Florida’s 2021-22 men’s basketball season started with six straight wins and significant optimism, both balms for a program that had suffered, struggled, and strived against tough circumstances for almost all of its 2020-21 campaign.
Now, as January ends, these Gators are going through a season almost as tough — and Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State (4 p.m., ESPN2 or streaming) is sure to be seen as a point of inflection.
Already down one scholarship player at the season’s outset, thanks to the continued lack of medical clearance for Keyontae Johnson — whose collapse shadowed the Gators last year, and whose presence as “Coach Key” can only do so much for a team that would obviously be expected to be far better with his talents on display on the court — the Florida frontcourt has been decimated in recent weeks, with a shoulder injury to Colin Castleton sidelining him for the Gators’ last four games, illness keeping C.J. Felder to just three minutes in Florida’s last two games, and an injury to Jason Jitoboh’s eye knocking him out of the Gators’ loss to Tennessee on Wednesday and, per Mike White on Friday, ending his season.
Felder is expected to be available for the Gators against Oklahoma State, but not having Castleton or Jitoboh brings Florida’s number of true centers down to zero, and leaves Felder and Anthony Duruji as undersized power forwards who will play alongside Tuongthach Gatkek to form a front line without a single player weighing over 231 pounds.
This is, to put it lightly, a challenge the Gators may find difficult to overcome for the rest of the year, with Gatkek’s skills as a leaper and shot-blocker paling in comparison to the problems posed by any true low-post threats to his wiry frame and neither Felder nor Duruji considered a shutdown individual defender.
And the Gators, who have gone small and smaller in Castleton’s absence — and then Castleton and Jitoboh’s absences — do not even seem likely to realize all of the potential advantages of playing smallball, either. Tyree Appleby rates as this team’s only exceptional creator off the bounce, with Brandon McKissic and Myreon Jones often struggling to be playmakers thus far this season, and the only Gators shooting 35 percent or better from three are Felder and Duruji, each of whom are getting their looks via others’ creation.
An Oklahoma State team with a wealth of long-armed and athletic defenders that ranks 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom coming into this game could very well give Florida fits if it can bog down the Gators’ offense and play in the half court — and the up-tempo Cowboys offense could very well tire out Florida’s rotation, which Mike White will construct from just 10 available scholarship players.
Making matters worse, Oklahoma State’s shooting-challenged offense may have gotten a shot in the arm that could be a sustaining force thanks to Avery Anderson exploding for a career-high 34 points in an overtime loss to Iowa State earlier this week. Anderson has gone from pyrotechnic to poor already this season — he had 55 points in two games in December, then seven straight games in single digits — but the Cowboys have desperately needed a go-to player to step up this season after losing do-everything superstar and 2021 NBA Draft No. 1 pick Cade Cunningham to the pros, and Anderson is the best candidate for that role.
Florida’s own defense could certainly come to play and meet the challenge of once again quieting Anderson; the Gators will assuredly be playing like their season is on the line in this one if they have any gas left in the tank after playing their past four games in a stretch of eight days. But without their best and biggest players, this — and every other game from here on in — should be a game that Florida really has to work to win.