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SEC Basketball Preview: #8 Florida Gators

Previewing the No. 8 team in the SEC, the Florida Gators.

NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

Two summers ago Todd Golden was the golden boy coach. He had steered San Francisco to their best finish in years, had landed one of the best jobs available in the spring, and had national writers following him around doing a performative dance about his analytics based approach to recruiting.

But the season started and the Gators were worse than they were the year before under Mike White, who took the job at Georgia to get out from under the hot seat. Florida wasn’t bad, they just weren’t particularly good, either. They had no losses to teams outside of 81st in KenPom.com’s ratings, but they also only had three wins over teams inside the top 100, and just one win over a top 25 team. That’s the definition of a “meh” season, especially for Florida, which is still thought of as a top tier job.

There were some bumps, as star center Colin Castleton missed the last 7 games and the Gators went 2-5 without him. But before he got hurt they lost three of their previous four games. So it's hard to put any descent on his loss. More, the Gators just didn’t look like a particularly well put together basketball team last year, and Castleton was able to bandaid over some of that for some of the year, just not against good teams.

So it’s with a keen eye we take a look this year’s version of the Florida Gators.


Previous SEC Previews:

Florida Preview

#8 Florida Gators

Last Season: 16 - 17 (9-9 in conference) No. 74 KenPom

My Prediction: 19 - 12 (9-9, 8th in conference)

The Masses Prediction: 8.6 - 9.4 (9th in conference)

SEC Media Prediction: 8th in conference

KenPom Projection: 18-12 (9-9 in conference) No. 39

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

HEAD COACH: Todd Golden | 2nd Season, 16-17

As important as it is to look closely at Todd Golden’s failures last season, it’s equally important to look at what got him into the position of being the Gators head coach in the first place.

Golden built a winning program in San Francisco on top of a foundation built by his mentor Kyle Smith. After a playing career at Saint Mary’s and a short professional career in Israel, Golden landed on Smith’s staff at Columbia University in the Ivy League in 2012 and then spent a few seasons on staff at Auburn before moving with Smith when he took the job at San Francisco. There, Golden and Smith worked together to build a unique roster focusing on under-recruited guards, international wings and bigs, and they took a team ranked 205th the year before Smith took the job to 23rd when Golden left for Florida. That included the final four years all being inside the top 100.

Golden’s reputation began to grow a few years ago and he was quickly targeted by Florida once their job opened, and the courtship was brief. And while the first year was bumpy, expectations in Gainesville are still very high.

Seat Temp: COOL

florida gators 10 year look preview 2023

A bit of a Mike White effect as the last remnants of the Billy Donovan era are still hanging on within the last 10 years. But it does show how things have changed. In 2014 the Gators went to a Final Four, three years later White took them to an Elite 8. But since then, nothing past the second round, and decent although uneven results. In some ways it shows just how good the Donovan era was that we still think Florida should be good all these years later. Even with White being a bit disappointing, he was still a tournament team every season except his first and last. So Golden’s miss last year was just the third since Donovan left, but also the second in a row and the fourth miss in nine years. If the Gators miss this year that’s a .500 batting average over the last 10 years.

SO, WHO’S GONE?

name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
name reason GP %min %pts %ov %poss
Colin Castleton graduation 26 61.13% 17.65% 20.98% 17.46%
Kyle Lofton transfer 31 76.00% 11.44% 12.60% 12.56%
Kowacie Reeves transfer 31 45.28% 11.23% 7.60% 11.34%
Alex Fudge professional 32 46.72% 7.91% 6.93% 9.32%
Trey Bonham transfer 30 29.96% 7.10% 6.38% 7.36%
Myreon Jones graduation 33 54.11% 7.57% 9.54% 8.38%
Jason Jitoboh transfer 32 27.77% 4.21% 3.87% 4.49%
Niels Lane transfer 14 9.21% 1.40% 0.90% 1.72%
CJ Felder transfer 15 14.26% 1.49% 1.75% 1.61%
72.89% 70.00% 70.55% 74.24%

The turnover is high with this one. Nearly 73% of the minutes played last season were by players who are not returning, led by All-SEC forward Colin Castleton. After being lightly used at Michigan, Castleton transferred back home to Florida and was an immediate impact player as a junior in 2021. His production jumped to 12.4 points per game with a 118.0 offensive rating to a 16.2 ppg output as a senior, and then 16 ppg last year. In 26 games last year Castleton had 12 KenPom.com MVPs and as previously mentioned, without Castleton the Gators lost five of seven games.

Kyle Lofton transferred in after a stellar career at St. Bonaventure and started all 31 games he was available while scoring a little over 8 ppg and struggling to shoot from outside. Behind him in experience and minutes was Myreon Jones, a former Penn State transfer who stuck around his grad season at Florida for Golden’s first year. Jones was a former 40% three point shooter for the Nittany Lions but shot around 32% the last few years. Kowacie Reeves was a former top 30 recruit who’s now at Georgie Tech after two uneven seasons in Gainesville.

If there were two players who were disappointing additions last year it was Trey Bonham and Alex Fudge. Bonham transferred from VMI after a really productive sophomore year, but his production didn’t scale up. He’s back with his former coach who took the Tennessee-Chattanooga job. Fudge was a former 4-star recruit who committed to LSU and Will Wade, then transferred back home to Florida last year. He’s got the physical profile of an exciting player but has never put it on the court with production. So the choice to turn professional was certain an interesting one.

The trio of Jason Jitoboh, Niels Lane, and CJ Felder were all Mike White holdovers who opted to transfer after struggling to crack the rotation under Golden.

THEN, WHO’S BACK?

player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
player year pos gp %min %pts ts% %ov
Will Richard JR WING 32 67.40% 14.16% 65.09% 16.19%
Riley Kugel SO WING 32 55.55% 13.53% 55.49% 11.54%
Aleks Szymczyk SO POST 14 8.23% 1.28% 48.26% 1.07%
Denzel Aberdeen SO CG 12 3.02% 0.81% 47.60% 0.44%
Alex Klatsky R-SR WING 6 0.75% 0.13% 150.00% 0.21%
Jack May R-JR WING 6 0.60% 0.09% 50.00% -0.01%
27.11% 30.00% 29.44%
NCAA Basketball: Kentucky at Florida Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

Riley Kugel | SOPHOMORE | WING

Any optimism centered around the Florida Gators likely rests on the shoulders of Riley Kugel, a player many are expecting to take the sophomore jump after he flashed big time ability down the stretch. Kugels combination of size, athleticism, and potential has landed him on many early NBA Draft Board watch lists. But not all players drafted are done so based upon their college production, and Kugel needs to have a big year for Florida to put themselves into the NCAA Tournament conversation.

He scored 12 points or more in the last 10 games of the season and many scouts were in awe during his 24 point burst against Kentucky, a team brimming with NBA talent. Kugel shot 4-6 from deep, and got to the free throw line 7 times as he led the Gators back from a double-digit deficit to nearly clip the Wildcats. It’s that kind of performance, on a more regular basis, that many envision when they see the Gators as a dangerous team this season.

The interesting thing about Kugel and expectations is that Will Richard, the Belmont transfer, was actually the better and more consistent player for most of the year. Richard finished the season averaging more points and rebounds than Kugel. But where Kugel caught fire late, Richard struggled more during the SEC slate. Richard was a bit hit and miss with a couple high games, but far too often he was held in single digits, exasperating the Florida offensive issues.

Only Kugel and Richard were impact players last year, Aleks Szymczyk barely played until late when the season looked a bit lost, and Castleton’s season was over. After playing 14 minutes in the first 26 games, Szymczyk’s playing time jumped and he held his own as a rotational big. Denzel Aberdeen never played more than 10 minutes in a game and will be fighting for reserve minutes at the guard spot. Alex Klatsky and Jack May return as walk ons.

AND, WHO’S NEW?

class player ht wt rating ranking pos
class player ht wt rating ranking pos
FR Thomas Haugh 6'9 210 ★★★ 185 POST
FR Alex Condon 6'11 230 ★★★ 214 POST
FR Kajus Kublickas 6'2 171 NR NR CG
SO Micah Handlogten 7'1 235 TRANSFER Marshall POST
JR Walter Clayton Jr 6'2 195 TRANSFER Iona CG
G-SR Zyon Pullin 6-4 206 TRANSFER UC-Riverside CG
G-SR Julian Rishwain 6'5 200 TRANSFER San Francisco WING
G-SR Tyrese Samuel 6'10 235 TRANSFER Seton Hall POST
NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament First Round-Iona vs UCONN David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Walter Clayton, Jr | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD

It’s hard to say no to Rick Pitino, but that’s exactly what Walter Clayton Jr. did this last offseason when the former Iona guard turned down a scholarship offer to follow his coach to St. Johns in order to play back closer to home with the Gators. Clayton grew up just south of Orlando in Lake Wales and chose Iona coming out of high school with the chance to play for a coach like Pitino. But after averaging 16 ppg during his sophomore season Clayton entered the transfer portal had the chance to play close to home and also provide something Florida really needed, consistent point guard play. Clayton is a shooter with his nation’s leading free throw percentage at 95.3%, and an over 40% three point shooting. He also doesn’t turn the ball over.

It remains to be seen how Clayton’s play scales up to the SEC, he’s not an explosive athlete in an athletic league, but shooting usually translates.

For the second straight year Todd Golden went hard in on the transfer portal again this spring and landed a collection of really intriguing pieces. Filling in on the depth of the backcourt is Riverside transfer Zyon Pullin, an 18.3 points per game scorer last year as a 4th year senior. Pullin looks to compete for the starting point guard role with Clayton but either way should see significant minutes. Golden also brought in a familiar face in San Fransisco transfer Julian Rishwain. A role player for 4 years for the Dons, Rishwain should provide some depth on the wing for Florida.

The portal also helped Golden bolster the interior as well. Although EJ Jarvis, a Yale transfer has already opted to quit basketball instead of completing his career at Florida. There’s not much telling on why Jarvis opted to quit playing but for sure the Gators were counting on Jarvis to be an impact player on the interior. Fortunately, they added Seton Hall transfer Tyrese Samuel as well, an 11 point and 6 rebound post who filled in nearly 70% of the minutes at the 5 for a solid Big East program last year. He’s not a replacement for Colin Castlton but he should be able to fill in at the four or five spot. There’s also Marshall transfer Micah Handlogten, a big with projectable upside. He was low usage at Marshall and his minutes could fluctuate but his combination of size and agility make him a player to watch.

Golden again signed a moderate freshman class. Both Thomas Haugh and Alex Condon are skilled bigs who are likely to be lightly used early, while Kajus Kublickas is a Lithuanian guard who will certainly be a developmental prospect.

DEPTH CHART

position starter backup third
position starter backup third
(1) Point Guard Walter Clayton Jr Zyon Pullin Kajus Kublickas
(2) Combo Guard Will Richard Denzel Aberdeen
(3) Wing Riley Kugel Julian Rishwain
(4) Combo Forward Aleks Szymczyk Thomas Haugh
(5) Post Tyrese Samuel Micah Handlogten Alex Condon

The depth chart provides some interesting options. For sure losing Jarvis is a blow as it reconfigures what was a pretty deep position already. With Samuel, Handlogten, Szymczyk, and multiple freshmen the interior should have options. The only issue is that Samuel is the only experience option, Handlogten was productive in a reduced role at Marshall, and Szymczyk was okay in spot minutes down the stretch but far from a difference maker.

Despite the options on the inside the strength of the Gators is in its guards. There are four very known quantities in Clayton, Pullin, Richard and Kugel. Kugel has enough size and athleticism that Golden could opt to try him as a small ball four with both Clayton and Pullin on the floor together. That lineup would be more dynamic offensively but might be a liability at the rim on defense.

SCHEDULE

My Projected Record: 19-12 | KenPom Projected Record: 18-12

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

NON-CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Nov 6 Home Loyola Maryland 303 W
Nov 10 Neutral Virginia 33 L
Nov 14 Home Florida A&M 344 W
Nov 17 Home Florida State 88 W
Nov 22 Neutral Pittsburgh 62 W
Nov 24 Neutral Baylor / Oregon State 7 / 175 L
Nov 29 Away Wake Forest 73 W
Dec 5 Home Merrimack 331 W
Dec 9 Neutral Richmond 126 W
Dec 14 Neutral East Carolina 130 W
Dec 19 Neutral Michigan 44 L
Dec 22 Home Grambling State 266 W
Dec 30 Home Quinnipiac 256 W
avg 171.3 10-3

Yes, I did try to find the most ridiculous picture of Tony Bennett I could locate. Two games into the season and Todd Golden is taking on one of the best coaches in College Basketball. Virginia has fallen back a bit since winning the national championship in 2019, but they’re still a strong ACC squad with a distinct playing style and a tough matchup early in the season.

Getting Florida State at home is a good thing, and Pittsburgh on a neutral court is a winnable game. But if you beat Pitt the next round of the NIT season tip off won’t get any easier with the likely opponent being Baylor. Move onto a rough road contest against Wake Forest and another neutral court game against Michigan and you can see how this non-con has some potential road blocks. The only advantage here is that only Baylor looks like a for sure top 25 team, so perhaps there’s a chance to get some decent wins on the schedule.

CONFERENCE

Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Date Location Opponent KenPom Proj W/L
Jan 6 Home Kentucky 18 L
Jan 10 Away Ole Miss 82 L
Jan 13 Home Arkansas 14 W
Jan 16 Away Tennessee 8 L
Jan 20 Away Missouri 55 L
Jan 24 Home Mississippi State 27 W
Jan 27 Home Georgia 57 W
Jan 31 Away Kentucky 18 L
Feb 3 Away Texas A&M 24 L
Feb 10 Home Auburn 15 W
Feb 13 Home LSU 47 W
Feb 17 Away Georgia 57 L
Feb 21 Away Alabama 10 L
Feb 24 Home Vanderbilt 79 W
Feb 28 Home Missouri 55 W
Mar 2 Away South Carolina 66 W
Mar 5 Home Alabama 10 W
Mar 9 Away Vanderbilt 79 L
avg 40.06 9-9

The Gators aren’t helped much by having to play Kentucky and Alabama as their home and home series. Georgia and Vanderbilt both project lower in the standings than UF, but Missouri seems to be right there with the Gators. The issue here is Florida’s January is pretty brutal. Opening with Kentucky at home is nearly a must win, then Ole Miss on the road should be a challenge, then Arkansas at home and then a fun road trip to Knoxville, followed with a trip to Missouri. If Golden isn’t careful the Gators could start out 0-5, which makes those two early home games pretty important.

OVERVIEW

Todd Golden is an analytics guy, with a deep staff and multiple data analysts there to look deep into the numbers. Here at Rock M Nation we pride ourselves on being data driven in our analysis. So I’ll start here by saying that after one season of data points from Todd Golden the results are unimpressive.

There was nothing about last year’s Florida Gators that was impressive. They were the very definition of mediocre with just one good win at home, while not losing to anybody bad. The Gators’ best win was a home win over Tennessee, after that it was a road win over 53rd ranked Mississippi State. Then a home win over 57th ranked Missouri. That was it, just three wins over top 100 teams. In contrast, first year head coach at Mississippi State Chris Jans had 7 such wins, Missouri’s Dennis Gates had 10 top 100 wins.

Golden is in the same boat as Georgia’s Mike White and LSU’s Matt McMahon with only three top 100 wins for a first year coach in the SEC. Lamont Paris had two wins. Being in the same company as three of the four worst teams in the league last year isn’t where you’d expect Florida to be, which is why there’s some skepticism around this more recent rebuild.

There are parts to like, but how will it fit together?

NCAA Basketball: SEC Conference Tournament Second Round - Mississippi State vs Florida Steve Roberts-USA TODAY Sports

Without Ed Jarvis the interior depth takes a hit but there are still plenty of bodies. How the rest of those bodies get deployed will be worth tracking since last season so much of last season the Gators relied upon the interior presence of Colin Castleton. This year there’s nobody like Castleton to fill in around the basket, whether it was his scoring, defense or rebounding. There are guys who will fill in around the basket, but how much you get from them is still a question. Samuel is the most known product, with Handlogten perhaps having the most upside. Just what Golden gets from his interior players may be the difference at the end of the season.

And that’s because there’s not much concern that the backcourt won’t be good. Some of that is projection, and some guess work about someone like Kugel taking a big sophomore step. Because if Will Richard and Riley Kugel are better than what they were last year, and Golden can get some consistent shooting from Walter Clayton and Zyon Pullin, then the backcourt is giving you all you need to be successful in the SEC.

Being good in the SEC usually revolves around fewer “ifs” than other teams and the Gators just have a lot of them. On top of the roster construction, there are still question marks on if Golden can not only assemble the talent, but deploy it in a way that will win the Gators a few more games than expected. After all this is a league full of elite coaches, and to date Golden has yet to prove he’s that guy.

If Riley Kugel turns himself from a projected NBA draft pick this year to a certain 1st round or lottery pick then maybe none of that matters. Coaching is important, but talent still wins games.

Reasons to be OPTIMISTIC

With Will Richard, Walter Clayton, Riley Kugel, and Zyon Pullin the Gators could have one of the best back courts in the SEC. To win big in college basketball you need good guard play, which Florida didn’t get with any consistency last year. With a talented back court Florida should be at worst an average league team, but with a little bit extra they could be really very good.

Reasons to be PESSIMISTIC

Last year’s team was a mess; the talent was there but there was little cohesiveness and short an All-SEC level big the Gators were possibly the most disappointing team in the league. Now Castleton is gone and none of the replacement big men are at his level. With question marks all along the interior the Gators may be asking a little too much from a talented group of guards, but a group that has yet to show any consistency at this level.


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 team’s 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 as well.

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.