clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

SEC Basketball Preview: Will Florida change directions under new leadership?

Previewing the No. 6 team in the SEC, the Florida Gators.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament- Florida vs Texas A&M Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida Basketball underwent a wild transformation this past offseason. One could argue the Gator basketball program was the second best basketball program in the SEC. The Gators are only 7th in the SEC in all-time wins but have more Final Four appearances than everyone except Arkansas and Kentucky, and more Championships than everyone except Kentucky. So, expectations in Gainesville, especially post-Billy Donovan era, are different.

Which is why Mike White, after a mostly successful seven-year run leading the Gators, opted for a soft landing a little further up north in Athens, Georgia. Rather than enter a hot seat year after missing the tournament for just the second time in seven seasons - in a year when his best player missed six games, mind you - he left for a far worse job and a much bigger rebuild.

But while the Gators were good under White, he never really broke through. Being on the fringes of the NCAA Tournament is not what Gator fans were used to, and you could sense patience was wearing thin. So, White safely parachutes out and it allows Florida to reset. Let’s see how they’ve done.


Previous SEC Previews

Florida Preview

#6 Florida Gators

Last Season: 20 - 14 (9-9 in conference) No. 59 KenPom

My Prediction: 17 - 13 (9-9 in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 10.7 - 7.3 (6th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 7th in conference

KenPom Projection: 17 - 12 (9-9 in conference) No. 35

Syndication: Florida Times-Union Matt Pendleton / USA TODAY NETWORK

HEAD COACH: Todd Golden | 1st Season, 0-0

For a couple years running, Todd Golden has been the hot name of young coaches preparing to make the jump to a high major job. A former St. Mary’s guard, Golden latched himself onto the Kyle Smith train when Smith was revolutionizing Columbia basketball. After a brief stop at Auburn to learn from Bruce Pearl, Golden followed Smith to San Francisco where the two changed the trajectory of Dons Basketball. The history of USF hoops is rich, but in recent seasons it’s become increasingly more difficult to win there. After a self-imposed death penalty in the early 1980s, the Dons made the NCAA Tournament just one time in 1998. That is until last year, when Golden finished off the rebuild started under Smith.

The Dons peaked in 2022. They finished the season 23rd in Kenpom.com, won 24 games and played a wildly fun OT game against Murray State in the NCAA Tournament. Golden was an important cog, not only in taking over the head coaching duties once Smith left, but he’d also had a hand in assembling Smith’s roster. Built upon a fresh approach to recruiting with proprietary analytics, Golden has become a bit of a poster boy for the modern analytics-based approach to coaching in College Basketball.

Seat Temp: FRESH

sec conference preview florida 10 year look 2022

Even at his worst, Mike White was steady. The Gators were never bad under his watch. In 2017, they reached a high point with a group of recruits mostly from the Donovan era, combined with a smattering of additions by White. The low point was last season when the roster was deep with up-transfers. For a program so accustomed to attracting NBA talent year after year, the lack of overall talent was surprising to watch.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Phlandrous Fleming graduation 34 68.18% 15.71% 16.25% 16.44%
Tyree Appleby transfer 34 68.03% 15.46% 13.93% 16.28%
Anthony Duruji graduation 30 53.65% 10.71% 10.96% 9.77%
Brandon McKissic graduation 34 60.15% 8.25% 6.96% 9.89%
Tuongthach Gatkek transfer 21 11.90% 1.46% 2.02% 1.70%
Elijah Kennedy transfer 23 10.80% 1.29% 0.08% 2.32%
54.54% 52.88% 50.20% 56.40%

In order to patch the roster last year, Mike White filled in with some experienced transfers. The method had worked before with the addition of Tyree Appleby. The Cleveland State transfer transitioned right into a key role for the Gators as a junior, back when you had to sit out a year. His efficiency dipped but only slightly and his minutes stayed the same; he was just utilized less. For two straight seasons Appleby put up double-digit points with an efficiency over 100 and a true shooting percentage in the mid-50s, and that sort of consistency is hard to replace.

The production of Anthony Duruji may be easier to replace, but his energy will be missed. Duruji transferred in from Louisiana Tech as an athletic forward who was good for 12 points and 6 boards. At Florida, that turned into 8 & 4, but he was a good defender and brought consistent energy.

After successful careers at Charleston Southern and UMKC, respectively, Phlandrous Fleming and Brandon McKissic tried their luck at a higher level. Fleming was the more successful of the two because he was able to get to the free throw line consistently. However, his shooting dipped. Meanwhile, McKissic’s shooting fell off a cliff. A 43% shooter from outside in his last year with Kansas City, that dropped to 24.3% last season. He was sound defensively, but the offensive struggles were notable.

Both Elijah Kennedy and Tuongthach Gatkek transferred to Texas State after seeing limited minutes last season.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Colin Castleton G-SR POST 28 62.70% 18.88% 59.10% 22.37%
Myreon Jones G-SR WING 33 67.30% 11.63% 49.70% 10.29%
Kowacie Reeves SO WING 29 32.92% 6.63% 53.80% 5.36%
Jason Jitoboh SR POST 18 13.72% 3.04% 65.10% 3.75%
CJ Felder SR CF 30 26.64% 4.33% 63.00% 5.54%
Niels Lane JR WING 21 23.28% 2.63% 58.60% 2.62%
Alex Klatsky R-JR WING 7 0.73% 0.00% 0.00% -0.04%
45.46% 47.14% 49.89%
NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament- Florida vs Texas A&M Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Colin Castleton | SENIOR | POST

There would be sportswriters lining up to pick Colin Castleton as the preseason SEC Player of the Year if Oscar Tshiebwe didn’t exist. Castleton is a very good college post player in the most classic sense. After two ho-hum seasons at Michigan, Castleton transferred back to be closer to home. His 3.1 ppg at Michigan jumped to 12.4 as a junior at Florida, then 16.2 last season as a senior.

Over the last two seasons, Castleton has attempted just 10 three-pointers, and did not make one. He’s best known for his acumen with his back to the basket. Like most back-to-the-basket type big men, he’s actually more efficient as a cutter and a roll man than in a post-up. His 0.912 points per possession (Per SynergyStats) on post-ups is good... for a post-up. As a roll man on a pick-and-roll that possession efficiency jumps to 1.265. Todd Golden knows the numbers, and now he knows Castleton. I’d expect to see fewer true back to the basket post-ups and much more of Castleton moving through space. Still, starting your roster reset by bringing back and All-SEC big man for his 5th year is a good way to go.

After transferring in from Penn State, Myreon Jones was expected to be the solution to the Gators’ outside shooting struggles. In need of some help from distance, Jones’ shooting was supposed to help. Instead, it was a bit of a hindrance. As a sophomore and junior at Penn State Jones shot 39.8% from outside, which slumped to 32.1% at UF. In conference games, however, it improved to 36%, which also may explain how the Gators were able to exceed some expectations.

CJ Felder transferred in from Boston College and struggled with fluctuating playing time. He’s a big wing, combo forward who was mainly used as a spot-up guy last year, but is good in transition and when he’s moving towards the basket. Though, he’s not a guy you want breaking down the defense. Niels Lane is an off the ball guard who missed some time early in the season but found a role down the stretch. He’s not a big scorer but an adequate defender and smart enough player to know what shots are his. Jason Jitoboh is back for a senior season where he’s been mostly used as a defensive substitution for the last three years, and likely to be that player again.

Alex Klatsky enters his fourth season with the Gators as a walk on.

NCAA Basketball: Georgia at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kowacie Reeves | SOPHOMORE | WING

The benefit to taking over a roster at Florida is there’s usually some level of young talent on the roster, and talent which hasn’t quite broken out yet. When Mike White took over, he had Chris Chiozza and Devin Robinson, and White left Kowacie Reeves for Todd Golden. A top 50 level combo guard coming out of high school, Reeves picked Florida over Clemson, Alabama, Stanford, and Arkansas. But he took a while to get comfortable at the SEC level. With an early tough non-conference schedule, Reeves was left on the bench for matchups against Florida State, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Maryland. But he got things going, albeit sporadically, after SEC play started.

When Reeves has his outside jumper working, he’s a tough matchup. He’s a slippery but physical 6’6 guard who is more comfortable off the ball but handles it well enough with a low turnover rate. If Reeves is consistent, he won’t just be in line to start, but he could be a prime candidate for the Sophomore jump.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Riley Kugel 6'5 185 ★★★★ 83 WING
FR Denzel Aberdeen 6'5 180 ★★★ 145 CG
FR Aleks Szymczyk 6'10 240 NR NR POST
SO Alex Fudge 6'9 194 TRANSFER LSU CF
SO Will Richard 6'4 206 TRANSFER Belmont CG
JR Trey Bonham 6'0 170 TRANSFER VMI PG
SR Kyle Lofton 6'3 186 GRAD TRANSFER St. Bonaventure CG

Looking for a way to make a more immediate impact, Golden spent a hefty amount of time targeting transfers over prioritizing high school players. While he did land a few talented freshmen, the important portal additions should see a more immediate impact on the game day roster, starting with Kyle Lofton. A graduate senior, Lofton spent the previous four seasons at St. Bonaventure where he accumulated over 1,600 points in 4,400-plus minutes and 116 games with 116 starts. He was... consistent. Lofton averaged over 14 points per game each year until his senior season when it plummeted to 12.8 ppg. The culprit was his three-point shooting coupled with a couple fewer free throw attempts per game.

Also coming via transfer is VMI import Trey Bonham, a high energy point guard from one of the top offenses in mid-major land. He wasn’t a great shooter but scored well inside the arc and had a very good (1.8:1) assist to turnover ratio. He should step in as the starting Point Guard right away. Lengthy former 4-star combo forward Alex Fudge comes in after transferring from LSU. He had a limited role with the Tigers but was playing behind 4-year starter Darius Days and future 1st round NBA Draft pick Tari Eason. Fudge has talent, he was a top 60 level player before reclassifying a year ahead and going to LSU to sit behind two future pros. So, adding Fudge is basically like adding a freshman with a little college experience and a 50ish rating.

Adding Will Richard from Belmont was seen as a bit of a coup for Golden, and early on in the portal season. As a freshman at one of the best Mid-Major schools, Richard averaged 12.1 points and started all but the first three games. More importantly he flashed a lot of talent and huge upside. For Richard he’s going to need to find some consistency, but he certainly projects as a potential NBA level player as a 6’4 combo guard. The good news is he won’t have a ton of pressure to perform right away thanks to Bonham and Lofton.

Then there are the freshmen. Riley Kugel originally committed to Mississippi State and Ben Howland as a 6’5 off the ball guard with good athleticism. A fringe top-150 player in the fall of 2021, Kugel rose steadily up the charts over the course of his senior season finishing ranked 84th in the 247sports.com composite ranking. Denzel Aberdeen, a 6’4 combo guard from Orlando, Florida, bought into the Florida program under Mike White and stuck with his commitment with Todd Golden.

The last newcomer is Aleks Szymczyk, a 6’10 forward from Germany. There isn’t a lot of scouting information on Szymczyk, but if there’s one thing you can trust with Todd Golden it’s overseas prospects. San Francisco was built on the backs of international prospects just like Szymczyk. There may not be a lot of information on him to start, but I’d expect Szymczyk to make some level of impact before his time at UF is done.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Trey Bonham Denzel Aberdeen
(2) Combo Guard Kyle Lofton Will Richard Riley Kugel
(3) Wing Kowacie Reeves Myreon Jones Niels Lane
(4) Combo Forward CJ Felder Alex Fudge
(5) Post Colin Castleton Jason Jitoboh Aleksander Szymczyk

While Todd Golden has options, he doesn’t have a ton of them at lead guard, which is why it makes the most sense to lead with Trey Bonham. There are other ball handlers on the roster, but Bonham is the only true point guard. Lofton shared ball handling duties at St. Bonaventure, but with his consistency in scoring he should start in the back court with Bonham. But the options at wing are where this roster is the most intriguing, with Reeves, Aberdeen, Richard, Kugel, Jones, Lane, and Fudge all capable of swinging through at least a couple positions there. Felder is more locked into the 4-spot, but Golden could opt to go with a smaller more flexible lineup and push Reeves to the 4 and use both Jones and Richard on the wing. Colin Castleton is locked in and will play the bulk of the minutes in the post.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 17-13 | KenPom Projected Record: 17-12

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 7 Home Stony Brook 285 W
Nov 11 Home Kennesaw State 209 W
Nov 14 Home Florida Atlantic University 89 W
Nov 18 Away Florida State 65 L
Nov 24 Neutral Xavier 38 W
Nov 25 Neutral Duke/Oregon State 15 / 228 L
Nov 27 Neutral TBA -
Nov 30 Home Florida A&M 356 W
Dec 4 Home Stetson 313 W
Dec 7 Home Connecticut 27 L
Dec 14 Neutral Ohio 205 W
Dec 20 Neutral Oklahoma 28 L
Jan 28 Away Kansas State 77 W
avg 193.6 8-4

Florida has never been shy about scheduling, not under Billy Donovan, not under Mike White, and now the early returns on Golden show the same. After a few warmups contests the Gators jump right into their annual series against Florida State. The Gators won last year for the first time since 2013, losing seven straight games to Leonard Hamilton. Then right after they make a trip to Portland, Oregon to play in the Phil Knight Legacy tournament against Xavier. A tough matchup in of itself, if the Gators win they’ll likely meet up with Duke. And Gonzaga, West Virginia and Purdue all await in the bottom half of the bracket. Coming out of there with two wins would be a terrific achievement, as long as you can win the first game. Then a home game against UConn looms, in 2019 the Gators made the trip to Storrs and played in a tight contest in the early days of Dan Hurley’s rebuild. With the Huskies further along it will stack up to be a very tough test for Golden and his own rebuild. Last there are two Big 12 matchups, one against Oklahoma in the Jumpman Classic in North Carolina, and then a road trip to face Kansas State, only dropping four games with this non-conference schedule would be an achievement.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Dec 28 Away Auburn 13 L
Jan 4 Home Texas A&M 45 W
Jan 7 Home Georgia 93 W
Jan 10 Away LSU 40 L
Jan 14 Home Missouri 41 W
Jan 18 Away Texas A&M 45 L
Jan 21 Away Mississippi State 53 L
Jan 25 Home South Carolina 78 W
Feb 1 Home Tennessee 4 W
Feb 4 Away Kentucky 1 L
Feb 8 Away Alabama 18 L
Feb 11 Home Vanderbilt 66 W
Feb 15 Home Ole Miss 49 W
Feb 18 Away Arkansas 14 L
Feb 22 Home Kentucky 1 W
Feb 25 Away Vanderbilt 66 L
Feb 28 Away Georgia 93 L
Mar 4 Home LSU 40 W
avg 42.22 9-9

Florida annually catches no breaks by having Kentucky on their schedule twice, but with Vanderbilt and Georgia there, it’s generally helped Florida to notch a few extra wins also. This year those three teams are joined by Texas A&M (a potential tournament team) and LSU (a hopeful tournament team) in the Home-and-Home slate. The home slate presents a few challenges with Tennessee and Kentucky, but if the Gators can hold serve there and find a way to pick off a few of the bad teams on the road, there’s a path to 11 or 12 wins. Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Georgia are all games UF can win.

OVERVIEW

Any time you hire a new coach it’s generally a crap shoot. Even with Mike White, most thought it was the perfect fit for the Gators. He was a young, up and coming coach with SEC familiarity and had won pretty big at Louisiana Tech. And by all accounts he got off to a good start, but it’s really difficult to win in this league. And while White won, he didn’t win big.

Todd Golden hasn’t won as much as a head coach as White did prior to taking the job. He has nearly the same amount of experience, but the one big difference is Golden bought into Kyle Smith. Smith has won everywhere he’s gone, and he’s always somewhere unconventional. Columbia, San Francisco, and Washington State are not exactly basketball powerhouses, but Florida is.

At worst, the UF program is a top 6 program in the SEC. Adding a young upstart like Golden to that mix... it’s just incredibly hard to predict how this will turn out. National writers love this hire, but those same writers said the same things about Mike White.

So is Golden ready for this type of job?

There’s been plenty written this offseason about how he’s rebuilding Florida. He’s changing how they recruit and how they look at their play on the court. He’s said all the right things, and even had national writers follow him around during a recruiting live period.

NCAA Basketball: Belmont at Murray State Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

And this team could be pretty good. But last year’s team was pretty good.

There are just as many questions as there are answers when you look up and down the roster objectively. It’s a roster built upon potential, with an anchor of a guy in the middle.

So much of the talk around this team will revolve around Colin Castleton. And with good reason. Castleton has been outstanding each of the last two seasons, and he’s likely to have another big year. But we know what Castleton is capable of, for the Gators its more about what we don’t know.

After Castleton, the next most consistent player at the high major level is Myreon Jones, who was statistically mediocre last year. Kyle Lofton has been good for four years, but he’s never really been a particularly good shooter, nor has he been the primary driver of offense.

While there are several high upside plays, like Will Richard and Alex Fudge, you’re asking Colin Castleton to paper over quite a bit of questions through the rest of the roster.

At San Francisco last year, Golden had two dynamic lead guards with experience in Khalil Shabazz and Jamaree Bouyea. They floated around a skilled big man in Yauhen Massalski, and those three combined to score around 45 points per game. With Castleton in the middle, now Golden has 13 of that equation. But he needs his guards to step up in a big way.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

Todd Golden has been very good for the last few years of building a consistent defense with efficient offense. Now with Trey Bonham and Kyle Lofton, both capable point guards, and an exciting young wing in Kowacie Reeve, plus as reliable of a big as there is in the country in Colin Castleon and you have enough to be in the mix for an NCAA berth in year one. If players like Will Richard, Alex Fudge, and Riley Kugel excel, then this is a team who can make some noise beyond just reaching the tournament.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

For the better part of five seasons the Gators have been underachievers, and while there is experience at guard, and some young wings, there’s just not enough known quantities to think it’s enough for a program mired in mediocrity to get the jolt it needs.


About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick for the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in “the Masses” picks. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.

If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.


GLOSSARY

* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player

GP - Games Played

%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury

%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team

%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.

%pts - percentage of teams points scored

ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.