Another challenging road for Donovan's Gators

Difficult non-conference schedules are nothing new for Florida basketball in recent years under Billy Donovan, and the 2014-15 season is no exception.

The Gators will travel to the Bahamas and participate in the Battle 4 Atlantis with Butler, Georgetown, North Carolina, Oklahoma, UAB, UCLA and Wisconsin. Florida’s opening game in the tournament comes against Georgetown, which returns four of its five leading scorers from last season. The second-round matchup will be against either Wisconsin or UAB, and the rest of the matchups will be determined based on the outcomes.

When the Gators return from the Bahamas, they have a week off before traveling to Lawrence to face Kansas. Florida beat the Jayhawks 67-61 in Gainesville last season, but six of the combined 10 starters for both teams are gone, including Kansas’ first-round picks Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins. There’s still plenty of talent in Lawrence, as Bill Self added two star freshmen in power forward Cliff Alexander and small forward Kelly Oubre. The Jayhawks have won or tied for 10 straight Big 12 titles and look poised for another run this year. Florida’s Dec. 5 trip to Kansas looks to be the toughest road game on the non-conference schedule.

The biggest non-conference home game comes on Jan. 3 when defending national champion Connecticut makes the trip to Gainesville. Florida dropped a 65-64 game at Connecticut last season when Shabazz Napier hit a buzzer-beater to win the game. The Huskies then eliminated Florida in the national semifinal. This year’s Connecticut team will have a new look, as guard Ryan Boatright (12.1 points per game) is the only one of Connecticut’s five leading scorers from last season who returns this season.

The game against Florida State takes place in Tallahassee on December 30. The Seminoles gave Florida trouble around the basket with their height last season. FSU’s top three scorers are gone, and they will depend on sophomore guards Devon Bookert and Marquez White to make jumps. The Seminoles return two seven-footers with Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo, who combined for 24 points and nine rebounds in Gainesville last season.


Boatright

Florida hosts Miami in the second game of the season; this is the first time the in-state rivals will play during the regular season since 2005. Guard Manu Lecomte is the only one of Miami’s top four scorers returning this season, after averaging 7.7 points last season. The young, inexperienced Miami roster has five freshmen.

The Gators will again participate in the Orange Bowl Basketball Challenge, and will face Wake Forest this season. The Demon Deacons return their two top scorers in guard Codi Miller-McIntyre (12.6 points) and forward Devin Thomas (11.1 points/7.5 rebounds). Mitchell Wilbekin, the younger brother of former Florida point guard Scottie Wilbekin, is also a true freshman at Wake Forest.

Florida opens the season on Nov. 14 against a William & Mary team that went 20-12 last season, just missing the NCAA Tournament. The Gators also host non-conference games against Jacksonville (Dec. 14), Louisiana-Monroe (Nov. 21), Texas Southern (Dec. 12) and Yale (Dec. 8).

The highlights of Florida’s Southeastern Conference action are always the matchups with Kentucky. The teams will play in Gainesville on Feb. 7, and then will close out the regular season in Lexington on March 7.

John Calipari’s Kentucky squad is as talented as ever, but it isn’t just about the freshmen this season. The Wildcats lost first-round picks James Young and Julius Randle from last year’s team, but center Willie Cauley-Stein, guard Aaron Harrison, guard Andrew Harrison, center Dakari Johnson and forward Alex Poythress elected to stay another season. Add to that the typically loaded freshman class, faeturing guard Devin Booker, forward Trey Lyles, forward Karl-Anthony Towns and point guard Tyler Ulis, and Calipari has another powerful roster.


Poythress

The team that looks poised to take a big step forward this season is LSU. Florida hosts the Tigers on Jan. 20 and will visit Baton Rouge on Feb. 21. After considering leaving early, Tiger forwards Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey both decided to return to school. Martin averaged 10.3 points last year with 4.6 rebounds. Mickey’s leaping ability makes him a legitimate NBA prospect; he blocked 106 shots in 34 games last season to go with 12.7 points and 7.9 rebounds. LSU will lean on both players to take the next step this season.

Arkansas is another team that could make a significant improvement this season. Their top three scorers from last year return this season, led by guard Rashad Madden and forward Bobby Portis. Madden led the team with 12.7 points last year and hit big shots when the Razorbacks needed them. Portis, a former McDonald’s All-American, averaged 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds as a freshman. Those numbers could make a jump during his sophomore season and make Arkansas a dark horse contender in the league.

Despite the intense rivalry between Florida and Tennessee in recent years, the teams meet only once this season. The Volunteers will travel to Gainesville on Feb. 28 for the lone matchup in the regular season. It will be a new-look Tennessee team, as familiar names Jeronne Maymon, Jordan McRae and Jarnell Stokes have all departed. Guard Josh Richardson (10.3 points) is the only one of last year’s top five scorers who returns to the team. First-year coach Donnie Tyndall has his hands full.

The Gators face Missouri just once this season, traveling to Columbia on Feb. 24. Last year’s Tigers gave Florida some problems with their three-guard lineup, but Jabari Brown, Jordan Clarkson and Earnest Ross have all moved on to the next level. Sophomore forward Johnathan Williams III is the team’s leading returning scorer from last year, when he averaged 5.8 points. The Tigers must rely on inexperienced players this season.

The Marshall Henderson era in Oxford is over, but Ole Miss still has plenty of talent to compete in the conference. The other three from the team’s four leading scorers last season are back, led by guard Jarvis Summers, who averaged 17.3 points per game last season. Guard Ladarius White (7.1 points) and forward Anthony Perez (7.1 points) are back to try to make up for Henderson’s loss in scoring.

Alabama coach Anthony Grant kept his job last season despite a 13-19 record, and he’s now without leading scorer Trevor Releford (18.5 points). When the Crimson Tide needed points, Releford was the one who provided big baskets. This year, guards Levi Randolph and Retin Obasohan must step up. Alabama has mostly freshmen and sophomores in the frontcourt, and will need someone to be a rebounding presence. The Gators face Alabama once, traveling to Tuscaloosa on Jan. 27.

The story of the offseason in the SEC was Bruce Pearl’s return to the league, as he took the Auburn job. The Tigers gave Florida a scare in Auburn last season, falling 68-61. Pearl takes over a roster with some talent on it, despite their 6-12 record in conference play last year. Leading scorer Chris Denson is gone, but guards K.T. Harrell and Tahj Shamsid-Deen are both back. Harrell averaged 18.3 points last year and Shamsid-Deen averaged 9.5 points as a freshman. The issues will be in the paint, but Pearl added junior college transfer Cinmeon Bowers to try to fix those problems.


Pearl

The Gators head to College Station to face Texas A&M on Feb. 14, and will host the Aggies on March 3. Texas A&M finished 8-10 in conference play last season and leading scorer Jamal Jones is gone. No returning players averaged in double figures last year.

Guards Charles Mann and Kenny Gaines led Georgia last season, and both return after combining to average 26.9 points per game last season. But the heat is starting to build in Athens on head coach Mark Fox, and he’ll need a big season from those guards to keep rumors about his job security from creeping back up again. The Gators play Georgia just once, heading to Athens on Jan. 17.

Florida opens conference play at South Carolina on Jan. 7 in the only meeting between the two teams this season. Frank Martin has built the USC program up, and the Gamecocks will lean on Sindarius Thornwell to take them to the next step. As a freshman, Thornwell averaged 13.4 points, and he can score in different ways. The South Carolina roster is improved around him, but it’s Thornwell who will make the Gamecocks go.

Mississippi State went 3-15 last season in SEC play, but they return most of their scorers from last season. Leading scorer Craig Sword is back after averaging 13.7 points, and the Bulldogs need to take a step forward under Rick Ray. The Bulldogs come to Gainesville for Florida’s SEC home opener on Jan. 10, and it’s the only meeting between the two.

It could be another long season for Vanderbilt. The Gators head to Nashville on Feb. 3, while the Commodores make their trip to Gainesville on Feb. 18. Sophomore center Damian Jones is back after averaging 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds.

PLEASE NOTE: This Story Appears in the WINTER 2014 ISSUE OF FIGHTIN' GATORS MAGAZINE


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