GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The No. 8 Florida men’s basketball team opens the 2017-18 season Monday night with a 7 p.m. ET tip against Gardner-Webb.
The Gators head into their third season under coach Mike White and are coming off the program’s first Elite Eight appearance since the 2013-14 season.
While some of the key faces from that team return — most notably point guard Chris Chiozza, shooting guard KeVaughn Allen and forward/center Kevarrius Hayes — a lot of new faces will take the court for the Gators this season as they chase an SEC championship and another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Here’s a look at those new players who will have key roles this season.
For the second straight season, Florida will have a graduate transfer on the roster who will make an immediate impact.
Last year, it was Canyon Barry, the underhanded free-throw shooter who went on to become the SEC’s Sixth Man of the Year.
This season, it’s Egor Koulechov, the Israeli-Russian wing who made his way to Florida after playing stints at both Arizona State and Rice.
The strongest part of Koulechov’s game: His near laser-accurate 3-point shooting. Koulechov has made 39.3 percent of his career shots from beyond the arc in his first three seasons of college basketball. Last season at Rice, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard/small forward made a blistering 47.4-percent of his 3-point attempts en route to averaging 18.2 points per game.
Koulechov credits his father for his scorer’s mentality and his ability to shoot from just about anywhere on the court.
“I remember between like eighth and ninth grade he used to wake me up in the summer at like 5 in the morning, going around with me and getting like 500 shots up before he went to work,” Koulechov said. “So shout-out, dad. I’m thankful for that.”
All Jalen Hudson could do last season was watch.
As a transfer from Virginia Tech, Hudson had to sit out his first season at Florida due to NCAA transfer rules. He watched the team succeed down the stretch. Now, he’s ready to get involved.
“The whole year, I was anticipating playing,” Hudson said, “so you can just imagine that every game. … I’m excited to just get my feet wet.”
Through two exhibition games, the sharpshooting Hudson has gotten off to a strong start. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard scored a team-high 39 points on 12-of-25 shooting and made 7 of his 12 3-point attempts.
His biggest need for improvement is on defense.
Mike Okauru won’t start right away this season, but the 4-star freshman should see quality minutes off the bench spelling Chiozza.
The 6-foot-3 point guard had a successful high school career at Brewster Academy in Raleigh, N.C. that was capped with a perfect season as a senior. Now, he’s ready to help Florida continue the strong run it had last season.
In the Gators’ second exhibition game against Tampa, Okauru split time with KeVaughn Allen running the point with Chiozza sidelined with a bone bruise. He played 23 minutes and scored 11 points.
“Mike has come a long way in the first month of practice,” White said. “He is settling in a little bit, [but] of course [there’s] much more room for improvement ”
With lack of depth in the frontcourt early this season while John Egbunu recovers from his torn left ACL, Chase Johnson should get ample opportunity to make an impact early off the bench.
Johnson also missed a good portion of preseason practice while in concussion protocol. However, he did play 16 minutes in the Gators’ second exhibition game against Tampa and scored 6 points in the final 1:47 to go along with 3 blocks. He’s competing for time with Keith Stone, Koulechov and redshirt freshman Dontay Bassett at the two forward spots.
Guard Deaundrae Ballard comes to Florida as a 4-star prospect and the No. 65 player in the ESPN 100 rankings. However, Ballard likely will be a spot role player early on while the Gators utilize a veteran-heavy backcourt in Chiozza, Allen and Hudson.
Ballard did score 18 points on 7-of-17 shooting in the two exhibition games, and the 6-foot-5 guard from Atlanta has the talent to be a high-level scorer. It’s likely just a matter of when he gets the chance to break out.
Isaiah Stokes was a former Alabama football prospect before deciding to play basketball instead because of CTE concerns. However, he will have to wait a bit before having the opportunity to play for the Gators.
Stokes tore an ACL in February, during his senior year of high school, and could return as early as January. However, White said the option to use a medical redshirt is still on the table.
“Since I’m young coming in, I definitely want to save my legs because it’s my first injury I ever went through,” Stokes said. “… I really don’t want to reinjure it.”
Stokes was the 60th-ranked player in the 2017 ESPN100 rankings and at 6-foot-8 and 270 pounds, he has the size to be a force in the paint. It’s just a matter of getting him healthy.