In picking up a critical conference win on the road Saturday against Georgia, the Gators suffered a sizable loss.
An MRI on Sunday confirmed Florida redshirt junior forward Keith Stone sustained a torn ACL in his left knee after falling awkwardly just two minutes into the second half of UF’s 62-52 win over UGA.
Now, without the only true power forward remaining on the roster, the Gators (10-7, 2-3 SEC) will look to collectively fill the void left in Stone’s absence when UF hosts Texas A&M (7-9, 1-4 SEC) at 8:30 p.m. in the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
“We lost (transfer Chase Johnson) and now you lose Keith, the two guys we considered prototype ‘4s’ in our system. Now you’ve got two choices: either play small solely or play big solely. We’ll probably do some of both, depending on who’s playing well, time, score, flow, opponent. Play it by ear,” UF coach Mike White said. “But as we talked to the guys: adversity is part of the game, part of life.”
Stone had yet to score in SEC play prior to Saturday, resulting in White replacing him in the starting line-up with freshman Keyontae Johnson. But the role reduction seemingly brought Stone back to life on the offensive end as he tallied eight points on 3-for-4 shooting prior to going down in Athens.
Call it insult to injury, or deem it another reminder of Florida’s blatant void in the frontcourt: the truth is the Gators don’t have a solid option behind Stone in the frontcourt; otherwise, it’s likely Stone would have lost the starting nod prior to Saturday.
“Feel very, very bad for Keith. Shockingly, it happens in a game where he’s arguably playing his best game of the year. Same thing happened to John Egbunu. Weird deal where he’s off to a great start. Both of them just had very awkward landings. Just tough deal for Keith.
“Life isn’t fair sometimes, but no one’s going to feel sorry for him, no one’s going to feel sorry for us. Next man up. Let’s move on. We have work to do.”
Much of that work will fall on the shoulders of freshman Keyontae Johnson, who is more of an undersized small forward than a true collegiate power forward.
A strong finisher in the lane with a high basketball IQ for his age, it’s become readily apparent the potential is there for the 6-foot-5 Johnson to carve out a larger role in the frontcourt.
For now, Johnson — who added he doesn’t have much experience playing in the post — said he’s simply willing to do what it takes for Florida to turn the tide.
“It helps out the team get mismatches on the court and spread out for the other guards. If I take out the bigs on the wing, the guards can just get to the right easier,” Johnson said. “We don’t have a lot of (power forwards), so I’ll just do anything that coach asks me to do. I’m just willing to help the team win.”
A larger role requires peak conditioning and endurance — an aspect of the game that Johnson is still fine-tuning. The energy and drive are there; maintaining said intensity for 30 minutes a night remains a work in progress for Johnson, however.
“He’s got to play harder. I met with him this morning and told him that. He knows that. His motor has gotten better. That will be his ticket to how much success he has at this level — how hard he learns how to play,” White said of Johnson. “He could be an elite defender. He could be a significantly better rebounder than he is right now. He’s hard to block out. You got a seven-foot wingspan and you jump 40 inches — you’re hard to block out.”
Who: Texas A&M (7-9, 1-4 SEC) vs. Florida (10-7, 2-3)
When: 8:30 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Keyontae Johnson; F; 6-5; Fr.; 6.4 ppg; 4.7 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 6.7 ppg; 6.3 rpg
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 7.3 ppg ;5.8 apg
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 11.8 ppg; 2.6 rpg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr.; 10.5 ppg; 2.5 3FG
Savion Flagg; F; 6-7; So.; 13.0 ppg; 8.1 rpg
Christian Mekowulu; F; 6-8; Sr.; 8.8 ppg; 5.6 rpg
Jay Jay Chandler; G; 6-4; So.; 8.4 ppg; 4.0 rpg
TJ Starks; G; 6-2; So.; 13.1 ppg; 2.8 rpg
Wendell Mitchell; G; 6-3; Jr.; 10.1 ppg; 4.0 rpg
Notes: Florida welcomes Texas A&M to Gainesville for the lone meeting this season between the two teams … The Gators took the most recent meeting, topping an 11th-ranked Aggies team in College Station last season … Noah Locke and KeVaughn Allen have stepped up their offensive production in SEC play: Allen has tallied 15.2 points and Locke 13 per game during conference action. Allen has scored in double figures in 10 of the last 11 games, while Locke has 10-plus points in eight straight games, the longest such streak by a UF freshman since Bradley Beal (10, 2011-12) … The two schools first met Jan. 2, 1992, when the Tony Barone-led Aggies fell to Florida 73-46 in Gainesville … The next season on Dec. 22, 1992, the Aggies got a measure of revenge by handing the Gators an 84-64 defeat in College Station … A&M coach Billy Kennedy is 3-6 vs. the Gators while UF’s Mike White is 3-3 vs A&M … White’s final LA Tech squad ended the Aggies’ run in the 2015 NIT with an 84-72 win over A&M at Reed Arena. … White announced Monday that Gorjok Gak will take a redshirt this season (knee).
— Graham Hall