Florida can strive for Sweet 16 with sophomores, top-10 recruiting class

Mike White’s 2018-19 Florida Gators seemed to straddle the NCAA Tournament bubble at various points in the season.

But after salvaging a tournament berth and even advancing to the Round of 32, White’s strong recruiting and a trio of talented sophomores are poised for a potential Sweet 16 run next season.

Florida went to Nashville in early March on the proverbial bubble, needing at least one win and perhaps two to earn an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. After beating Arkansas and LSU, Mike White’s team lost in controversial fashion to Auburn in the SEC Tournament semifinals.

Nevertheless, the Gators received a No. 10 seed and sent a veteran Nevada club packing as 2.5-point underdogs. The Wolf Pack made the Sweet 16 last year and brought back stars like Cody Martin, Caleb Martin and Jordan Caroline, but couldn’t beat the SEC’s seventh team in the tournament field.

UF’s season ended in the Round of 32 for the second straight campaign when Michigan won a 64-49 decision as a seven-point favorite. (The Wolverines have now beaten Florida by double-digit margins in three NCAA Tournament meetings — in 1988, 2013 and 2019.)

Despite heavy losses, the Gators roster could be even more talented when the season tips off late this year.

Transfers leave Gainesville along with seniors Hudson, Hayes and Allen

Three UF players decided to transfer last week.

Many expected Mike Okauru and Deaundrae Ballard to leave, but Keith Stone’s decision was somewhat of a surprise. Stone tore his ACL in January and missed the rest of the season, but he was a starter and impact player for most of his sophomore campaign in 2017-18.

With Jalen Hudson, Kevarrius Hayes and KeVaughn Allen departing, Florida returns three sophomore starters: Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson and Noah Locke. Locke started for a good chunk of the 2018-19 season, but came off the bench when White re-inserted Hudson into the starting lineup.

Other returnees include Isaiah Stokes, Dontay Bassett and Gorjok Gak, who missed last season after undergoing microfracture surgery. Gak hasn’t been able to stay healthy since arriving in Gainesville and UF is taking a wait-and-see approach to his recent surgery.

The three sophomores should be the anchor of this roster and provide a good base for a team that should rank in the preseason Associated Press Top 25.

Gators expected to land another top-10 recruiting class

White is bringing in his best recruiting class, including the second and third five-star players of his tenure. Andrew Nembhard was his first five-star signee in last year’s haul.

Rivals.com ranked UF’s 2019 recruiting class seventh nationally as of April 3. The six-player group includes two McDonald’s All-Americans in Tre Mann and Scottie Lewis, both of whom are 6-foot-4 guards.

Neil Blackmon (Twitter handle: @nwblackmon), the host of the Florida Basketball Hour podcast, told MajorWager.com, “Mann is a big-time scorer who reminds me a lot of Jamal Crawford. He can lull defenders to sleep with his dribbling and get to the rim.

“Lewis will be an elite wing defender from day one. His jumper is a work in progress, but he’s extremely athletic. He could develop into a player like Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson or Golden State’s Andre Iguodala.”

Omar Payne is a 6-foot-9 center who is a four-star signee out of Montverde, Fla. Alex Klatsky, a two-star guard (per Rivals.com) out of New Jersey, is a preferred walk-on and 3-point specialist. Jason Jitoboh, a 6-foot-11, 270-pound center out of Chattanooga, Tenn., committed to the Gators last month and, according to Blackmon, will probably redshirt. Jitboh is a three-star player who chose UF over Tennessee and UCF.

Jacques Glover, a three-star point guard out of Knoxville, verbally pledged to the Gators on April 1. Nembhard didn’t have a true backup last season, as Allen moved to the point when Nembhard came out.

Said Blackmon: “He wasn’t that heavily recruited, but I like what I’ve seen from Glover on film. Just having a backup will be key for Nembhard, who had to play way too many minutes this season.”

Gators could be hunting a big-time grad transfer

There are two scholarships left to fill out the UF roster. Look for both spots to be filled by transfers with at least one of those being a grad transfer who can play right away.

Blackmon offered MajorWager.com several names that could be fits for Florida, including Virginia Tech’s Kerry Blackshear. The 6-foot-10 post player out of Orlando averaged 14.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game for the Hokies, who saw head coach Buzz Williams bolt for Texas A&M after their trip to the Sweet 16. (However, Blackshear had not announced his intentions to transfer as of April 3.)

Another potential grad transfer target could be Colgate’s Rapolas Ivanauskas, who averaged 15.9 points and 7.8 RPG for the Raiders. Other possibilities include UNLV’s Cheikh Mbacke Diong, who would have to sit one season but then could play for two, and William & Mary’s Matt Milon (13.0 ppg), who is from Oviedo in the Orlando area. Whatever the case, UF will be young and talented in 2019-20. If White can find a pair of veteran grad transfers that fit nicely, the Gators will have expectations well beyond the Round of 32 in White’s fifth season at the helm.

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