After Keyontae Johnson collapsed face-first and was subsequently hospitalized for a number of days in important situation, basketball turned an afterthought for Florida‘s males’s basketball crew. Johnson was the Gators’ chief, a first-team All-SEC choice final season who was named the preseason SEC Participant of the Yr earlier than this season.
If Florida struggled on the court docket the remainder of the season, it could have been comprehensible. And at first, the Gators did. They beat Vanderbilt and LSU, however had been then blown out Alabama, a mediocre Kentucky crew and misplaced at Mississippi State in a span of 4 video games.
Their season has fully circled because the loss to Mississippi State, nonetheless. Mike White’s crew received its fourth sport in a row on Saturday, going to West Virginia and beating the No. 11 Mountaineers 85-80.
Instantly, Florida is knocking on the door of the highest 25 and might make a case because the league’s second-best crew behind Alabama.
“We’re very, very enthusiastic about it,” White mentioned in his postgame information convention. “It is good to know that hopefully your guys will achieve a little bit little bit of confidence. We have performed it at house, now we have performed it on the highway. Hopefully that stage of confidence will assist to have our guys embrace the work much more. Submit-Keyontae, this crew will be nonetheless be an excellent crew.”
It is that final sentiment that had been debated earlier than the previous couple weeks. In spite of everything, Florida was an inconsistent crew final season — even with Johnson, Kerry Blackshear Jr. (who graduated) and Andrew Nembhard (who transferred to Gonzaga). The blowout losses to Alabama and Kentucky, the latter coming in Gainesville, raised questions. Following the loss at Mississippi State, the Gators sat at 6-Four general and 3-Three within the league, with a sport in opposition to red-hot Tennessee up subsequent. And it acquired worse: Scottie Lewis had missed the 2 earlier video games as a result of COVID-19 protocols and was out once more, whereas Michigan switch Colin Castleton was going to overlook the Volunteers sport with an ankle damage.
Florida then went out and drubbed the Volunteers 26. And the Gators have been a very completely different crew since that win.
“Individuals overlook that these guys — we got here again from Tallahassee and we had been performed. Fully performed,” White mentioned. “Guys went house and did not do something. A few of them did, I am certain, a few of these guys had been within the gymnasium. However we did not get collectively collectively for 15 days. And it wasn’t a pause the place we’re nonetheless doing 5-on-0, Dry 0, watching movie with guys … some guys went house for 14, 15 days.
“We wanted to mentally heal from the trauma that these guys skilled. We wanted these guys to get away from it. We got here again on the 26th, and we’re clearly a distinct crew with out the convention preseason participant of the yr, the most effective participant I’ve ever coached, a man who I believed was going to finish up having an All-American-type season.”
It took White a while to seek out the correct mix of personnel. Sophomore level guard Tre Mann, a former McDonald’s All American who struggled final season, has emerged as a focus of the offense. Tyree Apple, a Louisiana Tech switch who sat out final season, has began the previous seven video games and offered a lift at each ends of the ground and allowed the crew to hurry up the tempo. Noah Locke has rediscovered his exterior shot. Lewis has returned to well being and been an X issue, averaging 10.9 factors per sport, whereas White inserted Omar Payne into the beginning lineup down low for the previous 4 video games.
Florida’s Scottie Lewis spins to the paint and will get an acrobatic bucket to drop.
“These guys [are] enjoying collectively extra with out Keyontae. These guys [are] understanding we have revamped every part we’re doing offensively, in order that’s taken time, and in addition, getting again in form. Getting again to taking sport pictures and getting right into a stance,” White mentioned. “I believe after we first got here again, we had been enjoying for Keyontae, we had been enjoying on emotion as a lot as something, got here again all the way down to earth a little bit bit, gotten to work. … We’re clearly higher than we had been a pair weeks in the past.”
However the greatest growth has been Castleton establishing himself as one of many greatest affect transfers within the nation. He averaged 2.Three factors in two seasons at Michigan, then averaged 6.5 factors within the first 4 video games this season. Over the previous 9 video games, Castleton is averaging 16.Four factors, 6.Zero rebounds and a couple of.eight blocks. Towards West Virginia, he completed with 21 factors, 7 rebounds and 5 blocks, serving to the Gators maintain their very own on the glass in opposition to Derek Culver and the Mountaineers.
“We had been simply being comfortable within the first half, did not play arduous sufficient,” Castleton mentioned after Saturday’s sport. “[Culver] acquired a bunch of straightforward buckets that he wasn’t presupposed to, so form of simply honed in on that within the second half. Did not give him as many straightforward appears to be like as we did within the first half. Bought a bunch of layups and simply actually locked in on that. Mainly, being comfortable.”
Florida answered some questions on Saturday. West Virginia is yearly one of many hardest groups within the nation, and in contrast to most opponents in the best way it crashes the glass and performs bodily for 40 minutes. The Gators have struggled on the defensive glass and might have points in opposition to groups that assault the paint persistently. However regardless of the Mountaineers’ 16 offensive rebounds, Florida — primarily Castleton — went toe-to-toe with them within the paint after which made massive performs at each ends late within the sport.
What does it imply transferring ahead? Florida ought to have been ranked within the AP high 25 final week and can seemingly be within the rankings this week, however the Gators now have a robust case to be thought-about the most effective crew within the league behind Alabama. They’ve already crushed Tennessee and LSU within the league, though they are going to face these groups on the highway within the subsequent couple of weeks.
However no matter what occurs in Knoxville and Baton Rouge, White and Florida have righted the ship previously two weeks — culminating in Saturday’s win in Morgantown.
“That is actually big, actually big,” Locke mentioned. “I believe that is my first one on the highway since I have been right here. I imply, it positively feels nice. We simply need to maintain the momentum going.”