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Thursday, March 04, 2021

A trial by fire has given Florida elite depth

Injuries to Florida’s marquee players have opened doors at the end of the bench

<p>Omar Payne finished his second straight game in double figues, scoring ten and grabbing nine rebounds against Georgia Saturday afternoon</p>

Omar Payne finished his second straight game in double figues, scoring ten and grabbing nine rebounds against Georgia Saturday afternoon

With the Gators looking to bury Georgia following on a 13-3 run out of halftime, driving guard Tre Mann to bet on junior Omar Payne, who ran the floor beautifully to arrive at the low-block and emphatically slammed home the alley-oop.

Two possessions later, junior Osayi Osifo battled for position in the post, skied for the rebound and powered towards the rim for two, extending the lead with Florida’s marquee players glued to the bench. If Gator fans read that play-by-play log early in the season, most would pose two questions: where has this Omar Payne been and what is an Osayi Osifo?

But Florida’s viral injury bug has opened the door for many players anchored to the end of the bench to establish a role within the team, quickly transforming a squad with glaring personnel deficiencies into one of the deepest in the SEC. 

This growth jumped off the box score against Georgia, as Florida surged to a 90-82 victory on Saturday behind strong outings from previously unheralded players Osifo, Payne and junior Anthony Diruji.

Junior Keyontae Johnson’s collapse and subsequent season-long hiatus took a massive chunk of UF’s scoring production out of the lineup, as the SEC Preseason Player of the Year averaged more than 19 points per game. Johnson’s versatility and talent were irreplaceable, but forward Anthony Duruji had been a remarkable deputy during conference play. 

The Louisiana Tech transfer hadn’t played more than 13 minutes outside of conference play and scored a paltry five points through the first four games. Still, the bright lights of SEC basketball reinvigorated the experience and three-point shooting UF fans were expecting. 

Duruji managed three double-digit outings from his first four conference games, shooting 6-14 from three and proving to be an invaluable asset in guarding the perimeter and the post. The junior’s scoring output has been more modest in the last few games. Still, Duruji has continued to contribute through his grit on the glass and elite athleticism, averaging just under five rebounds a game along with a steal and a block in SEC play. 

Duruji’s inevitable absences, due to foul trouble and fatigue, have led to issues guarding the post. Junior Osayi Osifo has filled Florida's need for a backup power forward role well, serving as another surprising contributor for the Gators this season. The South Africa native has averaged five points and five rebounds in the last two games while managing a stellar 106 offensive rating and maintaining a higher usage rate than Noah Locke. 

Florida’s injury crisis reached DEFCON-1 ahead of the Tennessee matchup on Tuesday, as sophomore Scottie Lewis missed his fourth-consecutive game due to health and safety concerns. At the same time, junior Colin Castleton was declared out before tip-off with an ankle injury.

UF’s role-players grabbed the oars and confidently guided their team through dire straits, pummeling the No. 8 Volunteers behind sizable contributions from unlikely sources. 

Payne had been regarded as a disappointment given his four-star billing, previously maxing out at just four points in conference play. But the Kissimmee, Florida, native took advantage of Castleton’s absence, scoring nine points, grabbing nine rebounds and notching five blocks while missing just one shot. 

Guard Ques Glover scored ten points and center Jason Jotoboh, who had played just two minutes in the new year, scored a bucket and saw extended time on the court. 

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The most encouraging part of Florida’s roster-wide development has been the continued effectiveness of these players. Most recently, against Georgia, Payne scored 10 points on a perfect 5-5 shooting performance while snagging nine rebounds. Osifo managed six points and five rebounds and Duruji tacked on six points, four offensive rebounds and two assists. 

Glover’s two points may look disappointing, but the sophomore guard was a catalyst in his 12 minutes of play, sparking transition play and providing energy on the defensive end. 

Castleton should be back to regular minutes, and Lewis’ return should be days away. As the Gators near the end of a brutal injury plague, they emerge a deeper and more dangerous team. 

Mike White deserves tremendous credit after his developmental abilities had been called into question. The Florida coach now has a rare luxury, a team with experienced contributors up and down the bench. 

Dan Dakich said on Saturday’s broadcast that the Gators looked like an NCAA Tournament team, and with valuable contributors emerging in spades its hard to bet against a fourth straight trip to the Big Dance. 

Contact Declan Walsh at dwalsh@alligator.org or follow him on Twitter @declanaw



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