South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches.
Oct. 31 Alabama
Nov. 1 Arkansas
Nov. 2 Auburn
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Mike White (first year; 101-40, fifth year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 16-17 (8-10)
2014-15 postseason: None
He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): Coach Billy Donovan (NBA), G Michael Frazier (NBA, 12.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg), G Billy Donovan (did not play), C Jon Horford (6.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg), F Jacob Kurtz (4.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg), C Chris Walker (NBA, 4.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg), G Eli Carter (transferred to Boston College, 8.8 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): White, 6-2 G KeVaughn Allen, 6-9 F Kevarrius Hayes, 6-8 F Keith Stone, 6-8 F Justin Leon (Jr., transfer from Shawnee (Ill.) CC), 6-4 G Jhonny Victor (walk-on from Florida’s track and field team)
Top returners: 6-8 F Dorian Finney-Smith (13.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg), 6-1 G Kasey Hill (7.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg), 6-8 F Devin Robinson (6.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg)
Strange seeing Florida struggle last year, following four straight Elite Eights and a Final Four berth in 2014. Strange not seeing Billy Donovan, the SEC’s patriarch, not prowling the sideline anymore, barrel chest popping when his suitcoat was doffed two minutes in and the infamous widow’s peak, grayer but still razor-sharp.
Strange thinking that the Gators, the league’s best team other than Kentucky for 15 years, are perhaps on the decline. New coach Mike White is regarded as the best young mind in the game, but it’s a formidable task to try to turn around a team that saw years of success derailed by one miserable season of no chemistry and damn sure no championships.
"We had our struggles last year. We lost a lot of close games," senior Alex Murphy said at SEC Tipoff. "A lot of times, we felt we were right there. It was not fun but looking back, we’ve probably taken some things from last year."
White may be hoping the team’s veterans learned what an unselfish team can do. Four seniors guided the Gators to an undefeated SEC season and the Final Four in 2014, and Donovan’s system brought in new stars to eventually replace old stars. The new guys meshed well with the old heads in a seamless blend of team basketball – no individual was greater than the sum.
Yet last year’s team never harnessed its talent, never listened to Donovan telling them if they just played together, they’d win. The result was Florida’s worst season since 1998 and the end of the Donovan era. He accepted an NBA job and this time, there was no changing his mind.
White will bring excitement. His Louisiana Tech teams were masters of speed and defense, and White’s experience as a former point guard and a coach of point guards should help a position that ailed Florida last year. Gone is the mercurial Chris Walker, a mega-talent who kept getting his head in the way, and around are the versatile Dorian Finney-Smith and John Egbunu, a transfer from South Florida that should supply needed interior production.
The rest is a lot of unknown. Murphy was a Duke recruit who transferred to where his brother played, shot OK from the field but terrible from 3 and then had to watch his old team win the national title while he and his new team sat on the couch. Kasey Hill has had some terrific moments but he’s mostly not been the McDonald’s All-American talent he was supposed to be. The rest of the roster is either freshmen or veterans who haven’t played well on a consistent basis.
White will eventually win (his regular seasons at La Tech were great but he never reached the NCAA tournament) and if anybody can get Hill and Chris Chiozza on track, it’s him. But the schedule is brutal, the talent thin and it’s only going to take one blowout before fans start wondering if they got the right new coach. Florida may have a second straight lousy season.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Amanda Butler (153-112, ninth year; 193-134, 11th year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 13-17 (5-11)
2014-15 postseason: None
She’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): F Kayla Lewis (9.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg), G Antoinette Bannister (dismissed in January, 6.2 ppg, 2.5 rpg), F Pamela Begic (back to Florida’s soccer team after walking on last year, did not play)
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-4 C Tyshara Fleming (Jr., transfer from Northwest Florida State College), 5-8 G Simone Westbrook (Jr., transfer from Northwest Florida State College), 5-7 G Isis Young (RFr., sat out last year with injury), 6-0 G/F Eleanna Christinaki
Top returners: 6-0 G/F Ronni Williams (10.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg), 5-6 G Cassie Peoples (9.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg), 5-8 G January Miller (7.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
Amanda Butler missed the postseason for the first time in her Florida tenure last year and had a losing season. The Gators lost to Auburn 71-49 in the first round of the SEC tournament; while the Tigers were the league’s hottest team at the end of last year, they also finished 3-13 in the SEC.
Yet Butler still received a two-year contract extension due to her overall body of work. She’s the second-winningest coach in Florida history and while the past two years haven’t been great (although 2013-14 was an NCAA tournament year), her success since she’s been at Florida has been solid.
Although a bad year this year probably wouldn’t have many fans feeling good about the program’s direction.
Two years ago, Butler guided the team to the NCAA tournament despite dressing seven players for a lot of games. Injuries and illnesses had the bus driver running layup drills and checking on eligibility. Last year, the Gators added depth but still didn’t play very well.
Butler returned all but two players (soccer standout Pamela Begic was a practice-squader). She added a pair of junior-college teammates in Tyshara Fleming and Simone Westbrook that helped lead Northwest Florida State College to two straight NJCAA national quarterfinal berths. Freshman Eleanna Christinaki played for the Greek national team over the summer and Isis Young is healthy after sitting out last year due to a high-school injury.
Florida fired and hired two assistant coaches and Butler made no excuses. "Losses are losses," she said at Florida’s Media Day, "but that returning group knows how close they were to having a much, much better season. I think we’re going to be driven by their hunger and their excitement."
Butler’s bunch was a low-scoring team last year and while it was competitive, it couldn’t find the late-game scoring or key rebounding to pull out a few more games. Nine of the Gators’ 17 losses were by nine points or less.
Having a full team healthy and having gone through a painful year should provide a better year in Gainesville, but the league got stronger as Florida was having its rough spot. The hurdle of getting back into the league’s top seven is rather high, and while Butler was backed this offseason by her athletic department, another losing season may not have that firm of a support.