The Florida Gators men’s basketball team hit the court Monday in an exhibition game versus the Embry-Riddle Eagles. The home team in orange and blue triumphed 80-57, but the group essentially started from scratch ahead of the new year.
Florida head coach Mike White lost a handful of notable players to the transfer portal and the NBA draft. Gators fans won’t cheer on Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann anymore; instead, they see a new team with few familiar faces and a plethora of veteran players.
Senior Colin Castleton, the team's resident big man, received two preseason accolades. Following his breakout 2020-21 season, Castleton found himself on the preseason First-Team All-SEC and the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award watch list. The 6-foot-11 forward scored 10 points against ERAU and led the team with nine assists.
Castleton isn’t the only returning Gator senior who is looking to prove he has hot hands. Fifth-year senior Tyree Appleby found ecstasy at the 3-point line, succeeding on 50% of his eight attempts. Appleby recorded seven assists throughout his 28 minutes on the court, the most played of any Florida player.
Senior Anthony Duruji also had a stellar exhibition game. He secured the second-most points on the team with 16. The Germantown, Maryland, native put 12 of those points on the board in the first half. Duruji was 5-for-5 from the field against the Eagles and secured seven rebounds. Yet he found himself on the wrong side of history with five personal fouls to end his night early.
“I asked the guys ‘who’s surprised that Anthony played the way he did tonight?’ White said. “No one raised their hand...because that’s what we see every day.”
There are four new transfers determined to prove their spot on White’s team as well, and guard Brandon McKissic stood out above the rest.
McKissic, a University of Missouri-Kansas City graduate transfer, made his last five shots in the exhibition game. The guard boasted 25 minutes of playing time, the same as Castleton, and led the team with 20 points.
While UF won by 23 points, it wasn’t an easy feat. At one point, the game stood tied. The orange and blue ran out of the locker room ready for vengeance come the second half. McKissic said they picked up their game in the closing frame, and the team played selflessly.
“It was not what we’re used to,” McKissic said. “We have to just keep learning to be consistent.”
McKissic said the squad is full of a lot of talent and versatility.
“As long as we’re taking the mature route about this and just being fair [and] honest with each other I think it’ll be a great team,” he said.
White said the exhibition served as a great opportunity for the players to execute their skills, take shots, play in front of fans and communicate to overcome adversity. He did, however, say the Gators still have a lot to work on.
But White has faith in his team. He is confident in both their offensive and defensive abilities.
“I think with our starting five guys, the guys we started tonight, each one of those guys potentially on a good night could get double figures,” he said.
One former starter took a different role on the bench: Keyontae Johnson.
Johnson sat cheering on his teammates on the end of the bench. After a medical emergency during last year's Florida State game, he’s served as “Coach Key.” The senior could be seen giving cues and high-fiving his fellow Gators.
While the coach is the conductor of the squad, the players are the engine.
“Again, it's about the defense dictating what shot that we're going to take and it's got to be our shot and not my shot,” White said.
Florida tips off its regular season against Elon at 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. The game can be streamed on SEC Network+.
Karina Wilson is a second-year student at the University of Florida within the College of Journalism and Communications with a specialization in sports and media. She aims to produce engaging, accurate and current content for all types of sports fans. Currently, Karina is The Alligator's lacrosse beat writer.