Gators aim for first five-game win streak in nearly two seasons

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida forward Colin Castleton defends the basket Saturday against West Virginia forward Derek Culver during the second half in Morgantown, W.Va.

Offensively, the Florida men’s basketball team has been impressive, taking the best shots in Mike White’s tenure, the coach acknowledged Tuesday.

Today

Who: South Carolina (4-6, 2-4 SEC) at No. 23 Florida  (10-4, 5-3)

When: 6:30 p.m. 

TV: SEC Network

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

Although things are far from perfect — the other end of the floor remains as much if not more a work in progress — the Gators (10-4, 6-3 SEC) have made the case they’re among the conference’s best after one month of league play despite the absences of several key contributors this season. 

“I think we’re passing up, 95 percent of the time, pretty good (shot attempts) for very good ones, so the selfless level, the post passing, the interior passing, much better than it’s been these past couple of years. So that’s got to continue, and then of course we’ve got to finish at the rate that we’re finishing at,” White said. “Continue to move it, but be really sound with it, and then there’s other areas too. You’d like to see us get to the foul line more, offensive glass more, and then defensively we’ve got a ways to go there.”

Undoubtedly the last two weeks have surpassed external expectations after the Gators lost star forward Keyontae Johnson for an undetermined amount of time in mid-December, followed by an 18-day absence for Scottie Lewis due to health and safety protocol that began in early January. 

A statement from UF is expected at some point in the near future regarding Johnson’s status, although it’s unclear whether it will reveal his prognosis or diagnosis. The Sun’s Zach Abolverdi reported Dec. 22 that Johnson had been diagnosed with acute myocarditis, which would keep the SEC Preseason Player of the Year out for the season. 

Meanwhile, the Gators playing in Johnson’s honor have gathered victories over two top-25 opponents — Tennessee and most recently Saturday’s 85-80 win at West Virginia — as they continue to defy the odds. 

White said the recent stretch is even more impressive considering the Gators less than two months ago were pondering the possibility of shutting it down for the season following Johnson’s collapse Dec. 12 at Florida State. 

“What a unique set of circumstances, of course," White said. "A crazy year on all kinds of fronts. I think this team is pretty close, because of the obvious, and what these guys have gone through together. There was a time quite honestly where as a staff and as a full staff, support staff included, we didn’t know how these guys would respond. In our first meeting coming back from Tallahassee, we honestly talked about the possibility of these guys not wanting to play again. And how all of that would look and how we would handle that.

"I can’t say it’s been overly surprising because we’ve got, despite Keyontae not being able to help us on the court as a player, we’ve got very good pieces. We’ve got talent and we’ve got a lot more experience than we’ve had in the last couple of years despite not having a senior. I can’t say I’m surprised, I guess. Pleased that we’ve been able to get a little bit better and guys are as resilient as they’ve been, but again, that doesn’t mean anything moving forward.”

If there’s any one surprising aspect of the Florida program that’s now almost become a given, however, it’s the high-energy play of junior forward Colin Castleton. 

The 6-foot-11 transfer from Michigan earned the SEC’s Player of the Week award for the second time this season after scoring 21 points and blocking five shots in UF’s win over the Mountaineers. White has repeatedly praised his work ethic and tenacity in practice, saying he’s pushed the Gators to improve as a team with his mindset in each practice. 

It’s a mindset that’s continued amid the four-game win streak, and one that has throughout the course of the season encouraged the Gators to further run their offense through the low post. 

“He’s got a high level of self-confidence. He thinks he’s a player, and that’s a big factor. His confidence doesn’t waver. He’s got a really high skill level, he’s got great length, hands, touch, feel. Probably the thing that has impressed me the most is he hasn’t handled success perfectly — that’s hard to do for these 20-year-olds, right, especially the first time that you’re experiencing the level of success he’s experiencing individually — but he’s handled it pretty well,” said White of Castleton. “And he’s getting accolades for the first time in college, and he comes back the next day in practice and he goes to work and he works. And so he’s got some humility, which I think really helps him stay grounded.”

His new teammates were initially impressed with his constant focus, too – along with his height and 7-foot-3 wingspan.

“For one, I didn’t know he was that tall. When I saw him, they were saying he was like 7-feet. I feel like he’s even taller when I’m on the floor. When he puts his arms up when you’re passing the ball, I can definitely see that,” shooting guard Noah Locke said of Castleton. “He’s a very good guy. I became really close with him as we’ve been playing, and during practice and after practice and stuff like that. As in the whole coming in every day and being the same person, it’s just about a grind. Him wanting to play this game at the highest level and knowing what it takes to get there. You’ve gotta stay consistent, and that’s pretty much what he’s been doing — being able to stay consistent on that type of mentality and just knowing that you’ve got to come to work every day to get better.”

Although there’s certainly a ways to go for Castleton and his teammates alike; White knows this, as do the Gators — much of what the Gators did in January may be all for naught if anything drops off in February. 

“But a challenge to him is, although he’s about as efficient as you can be right now with the basketball in his hands,” White continued. “Can we rebound better, can our ball-screen defense get better, can we chase down some long rebounds? Transition D, rim-running offensively at times is high level, but it can’t be spotty. So he’s got room for improvement, as we all do.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

12 Colin Castleton F 6-11 220 Jr. 13.4 ppg 5.5 rpg

22 Tyree Appleby G 6-1 170 Jr. 10.6 ppg 3.0 rpg

10 Noah Locke G 6-3 203 Jr. 11.3 ppg 2.6 rpg

01 Tre Mann G 6-5 190 So. 14.3 ppg 5.1 rpg

05 Omar Payne F 6-10 230 So. 4.1 ppg 3.7 rpg

South Carolina

10 Justin Minaya F 6-6 215 RJr. 9.1 ppg 7.5 rpg

15 Wildens Leveque F 6-10 242 So. 5.3 ppg 5.2 rpg

00 AJ Lawson G 6-6 177 Jr. 17.2 ppg 3.5 rpg

05 Jermaine Cousinard G 6-4 21 RSo. 12.1 ppg  2.9 rpg

23 Seventh Woods G 6-2 184 RSr. 4.3 ppg 1.6 rpg

Notes:  The road team has won each of the last four meetings between UF and South Carolina ... Florida’s four road wins vs. ranked opponents under Mike White mark the most by any SEC team over the course of his tenure (2015-present). The Gators’ 11 wins in neutral or road games during that time are the SEC’s second-most (UK 14, UT 8, SC 7) ... The Gators are looking for their first five-game winning streak since Feb. 13-27, 2019.

— Graham Hall