Note: Scout.com went to its experts at each of the 12 SEC schools to put together preseason scouting reports for all the league teams while also polling our writers to determine their picks to win the division and overall league titles.
By David Stirt
Fightin’ Gators Magazine
Despite racking up 49 wins the past two years, the failure to earn an NCAA Tournament bid since winning back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007 has seemingly eroded Florida’s standing as a national basketball power.
How quickly a program’s status and goals can change.
While Florida’s 24-12 record (8-8 in the SEC) in 2007-08 and 25-11 record last year (9-7 in league play) seem like the kind of numbers that are worthy of an invite to the NCAA Tournament for a two-time defending national champ, the bottom line in both seasons was that the Gators just couldn’t beat enough good teams in either season to warrant the NCAA berth.
Now heading into the third season after that second national title, Florida has the type of challenge Billy Donovan faced in the early years of his 13-year Gator coaching tenure---- proving that Florida belongs in the discussion of national basketball elite on an annual basis.
The last remnant on the roster from those championship seasons is senior Dan Werner, who averaged nine minutes per game and scored a total of 70 points in the Gators’ 35-4 championship repeat season. Since then, Werner has started 71 of 72 games and logged nearly 30 minutes per game while averaging 9.0 points over that period.
Werner is the only senior returning from last season, but it is the absence of junior-to-be Nick Calathes that will have the most immediate, and long lasting, effect on the fortunes of the UF program.
Calathes, who led the SEC in assists the past two years as well as leading Florida in scoring each season, decided to bypass a third college season to sign with Greek basketball power Panathinakos in a reported $2 million per year, two-year deal. With the loss of Calathes, and last fall’s preseason departure of sophomore Jai Lucas, the Gators have suffered a huge void at the point guard position that now must be filled by sophomore Erving Walker and freshman Kenny Boynton.
The 5-8 Walker had a sensational freshman season, averaging 10.1 points per game (10.8 in SEC play) while spending most of his time at the two-guard spot while Calathes directed the offense. Now Walker will be asked to return to the point guard spot he played in high school, and the transition will be of utmost importance to Florida’s overall fortunes. Walker was freed for loads of open jumpers thanks to the great penetrating and passing skills of Calathes, but now he will have to generate more of his own offense while serving as a facilitator for the rest of his teammates.
While Walker seems to be up to the task of playing the point, the big question surrounds a potential backup when Walker needs to rest.
Boynton, the highly-regarded freshman out of Pompano Beach, has already been declared the person to pick up the minutes at point guard when Walker sits. Boynton garnered a reputation as one of the country’s most explosive scoring guards in high school and on the AAU summer circuit, so he will be asked to take on a role that has not been his main focus the past few years.
The lack of depth in the backcourt should be offset in part by a much more versatile and stronger frontcourt group. The addition of Georgetown transfer Vernon Macklin (6-10, 240), who sat out last season, should add immediate bulk and toughness in the middle that has been missing the past two years. Between Macklin and 6-10 sophomore Kenny Kadji, the Gators should have a defensive and rebounding presence inside that could take care of a major deficiency and allow junior Alex Tyus to move to a more natural forward position.
Despite giving away height and bulk inside, the 6-8 Tyus did a solid job for the Gators at center last season, finishing second on the squad with a 12.5 scoring average and leading the team with 6.2 rebounds per game. With a dependable 15-foot jumper, Tyus will be a tough cover for power forwards this season.
Joining Tyus in a three-man group that should handle the bulk of the minutes at the three and four positions are Werner and junior Chandler Parsons. Parsons played 26 minutes per game last year and averaged 9.2 points per contest, but as the season moved into its final stages he was often on the bench at crunch time of key SEC contests. Despite showing flashes of being an exceptional shooter, Parsons shot only 30 percent from 3-point range and 56 percent at the free throw line, dropping from 33 percent and 63 percent as a freshman.
Sophomore Ray Shipman will be asked to provide solid minutes at both the small forward and two-guard positions with freshman Erik Murphy, a 6-9 sharpshooter, expected to contribute off the bench.
Winning championships, either NCAA or SEC, are not on the immediate radar for the Florida program. Getting back to the NCAA Tournament is the standard it is chasing, not a modest goal by any means, but certainly not where everyone expected the program to be after the glory days of three years ago.
SEC Predicted Order of Finish
4. South Carolina
1. Mississippi State
2. Ole Miss
Overall League Champion: Kentucky