The Florida Gators men’s basketball team has postponed its next three scheduled non-conference games — the remainder of its pre-SEC slate for the 2020-21 season — after the shocking collapse of Keyontae Johnson in last Saturday’s visit to Florida State, with the hope being that the postponements will allow players to go home over the holidays and, in the words of Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, “process emotions and regroup ahead of the start of the new year.”
Florida’s postponements cover games that were set to be played against Florida Atlantic on December 19, Florida A&M — in a game added to the Gators’ schedule this week and announced by FAMU but never announced by Florida — on December 20, and James Madison on December 23. And their postponements come as little surprise — I advocated for them as common-sense moves in the wake of Florida first postponing its December 15 game with North Florida, and am heartened to see Florida’s thinking was ultimately similar.
If anything, it’s the terminology — these games being postponed rather than cancelled — that is perplexing. Yes, it’s possible that Florida still bears contractual obligations to these teams that might include payments and that publicly declaring cancellations could trigger those payments, but postponing these games without calling them cancelled prompts an obvious question: When could they get played?
Florida’s schedule provides no obvious answers, as the Gators are slated to play two games — a midweek game and a Saturday game — every week from the last week of December onward through the end of SEC competition. And Florida isn’t scheduled to spend a single full calendar week from Monday to Sunday in Gainesville at any point during that slate: The Gators’ only string of two straight home games comes in January, when a Saturday meeting with Kentucky is followed by a Tuesday visit from Ole Miss.
(Such stints at home are rare across the SEC as well this year, thanks partly to a hastily-assembled schedule that was reconfigured by COVID-19 concerns, but it bears mentioning that fellow perceived SEC front-runners Kentucky and Tennessee each have two Tuesday-to-Saturday homestands, and that both teams also see one of those homestands stretch to three games.)
However: COVID-19 cancellations, common in college athletics thus far this year, are likely to present Florida with holes in that schedule as the season plays on. While slotting in Florida A&M or North Florida would obviously be a step down in opponent quality from even the least impressive SEC program, rescheduling non-conference games into its conference schedule could be an elegant way for Florida to meet any contractual obligations to those programs and also prevent longer layoffs from play that might disrupt the Gators’ on-court rhythm.
For a program that will still aspire to make the 2021 NCAA Tournament field regardless of Johnson’s availability — and certainly could — those on-court concerns make sense.
But Florida playing on without Johnson is something these Gators have only done for about 36 minutes of game time — a period that was almost certainly spent in diagnosable shock, given the raw emotion that was visible on many players’ faces after their star, leader, and close friend went down in terrifying fashion. It would not be surprising to see the Gators struggle without Johnson purely because they will now lack a player like him, and it should not be surprising at all if they struggle with focus or desire after a trauma like experiencing his collapse first-hand.
It is uncharted territory that Florida will be venturing into whenever it does return to play. Remembering that — and granting this team grace — is likely going to be a theme of this season, no matter where it goes from here.