Florida to battle LSU in home conference opener

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida forward Anthony Duruji dunks Wednesday against Vanderbilt during the second half at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, Tenn.

Perhaps due to the overwhelming emotion of the moment or the need to frame the situation correctly, Florida men’s basketball coach Mike White initially struggled for words after Wednesday’s 91-72 win at Vanderbilt, which marked UF’s return to the court after 18 days away. 

“Crazy, I just didn’t quite see that coming,” he said. “Our guys showed a lot of heart, a ton of heart. I don’t know of a situation in college basketball whose team has dealt with as much as our guys have, and I just couldn’t be more proud. Even if we had come up on the short end, the fact that these guys laid it on the line."

Today

Who: LSU  (6-1, 1-0 SEC) vs. Florida (4-1, 1-0)

When: 2 p.m.

Where: O'Connell Center

TV: CBS

Radio: 103.7-FM, 98.1-FM, AM-850

Despite the indefinite absence of their star forward, Keyontae Johnson, the Gators (4-1, 1-0 SEC) looked impressive in the conference opener against the Commodores — nevertheless, there’s little time to dwell on the win, as Florida hosts LSU at 2 p.m. Saturday in UF’s first home contest in 26 days. 

White said after the 19-point victory Wednesday that Johnson deserved credit for leading the scouting of the Commodores, saying he impressed the coaching staff prior to the game with his pre-game preparation for the team. 

“These last two or three days, as we’ve started playing again, and Keyontae of course has been a part of it. This was his scouting report, we talked about that — as we went through Vanderbilt’s personnel and offensive and defensive keys to this game, he did that,” White said. “And he was as prepared as we’ve ever been as a staff to address our team. It was incredible. He had been over it so many times that before he had even clicked the spacebar to get to the next slide, he had the next slide memorized. I’ve never been able to do that.”

That scouting report from Johnson had a heavy emphasis on utilizing the low post, and it paid off well.

Gators forward Colin Castleton shoots over Vanderbilt forward Dylan Disu (1) during the second half Wednesday at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, Tenn.

After 6-foot-10 Daytona Beach native Colin Castleton had a sizable advantage in the post against Vanderbilt, and he made the most of the opportunity, finishing the game with a career-high 23 points behind an efficient 11-of-13 shooting performance. 

“They went small, so I guess Coach (White) tried to manipulate that,” Castleton said. “It definitely worked out for us.”

The next assignment for the transfer from Michigan — locking down LSU’s sophomore standout in the frontcourt, Trendon Watford — figures to be a bit more difficult. 

Watford, the 6-foot-9 underclassman, is averaging 16.8 points through seven games this season while leading the Tigers (6-1, 1-0) in assists, although he’s coming off his worst performance of the season after chipping in just four points on 2-for-9 shooting in 33 minutes in LSU’s 77-54 win Tuesday over Texas A&M. 

When it comes to limiting Watford to a second-straight atypical performance, Castleton will get help in the frontcourt from a fellow former transfer in Anthony Duruji, who provided a game-high three blocks in his first start with the Gators. 

Duruji, who had played sparingly before Wednesday while working his way back into game shape, didn’t find out until right before tip-off he’d make the start at power forward for the Gators in their first game without Johnson, their traditional man at the four spot. Maybe they didn’t inform Duruji of his role beforehand because, as shooting guard Noah Locke said prior to the contest, it seems counterintuitive to weigh one player down with the task of replacing Johnson.

“It wasn’t really something that they told me, I just had to really be ready. It was kind of once we were about to play the game, so I just had to do what I had to do,” Duruji said. “Obviously Keyontae’s out, such a big piece to our team, but that wasn’t the green light for me to try to play hero ball. I just had to be the best version of myself and just play the game the right way.”

Like Castleton, Duruji also had an efficient night — he finished 4 for 5 from the field and made his lone attempt from beyond the arc. 

Against one of the SEC’s best on Saturday, the Gators will need their new-look frontcourt to bring it once again — the match-up may be tougher, but the task for Castleton and Duruji may be less daunting now that the pairing wet their feet. 

“Something that’s underappreciated is the way in which he did get his first start, which is obviously not how anyone would have wanted to draw it up, he especially,” White said of Duruji. “He and Keyontae are very close. He’s as high-character a guy off the floor as I’ve coached. He’s a saint, an awesome, awesome young man.

“For him to break through was very big. I think it speaks to his character, his resolve. He just kept plugging. He’s a very talented guy.” 

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

04 Anthony Duruji F  6-7   220   Jr.     3.2 ppg  3.0 rpg

10 Noah Locke G  6-3  203  Jr.    10.4 ppg  1.8 rpg

23 Scottie Lewis G  6-5  189  So.   13.4 ppg  5.2 rpg

1 Tre Mann G  6-5  190  So.   14.4 ppg  5.6 rpg

0 Colin Castleton F  6-11 231  Jr.     9.8 ppg    4.6 rpg

LSU

24 Cameron Thomas G   6-4  210  Fr.   24.1 ppg  2.9 rpg

04 Darius Days F   6-7   245   Jr.   15.0 ppg  8.6 rpg

00 Mwani Wilkinson F   6-5   215   Fr.    4.1 ppg 3.1 rpg

02 Trendon Watford F   6-9   240   So.   16.8 ppg  6.5 rpg

01 Javonte Smart G   6-4   205  Jr.    13.5 ppg  4.2 rpg