ESPN lists Florida’s defense as one of the early surprises in college basketball

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There was little doubt that Florida had a talented basketball team this season. In addition to returning key players from last year in Colin Castleton, Anthony Duruji and Tyree Appleby, it added an experienced transfer portal class that included two mid-major conference Defensive Players of the Year in Brandon McKissic and Phlandrous Fleming Jr., as well as Penn State‘s leading scorer in Myreon Jones.

Still, with so many new faces, the team didn’t enter the season with high expectations. After a 3-0 start that included a streak-snapping ranked win over Florida State, that’s starting to change.

In ESPN’s list of surprises, trends and overreactions from the first week and change of the college basketball season, Florida’s improved defense cracked the list.

What’s going on? Defensive solidity was the major tentpole of Mike White’s first four seasons at Florida. The Gators ranked in the top 25 nationally in defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com in each of his first four seasons, which helped them win five NCAA tournament games during that span. Over the past two seasons, that number fell. In 2020-21, when Florida entered the season with Final Four hopes, it ranked in the 60s nationally, and finished seventh in the SEC.

Florida wanted to get back to basics on the defensive end of the floor, so the Gators went out and signed the best defensive transfer class in the country. Brandon McKissic (Kansas City) and Phlandrous Fleming Jr. (Charleston) each won Defensive Player of the Year honors in their respective conferences last season, while CJ Felder (Boston College) blocked 2.2 shots per game and was one of the best defensive players in the ACC. Through two games, this team has made an impact. The Gators held Florida State to 0.81 points per possession over the weekend, including 35.1% from inside the arc.

Will it last? Some of the individual stats might slow down — i.e., Colin Castleton blocked six shots in each of his first two games — but Florida has the ingredients to be a highly effective defensive team. White has a history at that end of the floor, his top six players are veterans who know how to guard and there’s physical ability and versatility.

“They were much better defensively in that game against Florida State,” said one coach who scouted Florida last season and this season. “They have taken transfers that are much better on-ball defenders. Castleton has developed and become a hell of a rim protector. In the past, they haven’t been a good shell defensive team, and I think that still holds true from watching the two exhibitions, Elon and Florida State. They played hard. Give them credit. They guarded the s— out of Florida State.”

Between the play of Castleton, Duruji and the transfers, Florida’s defense certainly has been lockdown so far. Against Milwaukee on Thursday night, the team gave up 45 points and held potential lottery pick Patrick Baldwin Jr. to just 13.

UF needs to continue to improve on offense, and the shooting held the team back a bit in the first half against the Panthers. But this team has the potential to be one of the best that White has had in Gainesville, and it will look to keep up this level of play as the season goes on.

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