Win in West Virginia latest step in Florida Gators’ drive to overcome losing Keyontae Johnson

After Kiontei Johnson collapsed and was hospitalized in critical condition for several days, basketball became a priority for the Florida men’s basketball team. Johnson was the captain of the Gators and finished first on the All-SEC team last season and was named SEC Pre-Season Player of the Year.

If Florida struggled on the field the rest of the season, it would be understandable. And first, the alligators. They beat Vanderbilt and LSU, but were then knocked out by Alabama and a mediocre Kentucky team, and lost to Mississippi State in four games at halftime.

But after the loss against Mississippi State, their season was completely turned around. Mike White’s team won its fourth game in a row on Saturday, traveling to West Virginia and defeating the Mountaineers (#11) 85-80.

Suddenly, Florida is knocking on the door of the top 25 and could be the second best team in the league behind Alabama.

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We’re very, very excited, White said at his post-game press conference. It’s good to know that your men are becoming more confident, we hope. We used to do it at home, now we do it on the road. Let’s hope this confidence will help our men contribute even more. After Keyontae, this team can still be a very good team.

This last point, in particular, has been the subject of debate right up to the last few weeks. Finally, Florida was an inconsistent team last season – even with Johnson and Kerry Blackshear Jr (a senior) and Andrew Nembhard (who transferred to Gonzaga). The Alabama and Kentucky losses, the latter in Gainesville, have raised questions. After a loss against Mississippi State, the Gators won 6-4 and 3-3 in league play before taking on Tennessee. And it got worse: Scottie Lewis missed the last two games due to COVID-19 protocols and is absent again, while Michigan transfer Colin Castleton will miss the Volunteers’ game due to an ankle injury.

Florida then went out and allowed the Volunteers to get to 26. And the Gators were a completely different team after that win.

Noah Locke, the alligator guard, moves on the court in Saturday’s win over West Virginia. Ben Quinn/USA Sports Today

People forget that these guys… we’re back from Tallahassee and it’s over. All done, Mr. White said. The boys went home and did nothing. I’m sure some of them were at the gym. But we haven’t been together in two weeks. And it wasn’t a break where we were still 5-0, Dry 0, watching a movie with the boys…. Some went home for 14, 15 days.

We needed to mentally heal from the trauma these boys endured. We needed the boys to get away from him. We’re back at 26 and we’re clearly a team again without a player of the year in the pre-season conference, the best player I’ve ever coached, the one I thought would end the season in the All-American.

It took White a while to find the right combination of personnel. Playmaker Tre Mann, a former McDonald’s All-American who struggled last season, was the focal point of the offense. Tyree Appleby, a transfer from Louisiana who didn’t play last season, has been in the starting lineup for the last seven games and has given the team a boost on both ends of the field, allowing the team to pick up the pace. Noah Locke has rediscovered his outside shot. Lewis is healthy again and is an X-factor, averaging 10.9 points per game, while White has put Omar Payne in the starting lineup the past four games.



Scotty Lewis, from Florida, spins under the paint and falls into an acrobatic bucket.

The boys are playing more together without Keyontae. The guys [understand] that anything we do offensively, we did it again, so it took time and also to get back in shape. Returning to the shots and taking position, White said. I think when we came back for the first time, we played for Keyontae, we played with emotion as if nothing had happened, we kind of got our feet on the ground and got going. … It’s clear we’re better than we were a few weeks ago.

But the biggest development is that Castleton has emerged as one of the country’s biggest influencers. In two seasons at Michigan, he averaged 2.3 points and then averaged 6.5 points in the first four games of this season. Castleton is averaging 16.4 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.8 blocks in his last nine games. Against West Virginia, he finished with 21 points, seven rebounds and five blocks, helping the Gators stay on the glass against Derek Culver and the Mountaineers.

We were just weak in the first half, we didn’t play enough, Castleton said after Saturday’s game. Culver] made a couple of easy baskets he shouldn’t have and he held on in the second half. He didn’t look as light as he did in the first half. I’ve fired a lot here and I’m hanging on. Basically, be careful.

Florida answered a few questions Saturday. Every year, West Virginia is one of the toughest teams in the country. Unlike most of her opponents, she bangs against the glass and plays physical for 40 minutes. The Gators are struggling on the defensive end of the glass and could have problems with teams constantly attacking the paint. But even though the Mountaineers had 16 offensive rebounds, Florida – and especially Castleton – were able to keep up with them offensively and then made a big effort on both fronts late in the game.

Gators head coach Mike White addresses his team during the first half of their win over the Mountaineers. Ben Quinn/USA Today Sports

What does it mean to move forward? Florida was considered one of the top 25 teams in the AP last week and likely will be in the rankings this week, but the Gators now have a strong case to be considered the best team in the league behind Alabama. They have already beaten Tennessee and LSU in the championship, but they will face off against these teams on an away trip in the coming weeks.

But no matter what happened in Knoxville and Baton Rouge, White and Florida have turned things around the last two weeks, culminating in Saturday’s win in Morgantown.

This is really, really big, Locke said. I think this is the first time I’ve been on the road since I got here. That’s really great. We just need to keep the momentum going.

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