GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida men’s basketball team held an open practice Thursday, allowing reporters to watch the entire session as the Gators near their Nov. 11 season opener.
In general, coach Mike White says he feels his team is on track with his preseason expectations, though he offered a caveat to that.
“I’m really pleased with us right now, but it’s a daily eval, of course, with these guys. A lot of things that are positive right now, it’s about maintaining those things,” he said after practice. “And it’s a little bit easier right now as we’ve talked about a lot with our team to have great camaraderie and great chemistry because we haven’t played on TV yet. Starting lineups haven’t been announced yet and rotations, parents watching games and ex-coaches watching games and all of it. Our fans, the feedback, these guys’ classmates on campus.
“If we can remain together, if our locker room can remain as healthy as it is right now — and again, we’re in a really good place, but a lot of teams are — then we have a chance to be a good team and have a good year.”
That’s the expectation after the Gators were picked to finish second in the SEC in the conference’s preseason media poll heading into White’s second season in charge.
As he noted regarding the starting lineup and rotation, though, nothing is set as of yet, and really, there may not be a set starting five for these Gators this season.
Heading into the team’s preseason exhibition last week, he had indicated as many as nine players were competing for those spots. He’d be fine with that competition continuing forward.
“I’d be shocked if we had a conventional, consistent starting five,” White said Thursday. “Not that I have anything against it at all. I just, I think that the strength of this team is our experience and our depth and the depth of that experience. And we could go a bunch of different ways. If so and so’s playing great, he’s probably going to start. If a guy starts one game and he’s average and one of the guys he’s competing with comes off the bench and he plays his butt off, he might get the nod the next night. And I want all of our guys to be open to that. …
“I’d rather them be more concerned with who finishes the game and how many minutes they get because of how they played and how many minutes they can earn the next game by their production.”
With that in mind, here were some takeaways from the open practice and the Gators’ progress to this point:
In the zone
Florida is working on more zone defense than it showed in White’s first season, and he has been encouraged with the execution so far in practice.
“I like our length. For whatever reason, we started repping it a little earlier this year and we liked what we saw, so I think with this group for whatever reason we’re probably a little more open to just throwing it out there in a game on a game-by-game basis, seeing how productive it is and evaluating it and maybe riding it a little bit. It was good today,” White said.
Allen finding his shot
There was plenty of frustration to go around in the Gators’ preseason exhibition game with Division II Eckerd College last week.
Florida actually trailed by a point at halftime before closing strong for a 91-63 win. The Gators were just 5-of-18 from the 3-point line as their top shooters all struggled.
That included sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen, but he has found his stroke again in practice.
Allen, who is the team’s top returning scorer after averaging 11.6 points per game last season, looked terrific Thursday.
“Until the Eckerd game, that first what was it, three weeks of practice or so, he was shooting it as well anyone if not better than anyone. The last couple days he’s back to that form,” White said.
A name that keeps coming to the forefront this preseason is redshirt-freshman Keith Stone.
The 6-foot-8 forward from Deerfield Beach, Fla., spent last season on the scout team while building up his body and could be ready to make a pronounced impact for the Gators.
“Stone, boy, he’s probably our most versatile offensive player. He, in time, could end up being our best all-around offensive player,” White said. “He’s just such a mismatch because he can post, he can shoot it, he can drive it, he can pass it. He’s good (in) man (defense), he’s good in the middle of zones. He’s got a lot of Dorian Finney-Smith characteristics offensively and at times he can be a bear on the offensive glass because he’s such a big bodied guy and he’s learned to play with a higher intensity level during his redshirt year. I’ve got big expectations for Keith. I think he’s going to be a really good Gator.”
Barry an all-around contributor
The other highly-intriguing addition to the rotation this season will be graduate transfer Canyon Barry, who averaged 19.7 points per game for College of Charleston last season.
Barry, who shot 84.5 percent from the foul line last season with his notable underhanded free throw style, is expected to give the Gators a much-needed additional option as a perimeter scorer.
White wanted to make clear, though, that the 6-foot-6 guard and youngest son of NBA Hall of Fame member Rick Barry, can do more than just shoot.
“His first big missed free throw today (was) a shocker. He’s been almost automatic at the line, like Justin Leon. Canyon is such a versatile guy, he’s a winner,” White said. “He’s one of those guys, he’s good in all areas. He’s very, very vocal, he’s a leader, he’s got natural leadership qualities to him. He’s a pleasure to be around. He’s positive energy and I think the stereotype on him is that he’s just such a great shooter. He is a good shooter and he’s good at everything — he’s a good player.
“He’s probably had as much success driving the ball and getting to the paint as anyone on our team to this point. I anticipate him having a really strong finish to his career, a really strong senior year and being a great addition to this basketball program.”
Leon steady at the stripe
The Gators ended practice Thursday with some pressure free throw shooting.
White wants redshirt-junior center John Egbunu (53.2 percent at the foul line last season) and senior point guard Kasey Hill (53.8 percent) to get as much practice as possible in those moments.
So they were among the players routinely sent to the line with the rest of the team watching and waiting to run after each miss. And there was plenty of running.
Ultimately, Hill closed practice by making his last two attempts.
The one guy White isn’t worried about at the stripe at this point, though, is Leon, even though he made just 12-of-26 free throws last year for a dismal 46.2 percent success rate.
“In all the situations that he had today, like post-practice today at the foul line, if I had to guess off the top of my head, he’s probably shooting about 90 percent,” White said. “Now we hope that carries over, knock on wood, for games, but he’s really poised at the foul line right now. He’s in a really good mental place, not only with his shooting but the way he’s playing. The game has slowed down for him a little bit. Last year was good for him. He’s progressed.”