The Florida Gators (12-8, 5-3 SEC) visit the Little Apple in Manhattan, Kansas, to play the No. 5 Kansas State Wildcats (17-3, 6-2 BIG 12) Saturday at 6 p.m.
This will be the Gators’ fourth time this season facing an Associated Press Top-25 opponent. Saturday will be the first time UF has played a non-conference opponent since its loss to the Oklahoma Sooners Dec. 20.
Kansas State has lost two of its last four games. KSU’s recent loss came against Iowa State, 80-76, on the road Tuesday.
Saturday’s game is an emotional reunion for many UF players. The game will mark Florida’s first game against former Gator Keyontae Johnson, who is now a senior forward at Kansas State.
Johnson collapsed face-first onto the hardwood floor in UF’s road game against Florida State Dec. 12, 2020.
Florida graduate student forward Colin Castleton said he’d never seen anything like it before and was in shock at the moment.
“I didn’t see it actually with my eyes,” Castleton said. “I just heard his head hit the floor.”
Johnson, who didn’t play National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball for almost two years, averages 18.3 points and 7.5 rebounds per game this season. He’s started every game so far for the Wildcats.
“It’s just amazing to see how far he’s come,” Castleton said. “Seeing him do well in Kansas State is all I care about.”
Johnson still keeps in touch with some of his former Florida teammates and can’t wait to see them on the court. He said there was no ill will toward the team after they didn’t clear him to play.
“I’m still a Gator for life,” Johnson said.
Florida head coach Todd Golden said players will take turns matching up against the former Gator on defense.
The Wildcats are led by head coach Jerome Tang, who is in his first year with the program. Kansas State averages 77.8 points per game and 17.8 assists per game — the eighth-best average in the nation — under Tang.
“I’ve got to give coach Tang a lot of credit,” Golden said. “He’s gotten a lot of guys to play at their highest level that they have played across their entire careers.”
Kansas State senior guard Markquis Nowell is KSU’s primary facilitator. He shoots 40.7% from the floor and averages 8.3 assists per game — the second-highest average in the nation.
Nowell tallied 23 points in each of his last two games; he scored 23 against Texas Tech Jan. 21 and 23 versus Iowa State Jan. 24. He averages 17.1 points per game.
Golden said Tang gives KSU’s roster offensive freedom. This has helped Nowell showcase his talents and improve his game this season, he said.
“Sometimes those guys are the hardest to guard because with that freedom comes confidence,” Golden said. “We’ve got to do a great job limiting him. We want to turn him into a two-point finisher.”
Nowell shoots 38.5% from 3-point range. He is one of four Wildcats who have shot better than 30% from beyond the arc with at least 10 attempts this season.
Florida is 12th in the nation in defensive efficiency, according to this week's KenPom rankings.
UF have won five of their last six games. They’ve held Southeastern Conference opponents to 37.4% from the floor and 24.5% from behind the arc this year. UF’s last eight games were against SEC opponents.
The Gators are coming off a lopsided 81-60 victory against the South Carolina Gamecocks Wednesday.
Florida finished the game with five players scoring in double digits. Senior guard Myreon Jones, who finished with a career-high 10 rebounds and eight assists, came close to a triple-double with nine points.
Freshman guard Riley Kugel finished with a career-high 14 points against the Gamecocks in his first SEC start. Golden said Kugel and others on the team have improved throughout the season.
“It allowed us to go on this little run that we’re on,” Golden said.
KSU has two 6-foot-10-inch big men controlling the paint at all times: senior center Abayomi Iyiola and junior forward Nae’Qwan Tomlin. The duo grabs a combined 9.3 rebounds per game.
The Gators are 8-2 when they outrebound their opponent.
“At the end of the day, we’ve all got to rebound,” Castleton said. “We’ve got to be ready because they’re a good team, and they're physical.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 6 p.m. Saturday at the Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan, Kansas. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Brandon Hernandez is currently the enterprise sports writer and sports podcast host for The Independent Alligator. He likes long walks on the sidewalk and watching basketball tape in his off time. You can find most of his work @BranH2001 on X and on The Courtside Podcast on Spotify.