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Florida vs. Vanderbilt, Game Thread: Gators continue life without Colin Castleton

Florida’s won without its big man before. It will have to keep its intensity up to keep doing so.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

For the Florida Gators, life without Colin Castleton is an odd thing to consider.

Sure, he wasn’t even a surefire starter when he came to Florida from Michigan in the 2020 offseason — he was thought of, back then, as potential competition for the center role with Omar Payne — and wasn’t really a fulcrum of the Gators’ offense until Keyontae Johnson’s fateful collapse. (Castleton, unbelievable as this now seems, did not score in double figures in any game he played with Johnson.)

But now, in early 2022, Castleton feels like both the face and the spine of the Gators, who have increasingly relied on him as the anchor of their offense and defense, his wizardry in the post and as a rim protector often making him the top of opponents’ scouting reports on both ends.

So what is Florida without Castleton?

For starters — and surprisingly — it’s been a winning team. On Wednesday, against Mississippi State, Florida compensated for their big man’s absence due to a left shoulder injury that Florida coach Mike White termed “significant” with great shooting — 10-of-24 on threes and 24-for-30 at the free throw line — at spots that have troubled it this year. Last year, playing without Castleton against Tennessee, the Gators romped to a 75-49 win thanks to balanced scoring, incredibly interior efficiency (Florida made 19 of 33 two-pointers), and a swarming defense that forced 18 turnovers and collected 11 steals while allowing just 17 made baskets, with Payne adding five blocks as a substitute rim protector.

And those two games suggest Florida will have to amp up its pressures and do more driving to get production on both ends that rivals what it aims for with Castleton.

Getting to test these theories out against uneven Vanderbilt on Saturday (1 p.m., SEC Network or streaming) is at least a seemingly easier task than taking on some of the SEC’s elite squads.

The Commodores are 2-3 in SEC play, but their wins are over Arkansas during its bizarre 0-3 start and a Georgia team that is possibly the nation’s worst in a power conference. Those wins coming on the road and the losses at home during the school’s bizarre ban on its own students attending games could suggest there is some extra gas in the tank on the road for a team that has been essentially spited by its own administration.

But the ‘Dores simply don’t have a sterling track record when it comes to playing better teams, needing a flood of BYU turnovers and dramatic shooting advantages against Arkansas to win those games by single points — and they also have losses to VCU, Temple, and South Carolina teams that won’t be postseason-bound. Scotty Pippen Jr. still runs the show well for Vandy, but running mate Myles Stute is almost entirely a shooter and interior presence Quentin Millora-Brown is no threat from outside.

A Florida defense without Castleton has questions to answer about itself — but it answered Mississippi State’s rugged front line and crafty Iverson Molinar well, and Vandy does not quite operate on that level. If the Gators come out with intensity and shoot decent percentages, they should be able to continue their winning ways sans their big guy.