If there’s been one thing the Florida Gators could count on this season, that’s their three freshmen.
The trio of Andrew Nembhard, Noah Locke and Keyontae Johnson have been as reliable as anyone on the team while playing extensive minutes in their first year. There are always some lumps when young players become the leaders of a team, but Florida could not have asked for much more from its freshmen.
While it’s great for them to get so much valuable experience so early, there are also some downfalls. They have played at an elite level for a long time, but nothing can prepare an athlete for the gauntlet that is college basketball season in the SEC.
Their bodies and minds have been tested like never before, and it takes a toll on even the very best.
Now, with seven games remaining in the regular season, two of Florida’s freshmen are especially battered.
Mike White revealed Locke has been playing through injury for nearly two months while Nembhard is dealing with tendinitis.
The two didn’t even practice in the days leading up to the Vanderbilt game (which could explain a lot about their lack of production on Wednesday), and they have been very limited since then.
An evident recent change in mindset from the bench players proved huge for the Gators earlier in the week and will continue to be needed, but the coaching staff also has to figure out a way to keep its best players on the floor without pushing them too far.
“I don’t think there’s an exact science to it,” White said. “We want [Locke] to be productive and drilled and prepared, but at the same time we’re trying to manage his exertion in practice on a daily basis. Andrew too. It’s a balancing act. They’ve got to do something today, otherwise I don’t know how they can be really productive tomorrow. But they can’t do too much, because then they can’t play too many minutes.”
While the season has worn down on their bodies, there’s never been a question of whether they would play through it or not.
The first word that came to Nembhard’s mind when trying to describe Locke was “warrior”. He hasn’t used injury as an excuse or a way to take a break from a tough stretch over the last few weeks. He’s just fought and moved forward.
That kind of toughness and accountability is rare for guys so young.
“I think their mentality is a little bit older, and that helps those guys, for sure, and you want as much of that as possible in your program,” White said. “Toughness in all walks of life and in sport is very, very valuable, both mental and physical. And those guys possess those things. Does it mean they’re perfect? They’re far from perfect, like all of us. They have stuff they’ve got to continue to work on. Like Kevarrius Hayes, with Andrew and Noah, you just don’t question mental and physical toughness.”
One reason for that might just be the tight-knit relationship Florida’s freshmen share. They were close even before they arrived on campus, and now that they’re living and playing together, the bond has only gotten stronger.
They have relied on one another heavily throughout the season. It can be reassuring knowing there’s two other guys fighting the same fight.
“I think we just feed of each other and give each other ideas,” Nembhard said. “If we’re going through something, we just talk to each other. They’ve been great for me, just to have other guys going through the same thing.”