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What to watch for from Florida men’s basketball after its thrilling November

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Florida’s scintillating start has had some aesthetic appeal. Here are a few things one diehard thinks casual fans should keep an eye on.

NCAA Basketball: Ohio State at Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This piece comes to us from long-time commenter and first-time contributor Tanner Lafever, whose thoughts on Florida sports I’m proud to be publishing going forward.

Even if you haven’t yet waded all the way into its glistening waters, a brand new college basketball season is very much upon us.

There’s no judgment cast here toward those who’ve taken but a casual interest thus far, but for the real diehards out there, it was never a question of waiting until the New Year and football’s conclusion to dive headfirst into hoops. It meant as of opening Tuesday night three-plus weeks ago we were all the way back in, and will continue to be from now ‘till early April.

Included amongst the 358 (!) Division I programs well underway are your Florida Gators — who are integrating a slew of new faces both young and old, just as nearly every single school jockeying for position in the Top 25 is.

(One difference for Florida: The Gators are doing that really well so far.)

Recruiting and immediately-eligible transfers have made the sport more fluid than ever before, so you could be forgiven for taking a minute to gather your bearings in assessing a Gators roster that includes eight players whose collegiate careers began somewhere other than UF, and seven who’ve been on-campus in Gainesville for fewer than six months.

That’s the world of college basketball today. But fret not, the game is still played in two 20-minute halves, there are still too many media timeouts, the orange 29.5 inch-diameter sphere bounces the same as it ever has, and oh, everyone still hates Duke and rejoices when the Blue Devils lose.

See, it’s still the same game we all remember.

Now when it comes to the Gators, I promise not to distill my comprehensive thoughts on this 6-0 squad into a single article. I mean, I could, but less than 20 percent of the way into a marathon of a season it could easily prove to be a foolish, not to mention incredibly time-consuming, endeavor.

So I won’t — or at least I’ll try not to.

Instead, coming off of a holiday tournament championship and Sunday’s subsequent blowout of Troy, here are just three specific things to keep your eye on as this team continues to progress.

Fouls in the front court

Since I know Florida fans are quick on the draw to point out perceived deficiencies in any of their teams, we’ll start with an early concern of mine first: I think the list of capable options in the Gator front court stops at three – Colin Castleton, Anthony Duruji, and C.J. Felder.

Now, that in and of itself isn’t all that big or rare of a deal; deep and skilled frontcourts are rare in college hoops these days. But Florida’s problems seem specifically worrisome to me, as two of those three forward, Duruji and Felder, worry me as potentially being foul-prone, while Castleton, the third, is the only true five — or center — of the bunch.

Duruji was far too handsy as a defender a season ago (4.3 fouls committed per 40 minutes, per KenPom) and Felder has shown a similar propensity (6.3 fouls per 40) at times in the early going thus far. The sample size, especially for Felder, is quite small, and players both can and do adjust over the course of an entire schedule — Duruji, who committed three or more fouls eight times in Florida’s first 12 games last year, did so only four times over Florida’s final 13 contests.

That said, it may well be crucial for at least one member of that duo to remain mostly unencumbered by foul trouble on any given night considering the lack of legitimate depth behind them. It was certainly a huge part of Florida’s win over FSU a few weeks ago, as Duruji was able to give coach Mike White 36 excellent minutes versus just two fouls.

Why is that key?

It’s because even a better-conditioned Jason Jitoboh still just doesn’t feel likely to consistently contribute at an SEC-level right now. Meanwhile, first-year JUCO transfer Tuongthach Gatkek quite literally disappears from discernible view when he turns sideways.

There are 80 combined front court minutes to be played between the four and five spots for the Gators each night. I’d very much prefer to see Castleton/Duruji/Felder absorb 75 or more of them in competitive contests, and I think Mike White would, too.

That figure was at 69 between Castleton and Duruji alone against the Seminoles, showing both in their production and on the scoreboard, and it was at 76 amongst the entire trio for Florida’s exhilarating win over Ohio State last week, despite some first-half foul trouble for Duruji.

For the collective group to play the minutes I believe are necessary for this team to reach its peak, it will require discipline and attention to detail on the defensive end of the floor.

Speaking of which…

Feet first, chest second, hands last: The McKissic method

Another of White’s quartet of immediately eligible transfers, Brandon McKissic is the one who has impressed me most in limited action thus far, particularly because the guy just exemplifies great one-on-one defense.

Watch McKissic play only a few games in a Gator uniform and it’s pretty obvious why he was a three-time all-conference defender and one-time DPOTY at his previous stop for UMKC. The “mid-major” label does him a disservice: The traits he showcases work just about anywhere.

McKissic puts himself in great position by moving his feet to minimize potential driving angles, and then uses his chest and the considerable strength of his free safety’s frame — he’s listed at 6’3” and 200 pounds, and he flexes more than often enough to make clear he is a weight room workhorse — to slam the door shut altogether.

It works out on the perimeter against guards and wings, and it works down in the post when switched onto much bigger players — an area in which McKissic has also been quite adept so far, most notably forcing turnovers on a couple of possessions against Buckeye All-American candidate E.J. Liddell.

In contrast to Duruji and Felder, McKissic’s hands are used as a last resort — even though he’s managed 140 career steals to date.

That’s what makes for a great on-ball defender. Go watch clips of Jrue Holiday helping the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA championship, or Davion Mitchell — owner of the next-level nickname “Off Night” — leading Baylor to cut down the nets a few months prior. McKissic certainly isn’t on those levels, but the principle still applies.

Turnovers are far more often the result of an offensive player’s avoidable mistakes than they are the sheer will of a defender snatching the ball away — McKissic, of course, did do just that on one incredibly impressive occasion against FSU, but that’s more exception that proves the rule than sustainable practice. And if your opponent can’t drive by you or back you down with any degree of confidence or consistency, those mistakes tend to crop up soon enough.

Feet first, chest second, hands last. Add that prowess to the rest of his game and it’s the reason McKissic is my early pick for most valuable perimeter player on this team.

And if I hadn’t talked about feet enough…

Colin’s built his castle with a ton of footwork

If you haven’t watched Florida thus far, you’ve missed out. But if you have, there’s no way that you haven’t noticed this in the early going: Colin Castleton is going to serve as the primary fulcrum upon which this offense rests.

One of Castleton’s goals in returning to college was showcasing the addition of perimeter shooting to his game. And while successfully doing so would be a boon to the future prospects of both Florida’s upcoming season and his own 2022 NBA Draft outlook, it remains to be seen if it’ll develop into a consistent threat of his in short enough order to impact many games on the Gators schedule.

Hoop Math has Castleton’s seasonal tally at just 18 two-point jumpers — a number that combines paint jumpers and more traditional midrange attempts — and only two threes on the season, and he’s not shooting great percentages from either area.

Where I’m much more confident his presence will be felt is in and around the paint.

Castleton not only does a good job keeping his wits about him on more traditional post-ups, but has demonstrated himself to be a threat attacking off the dribble from the high-post area as well. Despite a few turnovers caused by driving into help defenders, that attacking element has really been an effective element in his game this year — one that you don’t often see at the college level from a 6’11” center.

The result has been not only important interior scoring, but also a constant presence at the foul line (6.3 attempts/game thus far) — each an invaluable aspect for any big man, especially a typically proficient free throw shooter like Castleton.

(It’s worth noting that he’s struggled at the line, making just 21 of 38 freebies, but Castleton has two full years of making about 80 percent of his free throws on his record, and that skill spanned his last year at Michigan and first at Florida. Worry if you want, but this stretch would seem aberrant.)

It all begins with his footwork, the likes of which can be seen on his dunk to retake the lead for the Gators to open the second half against the Seminoles. Oftentimes, it may appear fairly simple, but the fundamentals for a player his size are rarer than you’d think.

As Florida’s offense continues to evolve and — hopefully — produce at a high level, you can bet that Castleton’s varied abilities to attack the paint will be a major focal point.