Whitley: Wow, Gators really can play defense

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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Florida forward Colin Castleton (12) blocks a shot by Florida State guard Matthew Cleveland, center, as forward Anthony Duruji (4) moves in to help during the second half Sunday in the O'Connell Center.

Leonard Hamilton knows good defense when he sees it. That moved him to make an observation after Sunday’s game against Florida.

“They out-Florida-Stated Florida State.”

He meant it as a compliment, though his coaching counterpart was a little surprised to hear it.

“I don’t know how to take that,” Mike White said.

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He should take it as a sign that this could be a pretty good year for Florida basketball. In the first real test of the season, the new-look Gators did out-FSU FSU.

Hamilton has built his program on relentless, in-your-face, street-fighting defense. It’s been good enough for the Seminoles to make deep runs in the NCAA tournament, not to mention beat the Gators seven consecutive games before Sunday.

“They’re a very, very good team,” White said. “They’re tough, they’re relentless.”

And on Sunday, the 19th-ranked Seminoles were held to 55 points. To which fans of Florida athletics could only say, “Thanks, we needed that.”

It’s been a depressing few weeks for them watching the football team unravel. Just a day earlier across the street from the Exactech Arena, the Gators gave up 52 points to little old Samford.

It should be noted that the basketball team did not give up that many points until there was 2:42 left in the game. All of which had wiseacres wondering if White should apply for the defensive coordinator job Dan Mullen has open.

Instead of filling out that application, White said he was going to spend Sunday evening with “A glass of red wine and a big cheese pizza. That’s where I’m at right now.”

The fans at Exactech probably have taken up a collection and sent him a bottle of Chateau Lafite. With three or four transfers expected to play key roles, nobody knew what to expect out of Sunday, much less the next four months.

If Game No. 2 is any indication, expect a smothering defense.

“That’s what we do,” Anthony Duruji said. “That’s our identity.”

The most obvious contributor Sunday was Colin Castleton, who had 15 points and a career-high 16 rebounds. He also had six blocked shots and altered about twice that many. It’s easy to notice a 6-foot-11 STOP sign in the paint, but Florida’s perimeter defense caused FSU as many headaches.

“We’ve got a lot of guards that play hard, have grit,” Castleton said. “That makes it much easier for me to do what I do.”

The transfer portal has delivered ball-hawks like Phlandrous Fleming and Brandon McKissic. They helped hold FSU to 38.5% shooting, bringing an intensity that everybody feeds off.

The crowd certainly got into it Sunday. In the second full-capacity game since 2019, Exactech was rocking as the Gators built a 12-point lead with eight minutes left.

That set up another early-season test. Would the Gators squander it?

Losing late-game leads has been a big reason White’s caught more flack the past couple of years than Todd Grantham. The last thing he needed Sunday was for a meltdown to fire up the negative vibes.

FSU never came close. The final seconds were a fitting end to the day’s proceedings. Castleton fought for an offensive rebound. The ball went out to McKissic, who cradled it and flexed his arms like a bodybuilder in a pose-down.

“They were clearly a team that wanted it more” FSU forward Malik Osborne said.

When the clock hit 00:00, McKissic stomped around doing the Gator chomp. The crowd of 10,010 made as much noise as 70,000 did at The Swamp on Saturday.

Of course, basketball fans might have more to look forward to.

“If you want to be one of the better teams in the SEC,” White said, “you’d better be one of the better defenses in the SEC.”

Ever cautious, he stressed how early it is. How much improving must be done. How we shouldn’t draw any real conclusions from one game.

All of which is true. But Sunday also wasn’t just a routine November win. It was about establishing an identity. 

“I think this can lay the foundation for the rest of the season,” Duruji said.

Yes, fans, at least one Florida team can play defense.

If this is a sign of things to come, White is going to have to learn how to take a compliment.

— David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. And follow him on Twitter: @DavidEWhitley

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