Top 25 Countdown: No. 15 Florida Gators

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 26-11, 10-6 SEC (t-2nd); Lost to Louisville in the Elite 8

Head Coach: Billy Donovan

Key Losses: Erving Walker, Bradley Beal

Newcomers: Braxton Ogbueze, Michael Frazier, DeVon Walker, Dillon Graham

Projected Lineup:

G: Scottie Wilbekin, Jr.
G: Kenny Boynton, Sr.
F: Will Yeguete, Jr.
F: Erik Murphy, Sr.
C: Patric Young, Jr.
Bench: Mike Rosario, Sr.; Casey Prather, Jr.; Braxton Ogbueze, Fr.; Michael Frazier, Fr.; DeVon Walker, Fr.; Dillon Graham, Fr.

Outlook: Last season, Florida was just a couple of possessions from the Final Four. If they don’t blow a 11 point lead in the final eight minutes to Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals, Billy Donovan would have been taking his team to the fourth Final Four of his career. But the Gators lost that game, and in the process they watch as Bradley Beal and Erving Walker played their final games in Florida uniforms.

If Florida wants to match that level of postseason success again this season, it is going to hinge on the play of two of Donovan’s most highly-touted recruits in the last four years — Kenny Boynton and Patric Young.

Boynton entered Florida four years ago as a top ten recruit, a 6-foot-2 combo-guard known for his ability to put up impressive scoring numbers. And through three seasons in Gainesville, Boynton’s backed up that hype, averaging at least 14.0 points every year, capped of by the 15.9 points he averaged as a junior. But Boynton has yet to make the jump from a quality scorer on a good team to an elite player, and part of the reason has been his shot selection and his consistency.

Boynton’s always been a shoot-first player, rarely seeing a three that he didn’t like. With Beal and Walker on the roster, that wasn’t as much of a problem, as he was able to play more off-the-ball and rely on the open looks that were created for him within the flow of the offense. Those initial open looks seemed to be a boon for his confidence, as he all-the-sudden became a dangerous shooter off the dribble. While he struggled a bit with his shot towards the end of the season, Boynton’s efficiency as a junior was through the roof. It’s amazing the difference in effectiveness for a jump-shooter when he has his confidence.

The question this season will be whether or not he reverts back into his old form now that Beal and Walker have been replaced with guys like Scottie Wilbekin, Mike Rosario, Will Yeguete and a group of freshmen guards that are a long way from being a one-and-done talent like Beal. Will he still be knocking down threes at the same rate? Will he still be as reliable with the ball in his hands? More importantly, will he be more a more willing facilitator for his teammates? While he doesn’t do it often, Boynton was underrated as a distributor and decision-maker last year.

The other question mark is going to be Patric Young. Young has always been an overpowering physical presence. He’s big, he’s strong, he has broad shoulders and he’s hyper-athletic. But he’s always been a bit of an underwhelming rebounder and shot-blocker for a guy with his physical tools, and his postgame has always had quite a bit of room for improvement.

Young has lottery-level potential, but he hasn’t yet scratched the surface of what he’s capable of. Some of the blame for that goes to the guards he played with last season. Young’s touches in the paint were few and far between as a sophomore. Will be become more assertive as a junior? Will he ever becoming the dominating presence that we all want him to be in the paint?

Beyond that, the Gators do have some quality role players. Wilbekin is a steadying presence at the point, a guy that doesn’t make all that much happen but that also doesn’t make all that many mistakes. Rosario, like Boynton, is a shoot-first ball-handler that will provide Donovan will a nice complement to Wilbekin and a scoring pop off the bench. Yeguete was one of the most valuable pieces for the Gators last season as a defender and an energy guy, running the point on their press. Murphy is a knock-down shooter at 6-foot-10 and will create space for Young in the paint. And the trio of freshman guards should be able to find a way to contribute.

And while Donovan has some pieces at his disposal, the question I find myself asking is just how well all of those pieces are going to fit together.

Predictions?: Florida is a year away. If we’re being perfectly honest, the more I look at this Florida team, the more I think that we have them ranked too high at 15th. With the freshmen and transfers Donovan has coming in next season, the Gators will be better prepared to compete nationally. I think this is still a tournament team, but this is not a group that should be ranked in the top 15.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.