Gators men's basketball program reconvenes with transfers, returners, new assistants

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida guard Tyree Appleby and his teammates begin preparations for the 2021-22 season.

Monday not only marked the start of the Summer “B” semester at the University of Florida — it also served as the reconvening of the school's men’s basketball team as the Gators begin preparation for the 2021-22 season. 

Florida’s five returning scholarship players — Tyree Appleby, Anthony Duruji, Jason Jitoboh, Niels Lane and Samson Ruzhentsev — are scheduled to arrive in Gainesville throughout the week, joining the four transfers — CJ Felder, Phlandrous Fleming Jr., Brandon McKissic and Myreon Jones — who descended upon campus two weeks prior to begin training in the weight room and on the court. 

Florida coach Mike White, speaking Monday on WRUF’s Sportscene with Steve Russell, touched on everything from the transfer portal and new assistants to the return of “normalcy” in the basketball complex after the COVID-19 pandemic significantly altered the 2020-21 season. 

“We’ll start with workouts, have some abbreviated practices that the NCAA allows us to do now in the summer, starting actually Monday, so we’ll meet as a team Sunday night with at least most of our team,” White said. “We are right in the middle of recruiting as we’ll continue to go out five of the next six weekends as a staff, and finally we’ve got a full staff in place as well.”

White discussed his first impressions of Florida’s four additions via the transfer portal, saying he expects the Gators to flash more veteran poise next season as a result of the influx. 

“A couple weeks ago you walk in the gym and we’ve got four transfers, four older guys that have played a lot of games in college, that are a little bit bigger, a little bit stronger, have a little bit better understanding of how to work and how to compete,” White said. “And guys that are really excited to be here, excited to be Gators.

"B-Mac, Brandon McKissic, brings a ton of energy when he walks in the gym, and he’s in the gym a bunch, he’s working hard. CJ Felder from Boston College is a guy that’s, again, got a lot of experience at the highest level, in the ACC. Myreon Jones — the Big Ten was arguably the best league in the country last year, got 15-and-a-half (points per game) in that league, again an experienced guy with a couple years left, and Phlan Fleming, another graduate transfer who’s got tons of experience getting defensive stops, getting high-level rebounds, scoring it. All four of those guys are going to be very impactful to this program immediately.”

White also shed more light on the assistant coach hiring process that lasted throughout April and May. After losing assistants Jordan Mincy and Darris Nichols, White hired Erik Pastrana from Oklahoma State on May 24 and Akeem Miskdeen from Florida Atlantic on May 29. 

“Ultimately you hire people here, at least I have — there are a bunch of factors and a bunch of attributes that you look for,” White said, “in terms of being a tactician, right. Experience. Other coaches that you’ve worked with, the experiences that you’ve had in the business. Being a mentor, being a recruiter. Game-time decisions. Player development. I could go on and on, but ultimately it’s about being a great human being first and foremost, and I feel that’s where we hit the target with Akeem Miskdeen and Erik Pastrana.”

White was asked about the NCAA transfer portal, which he thinks is here to stay, although he anticipates a correction of sorts.

“It’s headed that way and it’s headed that way with momentum. I do think it may even out after a couple years and maybe we won’t see the drastic number that we saw this spring,” White said, “but it’s going to be a big factor for recruiting from here on out.” 

Along with the four transfers, the Gators added a lone signee in freshman Kowacie Reeves Jr., who arrived on UF’s campus June 22, bringing the list of Florida’s available scholarship players to 10 – although the list may certainly grow within the next week.

6-foot-11 forward Colin Castleton – who entered his name in the NBA draft and signed with an NCAA-certified agent, giving him the opportunity to return to school — has until July 7 to decide whether to keep his name in the draft or return to Florida for his senior season. 

Castleton has been working out primarily in Las Vegas throughout the pre-draft process and has yet to make a decision on his future despite not being invited to either the NBA or G-League combine, according to Chris Harry of FloridaGators.com,

"I wouldn't say I'm leaning either way. I'm still open," Castleton told Harry. "I'm really still focused on these next few days and leaving my best impression on these NBA guys. Whatever I decide, I think it will turn out great." 

Castleton, a DeLand native who averaged 12.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per game during his first season at Florida after transferring from Michigan, has already had individual workouts with Memphis, Milwaukee and Minnesota, with a final trip scheduled later in the week with the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

It might come as a surprise to some, but a significant portion of Castleton’s offseason workouts have consisted of a skill-set he displayed just once last season: His 3-point shooting prowess. 

Castleton’s individual workouts concluded with him attempting 100 3-point shots, per Harry. Castleton says he made more than 60 each time. 

And Castleton isn’t the only Gator whose status is unknown as pre-season preparation commences. 

Keyontae Johnson’s situation and role with the team remains unclear as the forward heads into his senior season with UF. Johnson has remained around the program since his Dec. 12 collapse at Florida State, though it’s uncertain whether or not he’ll be cleared by Florida to resume basketball activities. Johnson opted not to enter his name into the NBA draft as he continued to recover and train for a potential return to the basketball court. 

As expected, White didn’t provide any further clarity on Johnson’s current situation or progress — the program has repeatedly said any information in the future will come from Johnson himself — he did touch on Johnson’s collapse when asked his thoughts on Florida’s 2020-21 season. 

“It was very trying. It was a year that will always be in my mind defined by a traumatic event to a guy we’re very very close with, our best player probably, probably the best player I’ve ever coached, the SEC’s preseason player of the year,” White said. “But also defined by the fact that we overcame an incredible amount of adversity, led by Keyontae, really led by student-assistant coach in Keyontae Johnson, who really pulled us through.

"And, you know, you get upset by Oral Roberts in the second round, and no one wanted that obviously, I was upset as anyone and disappointed as anyone, but really more disappointed for our guys and for Keyontae. But when you really think about it and take a step back and timelapse us a little bit, the fact that we got to the tournament and advanced despite all that adversity, was a great accomplishment, it really was. We want to get further, of course, but no one in college basketball had to endure what these student-athletes endured last season.”