Retooled Gators hosting Embry-Riddle in preseason basketball exhibition

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
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Florida coach Mike White is ready to jump into the season.

Florida men’s basketball coach Mike White is keen on the chances of the 2021-22 iteration of the Gators, pointing to the team’s selfless play and pass-first mindset in practice as primary reasons why they have the potential to surprise this season. 

But White, now in his seventh year at the helm at Florida, is aware that what occurs in practice doesn’t always translate to competitive action — there’s little reason to get either too high or too low before taking the court for a meaningful game. 

While Monday’s exhibition with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University won’t matter when it comes to Florida’s record, the 7 p.m. tipoff in the Exactech Arena will give White and his retooled coaching staff their first opportunity at assessing how the Gators fare when the lights come on and eyes are fixed on the court. 

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“I think it's the best passing team that I've coached here at Florida, and hopefully I'm saying the same thing in in December and January, February. It's obviously the oldest team that we've had, so I think there's a certain level of maturity there that was expected, and we've gotten to this point,” White said. “Nothing sticks out as a big deficiency. Not that we're great at anything right now, but I would say we are a pretty good passing team.”

Although the Gators have already dipped their toes into facing Division I competition. 

UF hosted the University of North Carolina for a closed exhibition Oct. 23 and both programs agreed not to release statistics — team-wide and individual — from the contest, and White didn’t want to relay any information that would indicate how the contest unfolded. Video highlights were ultimately released on social media, though not much could be gathered aside from out-of-context plays, but White did discuss Florida’s showing in broad terms. 

“In one of the segments, we defended at a high level, and one of the segments didn't defend very well at all. Shared it though,” he said. “Had a couple F (bad shot) but it's better than 10 Fs in your first opportunity against another opponent. It was fun, we learned a lot from the film. Took advantage for sure.”

Florida’s rotation also remains unknown after adding seven players to the roster in the offseason. Returning seniors Tyree Appleby, Colin Castleton and Anthony Duruji give the Gators a trio of integral cogs from last season’s team, yet no one has been guaranteed a starting spot, let alone a role — that competition has been ongoing throughout preseason camp. 

Appleby has competition in the backcourt from Brandon McKissic, Myreon Jones and Phlandrous Fleming, while last season’s starting frontcourt of Castleton and Duruji has been challenged by the arrival of CJ Felder, who recorded more than 40 blocks as a sophomore at Boston College. 

The natural assumption for a team that lost two guards to the NBA draft from last season’s team would not be collective improvement. Having seen the potential impact of the additions, however, has only created optimism over recent months. 

“We push each other every day, most definitely, because it’s always about getting better and better each day. M.J. (Jones), he’s just a great shooter. He’s a great play-maker. He can dribble. He can really just do it all,” Appleby said. “So, I think just with that addition, and Phlan and B-Mac, I think they’re a great addition to the team.” 

Considering half of the roster is fresh-faced at Florida, how the team will fit together remains a pressing question, though Appleby insists the Gators have tangible chemistry already despite having yet to compete in a significant contest. 

That’s a credit to the return of much of the normalcy — the team has had far more full-team practices, conditioning sessions and off-the-court activities this year when compared to the COVID-ridden 2020-21 campaign. The Gators had just one practice during preseason with more than 11 scholarship participants. 

So, on paper, the checklist appears nearly complete. All that remains is the long-awaited application of the reconstructed Gators, a process which commences Monday against the Eagles. 

“We’re still working out the little tweaks and everything from the defensive end, but I think the chemistry there is really great, because everybody wants to play for one another,” Appleby said. “Everybody just wants to win, so, I think collectively, we come together, and we know we can get the stops, and we have the people, the players, to get the stops. So, I think we’re going to be just fine.”

Notes: The Gators feature a contingent of new players after earning an NCAA Tournament berth and a first-round victory in 2021 for the fourth consecutive tournament. Florida is one of six teams nationally with a win in each of the past four tournaments and the only SEC program to reach every NCAA Tournament since 2017. After playing without any seniors on the roster last season, the Gators have six senior or graduate players on their active roster to start the season, in addition to Keyontae Johnson, who will be continuing in a supporting role for the time being while he awaits to be medically cleared to return to basketball activities. All-SEC frontcourt man Colin Castleton returns to UF after testing the NBA draft, along with fellow 2020-21 starters Tyree Appleby and Anthony Duruji. Castleton was recognized with preseason All-SEC first-team status in the media vote this season. Other returners include sophomore wing Niels Lane and junior forward Jason Jitoboh, along with walk-on sophomores Alex Klatsky and Jack May.

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