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Short-handed Gators facing Mississippi State on the road

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida guard Tyree Appleby, left, tries to find an opening against Ole Miss during Tuesday's game at the O'Connell Center.

The 20-2 run the Florida men’s basketball team that closed out its 72-63 win Tuesday over Ole Miss wouldn’t have been possible if the Gators hadn't made a late-game defensive adjustment. 

Rather than tell the team what defensive set to run against the Rebels, coach Mike White instead asked the Gators (6-3, 3-2 SEC) to pick which defense they thought would help sway the result in Florida’s favor. 

Today

Who: Florida (6-3, 3-2) at Mississippi State (8-5, 3-2)

When: 4 p.m. 

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

White said it was far from the first time he’s put the pressure on his players when it came to making a decision of such magnitude, and there’s a strong possibility the Gators will be faced with making defensive changes once again when they battle Mississippi State (8-5, 3-2) at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville at 4 p.m. Saturday. 

“That probably wasn’t the only time that happened in that game. That happens in a lot of games — we preach ownership, and to not give your guys empowerment would be hypocritical,” White said of Florida’s players deciding on the shift to man defense. “Because these guys are part of the decision, and down the stretch the other day, the five that were in the game were adamant about stringing together some stops and man-to-man, and they did. They were terrific.”

It helped UF avoid a three-game losing streak in conference play, and it came without another of its vital contributors, sophomore wing Scottie Lewis. 

The former five-star prospect remains out, as does Lewis’ best friend and roommate, walk-on Alex Klatsky, for an undetermined amount of time due to health and safety protocol, leaving the Gators short-handed in the process.

Depleted yet undeterred, Florida found a way against Ole Miss, thanks to 15 points from junior Noah Locke in his return to the starting line-up and a monster 21-point, 10-rebound, eight-block performance from Colin Castleton. 

It was a record-setting performance for Castleton — his eight blocks is an O’Connell Center record, and the most by a Gator in SEC play — and it was one White couldn’t have anticipated, although he was undoubtedly high on the potential the Daytona Beach native possessed prior to transferring to Florida. 

“We thought when he signed he’d be a really good player here. I didn’t expect this production this early, really, although a month into practice — early fall — we were really pleased at that point and knew maybe he was a little more ready than we thought,” White said. “It just seems like every week that goes by in practice he’s earning more and more respect from his teammates and the staff. He works. He’s got a high focus-level. He’s competitive. He’s consistent with his approach. He’ll get out there today and get a little bit better. He’ll continue to have ups and downs in games as he’s adjusting to this many minutes at this level and this role, because it’s all new to him. Handling success is a huge factor as well, so hopefully he continues to do that pretty well and with maturity.”

Although UF got just 11 points off the bench, White was also impressed with the play of the reserve unit when it came to stemming the gap when the starters rested. And in another area where he felt the box score didn’t justify the performance, White was pleased with Anthony Duruji’s effort in his sixth start with the Gators despite a 1-for-7 performance from the field.

Duruji played 39 minutes, including every second in the second half — an impressive feat for a player in immaculate shape, and one even more astounding when considering the former transfer was still recovering from COVID-19 just prior to the season’s commencement. 

“I’m really good. Like I said, after COVID was lingering, I felt shortness of breath and just kind of tired quicker,” Duruji said. “but I’ve been able to get my wind back a lot and I feel back to normal, so I’m thankful.”

However, Tuesday’s showing was unprecedented in a sense for Duruji. With Lewis still out, he and his teammates won’t have much time to rest with the SEC sprint continuing Saturday in Starkville. 

“I don’t think I’ve ever played 39 minutes before in a game,” Duruji said. “I think this team is really unique, because with Keyontae (Johnson) being out, and now you (lose) Scottie, I think if everybody just plays their role and plays it well and not try to get too uncharacteristic knowing that people are out. Just playing your role and just playing hard. I think one night, we might have someone who steps up in scoring. One night, we might have somebody who rebounds the ball really well and plays really good defense. It’s really gotta be a collective group. There’s a lot of uncertainty with COVID and this whole season, but we’ve just gotta be relentless and continue pushing forward to be the best version of ourselves.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

04 Anthony Duruji F  6-7   220   Jr.     6.4 ppg  4.1 rpg

22 Tyree Appleby G  6-1  170  Jr.    8.6 ppg  2.9 rpg

10 Noah Locke G  6-3  203  Jr.   9.9 ppg  2.1 rpg

1 Tre Mann G  6-5  190  So.   14.0 ppg  5.8 rpg

0 Colin Castleton F  6-11 231  Jr.     12.2 ppg   5.6 rpg

Mississippi State 

24 Abdul Ado F   6-11  255   Sr.      5.5 ppg  6.3 rpg

35 Tolu Smith F   6-10   245  RSo.  12.8 ppg  8.6 rpg

00 Jalen Johnson G   6-6   210   RSr.   7.8 ppg 2.5 rpg

01 Iverson Molinar G   6-3   190   So.    18.9 ppg  4.2 rpg

03 D.J. Stewart Jr. G   6-6   205  RSo.   17.8 ppg  3.6 rpg

Notes: Castleton became the first SEC player to achieve a 20/10/8 stat-line in conference action since Ole Miss’ Ansu Sesay did so vs. Mississippi State in 1997. Mike White was the starting point guard for the Rebels in that game. ... Florida’s 38.8% three-point percentage continues to rank No. 1 in the SEC through five games. ... Mo Bamba is the only other Power Six player aside from Castleton to record a 20/10/8 stat-line in the last decade. 

— Graham Hall