DALLAS — This is what Jalen Hudson envisioned a couple of years ago when he made the final decision to pack his bags and find a new college basketball home.
And, for that matter, the same could be said for the Florida coaches.
Two years later, Hudson is the Gators’ leading scorer set to make his NCAA Tournament debut Thursday night as No. 6-seeded Florida takes on No. 11 St. Bonaventure at American Airlines Center.
“I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I love these guys, love playing, it’s just exciting. Glad we’re here now, got a chance to make a run in the tournament,” Hudson said before practice here Wednesday.
The junior guard is coming off a rough game, a 2-for-9 shooting performance in the Gators’ early SEC Tournament exit against Arkansas.
But it’s hard to think this Florida team would even be where it is without him. After sitting out last season following his transfer from Virginia Tech, Hudson has taken a leading role on the offensive end with his team-best 15.3 points per game. Prior to the Arkansas game, he was the catalyst for the Gators’ best stretch of basketball in two months, scoring 19, 27 and 22 points in wins over Auburn, Alabama and Kentucky.
None of which is surprising to the Florida coaches, who knew they were adding a potential difference-maker on the offensive end when he announced his plans to transfer to Gainesville.
“Heck, we knew last December when he was the guy on the scout team, that he was arguably our best offensive player, and that’s including KeVaughn Allen, who was a first-team, all-league guy last year,” Florida coach Mike White said.
That’s why Gators assistant coach Jordan Mincy was nervous when he interrupted a beach getaway with his wife to take a call from Hudson, hoping he wasn’t about to hear that the talented guard was instead headed to Texas.
Ready for a change
Hudson, who is from Richmond, Va., had been recruited to Virginia Tech by former coach James Johnson and his staff. But after two losing seasons, the Hokies replaced Johnson with Buzz Williams, and just like that Hudson was about to join a program with a coaching staff that didn’t recruit him.
He averaged 6.9 points per game as a freshman in 2014-15 and 8.4 as a sophomore while starting 24 games, but he never felt like he truly fit at Virginia Tech after the coaching change.
“I gave it two years. I didn’t want to be labeled as a quitter or anything like that so I wanted to give it everything I had,” Hudson said. “Even after the first year I wasn’t very happy, but I wanted to try to stick it out. And after that, I just felt it was right to find a new home.”
Hudson said that decision stemmed from a variety of factors, including the Hokies’ playing style, but as much as anything he wanted to play for a coaching staff with which he felt a stronger connection.
Mincy was an assistant coach at Kent State from 2010-12, and he had been aware of Hudson since the guard’s sophomore year of high school at famed Ohio basketball power St. Vincent-St. Mary, which also produced LeBron James. Mincy had also played college basketball with St. Vincent-St. Mary coach Dru Joyce’s son Cameron Joyce at Kent State, adding to his connection.
And so when Hudson announced his intentions to transfer, Mincy pounced.
“I had a pretty good relationship with those guys and kind of knew him for a long time. When he decided to transfer, obviously that was one of my first calls, calling his high school and calling him and just saying, ‘Look, we understand, I know you had a rough time at Virginia Tech. I think this would be a great opportunity for you to come here. And obviously with Devin Robinson leaving it would be a great opportunity for you to come in and play here,'” Mincy recalled.
Robinson was a vital contributor to Florida’s Elite 8 run last season. After a foot injury helped convince him to return for that junior season, it seemed likely he would make the jump to the NBA last year, which he did, creating a huge hole in the rotation.
It also didn’t hurt the Gators’ chances that Hudson and Robinson, a fellow Virginia native, had a connection prior to their time together in Gainesville.
“My next decision from Virginia Tech, I just wanted to make sure that I had a good relationship with some of the coaches, because at Virginia Tech I didn’t really have a good relationship,” Hudson said. “… I knew a couple guys here already at Florida, especially Coach Mincy and a couple of the other guys that were here. I felt comfortable.”
On Mincy’s recommendation, White went through some of Hudson’s games from Virginia Tech, including an NIT matchup with Princeton in which Hudson scored 28 points in an overtime win.
The Florida coaches also polled their friends in the ACC on the staffs of Florida State and Duke to get their take on Hudson.
“And those guys’ response was, ‘If he figures it all out, he’s an unbelievable player,'” Mincy recalled.
But it wasn’t that easy for the Gators.
Hudson was also strongly considering Texas and visited the Longhorns. That amplified the nerves for Mincy, who was on a beach getaway with his wife in Clearwater when the phone rang.
“She’s always on me, ‘Jordan, you’re always working, you’re always working.’ So he was on his visit to Texas and he had called. At the time we were on the beach and she said, ‘What are you doing? Why are you on the phone?’ And I said, ‘I think it’s Jalen calling me. I hope he’s not calling me saying he’s going to commit to Texas,'” Mincy recalled. “So I pick up the phone and he’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘I’m literally in the water talking to you on my phone. What’s going on?’ He goes, ‘Nothing, coach. Just checking in, trying to see how everything’s going.’ I said, ‘You didn’t commit to nobody did you?’ He goes, ‘No, but I think I’m going to take my time.'”
Hudson maintained the drama right up until he ultimately told Mincy in a later call that he was sold on the Gators.
“[He] says, ‘Coach, you sitting down?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I’m sitting down.’ He says, ‘I’ve got something to tell you …’ and he kind of pauses. [I thought] he was going to Texas. But then he says, ‘No, I’m going to the University of Florida.’ I’m glad he chose us,” Mincy said.
Said White: “He took some visits, and we weren’t sure — we beat some quality schools, some really high-level programs. I remember sitting on the back porch on the day he called and committed. Obviously it was a big get for us. He’s been great for us, but he’s only getting better.”
Putting it all together
While Hudson arrived as a polished offensive player, his defense left a lot to be desired by the Florida coaches. But they knew that was not his strength coming in.
They worked with him on that as he sat out last season, and Hudson’s development has remained an ongoing project through this season as well.
Coincidentally, the Gators went through a similar process with Robinson of unlocking his all-around game, as Robinson became a such a key on both ends of the floor during Florida’s NCAA Tournament push last March.
“I think there are a lot of similarities. And they’re actually close, have a good relationship. We use Devin as an example with Jalen all the time, [saying] ‘You want to play 35 minutes? Don’t get in foul trouble, be the best defender on the floor, execute all of your rebounding responsibilities and just don’t kill us offensively — whether you get 10 or 25. You’re so talented,'” White said leading into the SEC Tournament. “It’s taken time. It’s 99 percent him and he’s playing his butt off right now.”
Hudson is still a work in progress on the defensive end, but the coaches have been pleased with his growth.
“He’s gotten better. He’s not great. I think he’s gone from probably a 2 to maybe a 7.5, so he’s building,” Mincy said. “We’re proud of the steps he has taken. I think he’s grown on the court and off the court as well, just from a leadership standpoint.”
The Gators will need him to be a leader this week and for however long they keep this season going.
Hudson has had seven 20-point games this season, and not coincidentally, the Gators are 5-2 in those contests (and nearly 6-1 if they had held on to beat Duke). Conversely, when he’s scored in single digits the team is 1-5.
He’s been a three-time SEC Player of the Week this season and, like Robinson was early in the tournament last year, could be the catalyst for a memorable postseason for the Gators.
But mostly, he said, he wants to play his role Thursday night in a collective performance.
“My game has changed a lot, both ends of the floor. Still trying to continue to get better every day,” Hudson said Wednesday. “Not exactly where I want to be. I feel like my ceiling is still pretty high, but it’s about us right now, know what I mean. March Madness is always about everybody. It’s not about individual things. It’s going to take everybody, so that’s what I’ve been focusing on.”
And ultimately, this is the moment Hudson signed on for — one that “means everything” to him, he says.
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