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Gators to take on Crimson Tide in battle of lone 2-0 SEC teams

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida sophomore guard Scottie Lewis shoots over LSU's Josh LeBlanc Sr. (11) during Saturday's game at Exactech Arena.

It’ll be nearly impossible to discuss the Florida men’s basketball team on a weekly basis without bringing up the on-court absence of Keyontae Johnson, who remains sidelined indefinitely after collapsing Dec. 12 at Florida State.

But the Gators — having returned to the court sans Johnson, and after starting conference competition with victories last Wednesday at Vanderbilt and at home Saturday against LSU — must focus on the bigger picture: their ongoing SEC schedule, which continues today at 7 p.m. in Tuscaloosa when Florida takes on Alabama in a battle of the only 2-0 programs in conference play. 

The Crimson Tide (7-3, 2-0 SEC) are coming off an impressive 71-63 win at then-No. 7-ranked Tennessee, the Volunteers’ first loss of the season in eight tries. 

Todayuesday

Who: Florida (5-1, 2-0 SEC) at Alabama (7-3, 2-0)

When: 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN2 

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

“I think they’re more balanced. I think they’re playing really, really hard and defending at a really high level,”  UF coach Mike White said of Alabama. “They just put together arguably the performance to date in league play — obviously, we haven’t played a lot of league games — but they’re playing as well as any team in the SEC right now with that win the other night in Knoxville. They were terrific.”

John Petty Jr., named the SEC’s Co-Player of the Week along with Florida’s Colin Castleton, scored a game-high 17 points on 6-for-7 shooting from the field, while Jaden Shackelford, named to the 2019 SEC All-Freshman Team, added just nine points in 25 minutes as he dealt with foul trouble. 

“He’s playing better than he was early on. He’s an experienced guy and plays with a lot of confidence. He’s a tall, long and elite shooter that shoots it with some bounce as well, and with an ability to jump over you and make shots,” White said of Petty. “And he’s gotten better throughout his career at creating his own shot.”

In his first-ever SEC games with the Gators (5-1, 2-0 SEC), Castleton has been nothing short of tremendous, scoring a career-high 23 points against the Commodores and then followed it up by dropping 21 points — including a stretch of 15 consecutive beginning at the start of the second half — against the Tigers. 

Castleton, a Daytona Beach native who played sparingly his first two years at Michigan, said the high-scoring performances were a justification of both his decision to return to his home state and the hard work he’s put in to get the opportunity. 

“It’s definitely very gratifying. There are a lot of things that are falling in place right now. Being consistent every day is the same approach I’ve always had, no matter what position I was in,” he said. “If I was playing five minutes, didn’t play a game, starting, no matter what that is, I try to keep my head on a swivel. I try not to change my approach to the game. That’s something I was always taught — make sure you have the right approach to the game every day. It’s obviously gratifying at the end of the day. Like I said, it’s just two games. We have a big game against Alabama, moving on quickly and getting ready for them.”

The raucous home environments that typically come with college basketball are on pause due to COVID-19, and Castleton may have found that out the hard way when he was whistled for a technical in Florida’s 83-79 win over LSU. Although Castleton said he just glared at Tigers’ guard Javonte Smart on the play, that seemingly may be enough to draw a whistle when there’s a noticeable lack of distractions surrounding the court. 

In the eyes of his coach, Castleton will have to balance his energy in a way that continues to benefit his play on the court while avoiding sequences that hinder what has been a strong start to 2021 for both he and the Gators. 

 “I thought he got a little bit emotional with the technical foul. That was the first order of business that was discussed with him, and really discussed with the team. We don’t want to put ourselves in those type of positions. We want to play with emotion and Colin actually brings a lot of positive emotion. He’s a fiery guy when he makes a positive play. He’s a fist-pumping guy and a chest beating guy. Those are great things, but we’ve also got to be disciplined when we show our emotion. And we have to talk to each other and leave the other team alone. Our guys know that,” White said.

“His perimeter defense will continue to improve. His discipline with fatigue, you know learning, he’s never played this many minutes. He’s never played with the adrenaline that he’s playing with right now, because of all the positive plays that he’s made. So, he’s going to continue to get better. Post position, he’s going to have to learn in time that he’s going to be more of a focal point in scouting reports and so I’m sure he’s going to see more help at times assuming he can get good post position. We’ve got to continue to do a better job with post passing, not only with him but with Omar (Payne). He’s very talented, but he’s got a ways to go just like all these guys to maximize their potential.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

04 Anthony Duruji F  6-7   220   Jr.     5.3 ppg  3.7 rpg

10 Noah Locke G  6-3  203  Jr.     9.7 ppg  2.0 rpg

23 Scottie Lewis G  6-5  189  So.   14.0 ppg  5.2 rpg

1 Tre Mann G  6-5  190  So.   15.2 ppg  5.5 rpg

0 Colin Castleton F  6-11 231  Jr.     11.7 ppg  4.8 rpg

Alabama

05 Jaden Shackelford G   6-3  200  So.   13.0 ppg  4.7 rpg

01 Herbert Jones F   6-8   210   Sr.   12.0 ppg  6.5 rpg

02 Jordan Bruner F   6-10  225   Gr.   6.8 ppg 5.3 rpg

11 Joshua Primo G   6-6   190   Fr.   7.0 ppg  3.3 rpg

23 John Petty Jr. G   6-5   184  Sr.    12.7 ppg  5.6 rpg

Notes: Through two games, the Gators rank No. 1 in the SEC in field goal percentage (.507), No. 2 in blocked shots (5.8) and No. 3 in scoring (82.8), free throw percentage (.750) and 3-point field goal percentage (.362) ... The Gators’ 61.8% field goal percentage against Vanderbilt was the team’s best in a road SEC game since a 64.2% shooting performance at South Carolina in 2007 ... 36 of Castleton’s 44 points last week came in the second half. 

— Graham Hall