Florida Gators back on court with SEC opener at Vanderbilt, 18 days after Johnson's collapse

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida guard Noah Locke, left, and his teammates return to playing basketball Wednesday at Vanderbilt

The Florida men’s basketball team will take the court for a 9 p.m. tip-off today at Vanderbilt in the conference opener for both programs, although the focus for the Gators is less on the game itself and more on their attempt to return to a semblance of normalcy sans star forward Keyontae Johnson, who was released from the hospital Dec. 22 after collapsing 10 days prior against Florida State. 

Today

Who: Florida (3-1) at Vanderbilt (4-2)

When: 9 p.m.

TV: ESPN2

Radio: WRUF

Florida coach Mike White, speaking to the media for the first time since Johnson’s collapse, said any further medical announcements will come from either Johnson’s family or UF’s qualified medical personnel — although White did reveal Johnson is in good spirits and back around the program offering scouting advice for the match-up with the Commodores. 

There’s no hiding, however, the Gators remain shocked by the circumstances and have discussed Johnson’s collapse ad nauseam as a team over the last two weeks. 

More:Keyontae Johnson: Five things to know about UF basketball star recovering after collapse

As Johnson’s future hung in the balance, Florida realized a far worse outcome was possible before Dave “Duke" Werner, UF’s assistant athletic director for sports health, brought good news. 

“I've given Keyontae a lot of hugs lately. His pops has gotten to where he makes fun of me. He tells me to get away from him at times. He's joking, obviously, really, really funny guy. Yeah, incredibly emotional for all of us,” White said. “We were actually in a team meeting discussing how we would move forward, if we were going to move forward, and really we were going to do it one way or another, but if we were planning on practicing that day, the next day, do we need a few days off? Do we want to play the next game? It was really just an open discussion with our team when Duke gave us really good news on Key at that point. And a lot of people broke down, as they did for the other reasons. But as they did on the floor in Tallahassee, a lot of people broke down emotionally out of happiness, excitement, relief.”

Noah Locke: Time away allowed team to 'get our minds back together'

White said the players were involved in discussions as to whether or not the Gators could play the remainder of the non-conference schedule, and the time off to mentally recalibrate was necessary, said shooting guard Noah Locke, who signed with the Gators with Johnson and is his closest friend on the team. 

“It was definitely needed, honestly,” Locke said, adding UF was out of sync from the moment the incident occurred. “Just from the whole team, even when it all happened, we all said we wanted to play. I felt like I shouldn’t have said it. When I got into the game, I didn’t feel like I could at the moment. Even afterward, I just felt like mentally, I couldn’t. It just wasn’t something that I could do at the moment because of everything that happened. 

“Being able to get that break and knowing that it’s not a game coming up or you can have some time to really get our minds back together. It really helped, for sure.”

More:Keyontae Johnson has new role with Gators as he continues recovery from scary collapse

Locke said the outpouring of messages he and his teammates received from people around the country included a mix of well-wishes along with some prying, which he described as “frustrating” during an incredibly difficult situation. 

“You have some people that were coming to me and asking me how’s he doing? But they don’t really know him. It was kind of frustrating, I’m not gonna lie,” Locke said. “From hearing from a lot of people that don’t even know him and don’t even understand what we have going on, it was kind of frustrating. But then there are some people that come and say hope everything’s OK. You don’t even have to respond. Just checking in on me, making sure I’m good. That was good for me. It was just a whole lot of different things — good and bad.”

As insensitive yet realistic as it may sound from the outside, the Gators, with the SEC slate commencing, for the time being now must focus on life on the basketball court without Keyontae Johnson. 

Two weeks away from practice and conditioning have taken their toll on players who were already searching for their legs after much of the preseason preparation period was spent at less than full strength. 

“I thought we had gotten into pretty good shape leading into Tallahassee. Got off to a good start, of course. We had some pop to us. We spent a lot of time conditioning, heck, I can’t even remember. It’s been a blur since Army and the Florida State game elapsed. We definitely made a jump with conditioning,” White said. “The first day sprinting was yesterday. We didn’t want to sprint like we did the day before Tallahassee, because we hadn’t sprinted in two weeks. We had a guy pull a hip flexor, without naming names. Now you adjust. We have to understand it’s not going to happen quickly. Hopefully we can be competitive in these first three, four games, without being in incredible shape while we work towards getting back into top shape.” 

And then, perhaps most pressing of all when it comes to the game itself, there’s the actual task of adapting on the court without Johnson, the SEC’s preseason player of the year and UF’s leader in multiple categories; the other ways Johnson is invaluable to the program can’t be measured or quantified by data-driven metrics. 

Locke knows that for the Gators, moving on with Johnson around the program but unable to compete will be a by-committee approach rather than one player feeling the strain of replacing the irreplaceable. 

“We had individual meetings. We talked about it. It’s not even just one person stepping up. It has to be pretty much everybody,” said Locke. “We don’t really think of it as putting the weight on one person’s shoulders, trying to just all elevate as a team, each person, getting better. I feel like that’s what’s going to help us the most, is everybody elevating their play.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

4 Anthony Duruji F 6-7, 220 R-Jr. 1.3 ppg 2.5 rpg

10 Noah Locke G  6-3  203  Jr. 10.5 ppg  1.8 rpg

23 Scottie Lewis G  6-5  189  So. 12.8 ppg  5.3 rpg

1 Tre Mann G  6-5  190  So. 15.8 ppg  4.5 rpg

0 Colin Castleton F  6-11 231  Jr.  6.5 ppg 4.5 rpg

Vanderbilt 

1 Dylan Disu F   6-9  220  So. 11.0 ppg  9.0 rpg

0 Tyrin Lawrence G   6-4   100   Fr. 4.0 ppg  3.0 rpg

2 Scotty Pippen Jr. G   6-3   170  So.  23.3 ppg 2.3 rpg

5 D.J. Harvey G   6-6   235  Sr.  8.3 ppg  2.8 rpg

13 Isaac McBride G  6-1 190  Fr.  3.3 ppg  1.2 rpg

Notes: The COVID-19 pandemic scrambled the start of the Gators’ non-conference schedule, pushing UF to its first December start since 1992 and its latest start since a Dec. 2 tip to the 1977-78 campaign ... In the Gators’ fourth game of the season, Keyontae Johnson’s medical emergency became the focal point of the team’s energy, and the remaining non-conference games were postponed with makeup dates yet to be announced. Johnson was discharged from UF Health on Dec. 22 ...The Gators hold a 4-1 record in SEC openers under White, and Florida has won four consecutive contests against Vanderbilt and five of the last six meetings. Florida last opened its SEC schedule at Vanderbilt in the 2009-10 season, a 95-87 loss ... UF has only won three straight road games at Vanderbilt once in program history, from 2001-03. The Gators are looking to repeat the feat coming in with victories at Memorial Gym in each of the past two seasons.

— Graham Hall