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Florida vs. Kansas State, Game Thread: Gators face Keyontae Johnson, Wildcats

Florida’s tough test in Manhattan goes beyond meeting its former star.

Syndication: The Topeka Capital-Journal Evert Nelson/The Capital-Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK

In the interest of honesty and transparency: I do not have a full understanding of how I feel about the chapter of a story still being told that is Florida seeing Keyontae Johnson again — in a Kansas State uniform, suited up against the Gators — just over two years removed from the most frightening event I have seen during a sporting event I was actively watching.

I’ve been thinking about that all week, and I cannot summon the words to fully convey my feelings. So I’m not going to really try, at least not today. I am going to focus on the basketball game.

Of course: That, too, requires focusing on Keyontae Johnson.

Key — always Key, at least to me — is, well, one of the keys to Kansas State’s stunning emergence as one of the best teams in a legendarily great Big 12. He leads the Wildcats in scoring (18.3 points per game), rebounding (7.5 RPG), and game-changing clutch o’clock alley-oop finishes, and if he’s not the primary reason that Jerome Tang’s team is 17-3 in Tang’s first season as a head coach after a long stint as Scott Drew’s assistant at Baylor, he is either 1A or 1B to Markquis Nowell.

There is the temptation to say that Keyontae’s better now than he ever was, but the truth is that his stats look uncannily like his stats from his time at Florida: He’s still making about 60 percent of his twos, about 39 percent of his threes, about 75 percent of his free throws, and rebounding around 20 percent of available defensive boards and seven percent of available offensive boards. Put his 2019-20 and 2022-23 lines next to each other, and the differences are essentially a little more usage, a few more assists and turnovers, and some more fouls — committed and drawn — as a Wildcat.

That return to a form that made him the 2020-21 SEC Preseason Player of the Year and a potential NBA lottery pick would be remarkable enough for its unfathomability alone if K-State were 3-17.

Yet K-State is 17-3 — and while it won’t stay No. 5 in next week’s AP Poll after falling earlier this week to Iowa State, it is a legitimate contender in the Big 12 and for a top-line seed in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. And that is because Nowell has also been incredible: The Little Rock transfer is second nationally in assists per game, is making 39 percent of his own threes, is racking up steals, and is compensating for some quintessential little guard woes as an interior finisher — Nowell is 5’8”, and making 43 percent of his twos — by posting an 88 percent clip from the line while garnering about six free throws per game.

It is entirely arguable that Johnson and Nowell are the best duo of players in America, and they have complimented each other beautifully — Johnson being more consistent, Nowell more explosive — in leading the Wildcats.

What makes Kansas State a team whose wins outstrip its statistical profile is that the roster beyond those two has not been all that good. Nae’Qwan Tomlin and Desi Sills help fill out a top five that is maybe the nation’s best assortment of names, but while the 6’10” Tomlin is a force inside and the 6’2” Sills is an excellent finisher, neither is much of a three-point shooter, with both hovering around 25 percent from three on the year. Fellow 6’2” guard Cam Carter is only at 33 percent, and stretch four Ishmael Massoud, hitting 52 percent of his threes, does very little else on the court. Big man Abayomi Iyiola — another All-Name Team nominee — struggles to stay on the court, fouling three or more times in seven of the Wildcats’ last nine.

Apart from Johnson and Nowell, this is a lineup of specialists and role players rather than all-around performers.

And the 17-3 record is kind of smoke and mirrors: K-State has four overtime wins that could obviously have easily been losses, and its one win by more than 10 points in Big 12 play was one of the year’s flukiest games, a 116-103 victory over Texas — one in which both teams were white-hot from the field and made at least 22 free throws.

To look at the Wildcats from an analytically-minded lens is to credit their three-point defense — which has held down percentages but not done a lot to limit attempts — and the battery of Johnson and Nowell for overachieving and earning a top-10 season based on a top-25 profile. But that is also the sort of exercise that leads me to anticipate some regression to the mean; K-State being No. 26 in KenPom’s Luck stat — which, as long-time readers will remember, measures distance from expected results — suggests that the outstanding outputs have outpaced the inputs.

What that doesn’t mean is that Florida will be assisting in any adjustments of those numbers. Colin Castleton should have ample opportunity to do damage today, and the Gators could make a lot of hay inside against a team that has given up a lot of offensive rebounds and plenty of chances at the line. But Florida’s unlikely to be as dominant inside the arc as Iowa State — which made about 70 percent of its twos and also trotted to the foul line often — did in beating K-State in Ames earlier this week, and the Gators’ inability to consistently hit threes means that their fortunes rely very heavily on what they do down low.

Florida does have a remarkable and rising defense, one with enough long-limbed guards to trouble Nowell — if they can stay in front of him — and plenty of tweeners to throw at Keyontae. Should the Gators keep one in check, they should be in this game for the long haul; neutralize both, somehow, and they might well have the upper hand.

But the basketball of this all doesn’t work like the circumstances do, and those stars seem aligned to give Keyontae Johnson another magical moment against a team and program that still adores him like he adores it.

Florida fans will be rooting for Florida, of course. But any Gator worth their breath will be about as happy with a loss in this one as they have ever been.

And regardless of the result, there is much joy to be had in seeing Key ball out once more.