Season Preview: Florida turns to highly touted freshman Andrew Nembhard to replace Chris Chiozza

Florida coach Mike White already considers Andrew Nembhard one of the best passers in college basketball, extremely high praise for a freshman.
Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Mike White already considers Andrew Nembhard one of the best passers in college basketball, extremely high praise for a freshman.

It might be warranted.

The 6-foot-5 point guard led his high school team, Montverde Academy in nearby Orlando, to a national championship and carried Canada to a silver medal at the FIBA U18 Americas.

Naturally, the Gators have high expectations for the first five-star recruit in White’s coaching tenure. Not only do they believe he can lead then to the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season, they also are counting on him to replace the school’s all-time assists leader, Chris Chiozza.

“Definitely some big shoes to fill,” Nembhard said. “I’m just going to try to come in and do as much as I can to help the team win.”

Nembhard should have enough talent around to get it done.

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Florida returns three starters, including leading scorer Jalen Hudson, from a team that earned a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and ended the season with a three-point loss to Texas Tech in the second round. The Gators also have four holdovers from an Elite Eight appearance in 2017.

“We’ve got to finish,” White said. “We were very close, of course, a couple years ago. Last year, we had some highlights and some deficiencies and some lulls.

“The way we look at it is just the growth mindset, just enjoying the process and getting better every day.”

Nembhard won’t have the luxury of watching and waiting.

He’s going to play and might even start when Florida opens the season Nov. 6 at rival and 17th-ranked Florida State. Coaches, teammates and Gators fans eagerly await his debut.

“He’ll have a chance to be in the conversation to be one of the better passers in college basketball,” White said. “Who knows how many assists that means, how many highlights he produces, how many minutes he’ll play. I’m not sure. But that is his gift.

“He sees the game at a high level. He’s a split-second thinker. He’s very intelligent. Not only is he an elite passer, he’s an elite passer with size, which makes it even a little bit easier for him to deliver some passes that other guys with equal vision can’t deliver.”

Chiozza left campus with a school-record 571 assists, including 208 as a senior. He also averaged 11.1 points and 4.3 rebounds last season, and finished with 38 3-pointers and 65 steals.

Hudson and shooting guard KeVaughn Allen will be asked to fill the void, although some of it will fall to Nembhard.

“We play slightly different, but I feel like I can come in and help the team in a different way,” Nembhard said. “I need to be more vocal as a leader on the court and just kind of talk to my guys. That’s probably the biggest challenge for me.”

Here are some other things to know about Florida:

FRESHMAN CLASS

Shooting guard Noah Locke and forward Keyontae Johnson also are part of Florida’s freshman class. White expects both to have bench roles immediately.

“I think we could be deep,” White said. “If we get everybody healthy, we could have really healthy competition out there in practice, which helps you become a better team. … I’m not saying we’re going to be a great team by any stretch, but I can’t tell you one of the 13 (players) that I just know is not going to play. That’s a good problem to have.”

FRONTCOURT HELP

Florida struggled down the stretch last season, partly because opponents took advantage of the team’s frontcourt woes.

Center John Egbunu (knee) and forward Isaiah Stokes (knee) missed the entire year. Chase Johnson (concussion) missed most of the season. And center Gorjok Gak played limited minutes because of knee soreness and swelling.

Stokes, Johnson and Gak are healthy now, giving the Gators plenty of depth behind Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone.

“I do expect to be deeper,” White said. “”Got a chance to be deep in the frontcourt.”

TOUGH SLATE

Florida faces another tough schedule, with non-conference games against the Seminoles, No. 13 West Virginia, No. 10 Michigan State and No. 20 TCU. The SEC slate includes No. 2 Kentucky twice, No. 6 Tennessee twice, No. 11 Auburn, No. 18 Mississippi State and No. 23 LSU.

“Ridiculous. It’s just ridiculous,” White said. “The state of the SEC in terms of basketball is off the charts right now. Our non-conference is a bear, and it gets even more difficult as we move into league play.”