklahoma City Thunder.

White hit the ground running upon his arrival from Louisiana Tech, helping Florida win 27 games and leading another Elite Eight trip in his second year on the job in 2017. He’s followed that with back-to-back seasons with 20+ wins and trips to the NCAA tournament. The Gators haven’t taken a noticeable step back under White’s watch, but they also haven’t felt like one of the best teams in the sport, a place they occupied often under Donovan.

That could change next season.

There’s a case to be made that no program in America added more talent this offseason than Florida. The Gators already had the No. 7 overall recruiting class in the country before adding the biggest grad transfer on the market last month in big man Kerry Blackshear Jr. All the pieces are now in place for a top-10 team in the preseason polls with the potential to run all the way to the Final Four.

Blackshear is college basketball’s marquee free agent addition

Blackshear is one of the most productive big men in the country. He comes to Florida as a grad transfer from Virginia Tech, giving the Gators an interior anchor who can serve as the hub of the offense while also protecting the rim.

At 6’10, 250 pounds, Blackshear is an old-school big man who can overwhelm opponents on the low block. He was one of college basketball’s most efficient post scorers last season, finishing in the 90th percentile by scoring 1.043 points per possession on such opportunities. He doesn’t rely strictly on raw power, though. He’s able to leverage the threat of his inside scoring to become a dangerous passer who can find open shooters and hit cutters running to the basket.

It’s easy to imagine Florida’s wealth of athletes on the perimeter getting easy looks because defenses are worried about Blackshear’s scoring. Here are a few examples of Blackshear’s passing ability:

Blackshear also has a face-up jumper with developing range. Last season, he made 21 threes at a 33.3 percent clip after making 15 threes at a 30 percent clip the season before. His ability to hit an elbow jumper makes him a true triple-threat with the ball in the low- or high-post. Blackshear can bully you inside, he can hit an open teammate with a pass, or he can shoot. He also finished top-40 in the country in offensive rebound rate.

Defensively, Blackshear has posted a block rate over four percent each of the last two seasons. He lacks the ideal quickness to defend pick-and-rolls, which is why he’s still playing at the college level, but the rest of his skill set is as complete as any big man in college hoops.

Blackshear chose Florida in part because it’s close to his hometown of Orlando. He also saw an emerging cast of young players he knows he can win with.

Florida has a star-studded recruiting class

The last time Florida landed a top-10 recruiting class was 2010, when Casey Prather, Patric Young, Will Yeguete, and Scottie Wilbekin entered the program and eventually led the Gators all the way to the Final Four as seniors. White will be hoping for a similar result with this year’s class, even if this group likely won’t stay in school as long.

Scottie Lewis is the headliner. A consensus top-10 recruit and projected one-and-done lottery pick, Lewis is a 6’4 wing out of New Jersey with electric athleticism, lockdown defensive ability, and the type of intangibles coaches crave. Lewis is going to be dynamic in transition and as a cutter as he develops his shooting ability. He’s also one of the oldest freshmen in this year’s class, turning 20 years old right before March Madness, which should help him be a Day 1 contributor.

You’re going to see clips of Lewis’ incredible dunking ability all over TV and social media this season. He’s going to be one of the biggest freshman stars in the country.

Lewis isn’t the Gators’ only incoming McDonald’s All-American. There’s also Tre Mann, a 6’4 point guard out of Gainesville with advanced pull-up shooting ability. Mann should team up in the backcourt with returning sophomore Andrew Nembhard to give UF two big guards who can pass, shoot, and dribble. It’s possible Mann is Florida’s best three-point threat this season.

Omar Payne is Florida’s third top-50 recruit. A 6’9 big man who played at local prep powerhouse Montverde, Payne is an impressive run-and-jump athlete with length and tons of untapped upside. Learning from Blackshear for a year should be a huge benefit for his development.

Florida is loaded with returning talent, too

The Gators never really hit their stride last season as White tried to merge his returning veterans with an impressive freshman class. Florida only went 9-9 in the SEC and 19-15 overall before sneaking into the NCAA tournament as a No. 10 seed and upsetting Nevada. UF would lose to Michigan in the Round of 32. Now veterans KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, and Kevarrius Hayes are gone and the team fully belongs to White’s newest additions.

Nembhard, a 6’5 point guard, should be one of the best rising sophomores in the country this year. The Canadian finished top-50 in DI in assist rate and hit 35 percent of his threes as a freshman. While he lacks elite quickness, Nembhard has great size and plays with unique poise. He should only get more efficient with a more versatile supporting cast around him this year.

Fellow sophomore Noah Locke, a 6’3 guard, can provide spot-up shooting, though he struggles to create off the dribble. There’s also Keyontae Johnson, a strong 6’5 wing with two-way versatility who can rebound, play off Blackshear as a cutter, and even hit 36.5 percent of his threes as a freshman. These three sophomores give White a strong foundation to build on with his new arrivals.

Florida has a real chance of crashing the Final Four

The SEC is going to be loaded next season. Kentucky is a top-five team in the preseason polls, and LSU, Auburn, and Tennessee should all start the year in the top 25. That means Florida should be battle tested come March.

Florida is likely going to run Nembhard, Mann, Locke, and Johnson around Blackshear. It will give the Gators a lineup with five three-point threats on the floor led by two point guards and one of the best passing big men in DI. This team is going to take and make a lot of three-pointers around Blackshear, who should be as dominant as ever scoring inside. The defense might be question mark, but this team did finish No. 16 overall last season. That unit should take a hit without Hayes around, but you can count on White to figure out a system that will get stops.

The Gators are the rare team with a foundation of returning contributors, an infusion of freshman talent, and the arrival of a veteran big who could be an All-American. No team in college basketball had a better offseason. Only five years after the departure of Billy Donovan, Florida is once again a national championship contender.