It’s been eight years. More than 2,500 days. Seven games. And all sorts of heartache.
But with Florida State in town on Sunday (1 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN), the most important non-conference game of the Florida Gators men’s basketball schedule is back again — and thus the season’s only scheduled chance for the Gators to get what was once a monkey and is now practically a gorilla troop off of the program’s figurative back has arrived.
FSU’s streak of seven wins is its longest and now tied for the longest in a rivalry that dates to 1951, even if it’s an aberrant one for the rivalry’s history — which, given the Gators’ current 43-29 advantage would still be in Florida’s favor if the Seminoles won this matchup and every other one through 2033.
But if the surprising length of this streak has been a source of agita, the how of the losses has been aggravating that yearly. Florida has lost games on a tip-in on its own bucket and a shot with seconds left; it has been brought to Earth after soaring in the PK80 Invitational and in a season opener for a season that promised plenty.
Last year’s loss was, of course, the most painful of all because of its human toll: Florida was off to a flying start and looked like a team ready to upend the Seminoles in Tallahassee when Keyontae Johnson’s collapse immediately made the result of a game that would ultimately go FSU’s way a footnote on the day for most Gators.
Johnson hasn’t played since — and while Florida and FSU gamely played that game to its conclusion, the Gators’ spirited early efforts in Johnson’s absence could not compensate for them playing in shock and without their best player and beloved teammate over the full 40 minutes.
Most of that Florida team is elsewhere now, with only Colin Castleton, Tyree Appleby, Anthony Duruji, and Niels Lane having played minutes in that game and stuck around to be part of the 2021-22 edition of the Gators. And not one of those players was in the role he will play today on that Saturday in Tallahassee: Castleton got 21 minutes, but largely because of Johnson’s absence; Appleby played 23 minutes off the bench, but may get more even if he’s coming off the bench today; Duruji is almost certain to start and play more than 13 minutes; even Lane, who got just three minutes, should be a bigger part of this game.
But Castleton, who called FSU’s streak “disrespectful” in a beautifully colorful quote earlier this week, leads a band of Gators who have said all the right things about knowing this is a challenge and a high hurdle. Brandon McKissic and Phlandrous Fleming were small-school stars who stepped up to this level to play games like this; C.J. Felder, who came from Boston College and has been on the wrong end of routs at the Seminoles’ hands, surely does not want a repeat of those losses.
And this Florida team looks tougher and more athletic than some of the squads that have been, frankly, pushed around and punked by FSU teams in recent years. McKissic and Fleming bring length and doggedness on the wing, and Castleton is a shot-swatter inside who has proven unafraid to mix it up with other orchards of Ents.
FSU is, as has been the case for about a decade under Leonard Hamilton, tall and talented, athletic and aggressive. The Seminoles’ defense menaced an undersized and overwhelmed Penn roster into 26 turnovers — 15 of them steals — in a 105-70 thumping in their season opener, and eight different FSU players had at least one steal. Nine different Seminoles had an offensive rebound, too, in a clock-cleaning bit of glass-cleaning that saw FSU grab 25 defensive boards and a staggering 24 on the offensive end.
Those sorts of numbers are a recipe for FSU running away from whatever team it can generate them against, but Penn — an Ivy League team that had not played since 2019-20, and clearly not anywhere near the Seminoles’ league on an athlete-for-athlete basis — has also since lost to George Mason by 21, so it is not wrong to say the Gators look like a significant step up from the only team FSU has seen much like FSU is a significant step up from the Elon team that Florida trounced in its opener.
And though FSU ran away from the Quakers in the second half, it only held a 12-point halftime lead, thanks mostly to some good shooting from Penn; Florida, which eventually beat the Phoenix by only 13, held a 23-point halftime edge and eased back on the throttle in the second half, content to let Myreon Jones find his shooting stroke instead of feeding Castleton to generate a career-best performance.
These are two good teams, and they should play a good game of basketball in the O’Dome on this day — and while my head says that FSU’s roster is slightly better, thanks to a clear go-to scoring guard in Houston transfer Caleb Mills and stalwarts Malik Osborne and Anthony Polite, my heart guides me to the idea that Florida playing at home and for the guy they now call Coach Key could grant the edges necessary to win a tight game.
Florida will play games more important to its postseason fortunes than this one as this year progresses. And it will probably play more talented and better teams — it’s no knock on the Seminoles to say that they don’t have Kentucky’s talent, because maybe one or two teams in men’s college basketball do.
But this is the big one for the program prior to SEC play, and both sides know it. And if Florida doesn’t fight like it needs this one — each player fighting for himself, but also his teammates, and for Mike White, and for Keyontae — I will be both floored and flummoxed.
The Gators have a chance to get something crushing off their backs today.
I believe they can. I hope they do.