The Florida Gators will look to get back on track this season under Todd Golden.
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After the mutual departure of Mike White, Florida seemed to want a reset by hiring a fresh face, Todd Golden from San Francisco. The 38-year-old became the youngest coach in the conference and came with just three years of head coaching experience. Retaining Colin Castleton was meant to be a sign of good times ahead, as was the return of Kowacie Reeves and 3 high-scoring transfers.
But even before Castleton broke his hand in a win over Ole Miss on Feb. 15 of last season, the Gators were a long shot to make the tournament, despite Castleton’s all-SEC caliber season. When the final buzzer sounded in Gainesville, fears of Castleton’s status overshadowed the 79-64 win that moved the Gators to just 14-12. A broken hand ended the star center’s season and effectively ended the Gators’ season, too.
After a non-conference schedule that included losses to Florida Atlantic (excusable), UConn (excusable), West Virginia by 29 (less excusable), and Oklahoma by a 62-53 margin (excuse me?), Florida entered the beginning SEC competition with a 7-5 record. (Of the seven wins, only one was against a tournament team, a 88-78 victory over Kennesaw State.)
The Gators then lost the first two conference games by a combined 6 points against Auburn and Texas A&M, went on a three-game winning streak to finally enter bubble territory, lost an eye-sore to the Aggies again, then beat Mississippi State on the road. A Keyontae Johnson revenge game from Kansas State in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge against the Gators then dropped them to 12-9 before an electric home win over a ranked Tennessee team allowed them to firmly enter tournament bubble status, even with a 13-9 record.
Then, the wheels came off, as they tend to do. The Gators would stumble to a 3-8 record over their last 11 games and wouldn’t beat a team with a winning record the rest of the year. Somehow, they were granted an NIT bid, but they lost to Sunshine State rival UCF handily. If there was a silver lining towards the end of the season, it was the emergence of Riley Kugel, who scored 15+ points 7 times between February and March. Unfortunately for Todd Golden’s group, they still went 2-5 in those games with a point margin of 516-573. (That’s an average margin of 73.7-81.9, for those like me that don’t like math.)
In an year of really solid first-year coaches, (Jerome Tang, Dennis Gates, Rodney Terry*, Chris Jans, Keith Urgo) Golden really did not show out, despite inheriting one of the best returning players in the country. While it may not be fair to punish Florida’s head coach for others’ successes, it’s worth noting that the coach the university basically pushed out to bring in Golden ended up with a .500 record (better than Florida) with a roster that was not nearly as talented as Florida’s was, in the exact same conference.
Thankfully, almost every college basketball coach gets a second year, (even Kenny Payne) and Golden dipped into the portal in order to build a roster to his liking. Walter Clayton Jr. (Iona) and Zyon Pullin (UC-Riverside) should compete for starting jobs at the 1 and 2 spots, while Tyrese Samuel (Seton Hall) is a solid option at power forward for Golden. Throw in 7-footer Micah Handlogten (Marshall), and it’s not inconceivable that four of five starters on Nov. 6 against Loyola (MD) are transfers.
Returnees include the aforementioned Kugel, as well as 10.4 PPG scorer Will Richard, another very quietly efficient guard. Besides that, it’s heavy turnover as Denzel Aberdeen and Aleks Szymczyk, two rotational pieces, are the only other returners from Golden’s first year. The freshman class includes two high-ceiling prospects, three-star Pennsylvania power forward Thomas Haugh and three-star Aussie center Alex Condon from the NBA Global Academy in Perth. Both should see extended minutes, especially if Handlogten and Yale transfer EJ Jarvis get into early foul trouble.
On paper, it’s hard to tell if this team is significantly better than last year, and it’s a very different look and player group. Last year’s non-conference schedule turned into a much more difficult slate than expected, but this year features just two tournament teams from last March on the slate. (Virginia and Pitt.)
Overall, this team’s strength is in its backcourt. The odd man out of the Pullin, Clayton Jr., and Richard trio is a solid bet to win SEC 6th man of the year coming off the bench, while Kugel will likely end up with 30-34 minutes per game split at the 2-3 spots. Backup Denzel Aberdeen is also good enough to fight for rotational minutes.
In the frontcourt, however, is where things get murky. It is uncertain as to whether Handlogten’s offense can translate to the SEC where he has to match up against centers his own size. Samuel is a very solid player at the power forward position, and he’s a perfect fit in Todd Golden’s lineup, both on the offense and defensive side of the ball. But after Samuel, it’s a tossup. EJ Jarvis looked good last season, but the Ivy League is still a far cry from the Power 6 lineups he’ll be facing this year. One of Jarvis, Aleks Szymczyk, Thomas Haugh, and Alex Condon need to be able to be counted on this year to provide relief for Samuel.
This team’s ceiling is limited, which tends to happen when only three of the team’s four best players are able to see the court at the same time. Kugel and Richard bump up the Gators’ floor, but the loss of Colin Castleton can’t be overstated. How can a team replace 16.0 PPG, 7.7 RPG, and 3.0 BPG from one player? They can’t, really. It’ll take 2-3 players to match the production of the star center from last year.
It seems like almost every team in the SEC reloaded in the portal this offseason, and Florida has its work cut out for them if they want to make the tournament this year. The best advice for Gator faithful? Give Golden another year before leaping to conclusions.
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Head coach: Todd Golden (5th season, 2nd at Florida)
2022-23 record: 16-17 (9-9)
2023 postseason finish: Lost to UCF, 67-49, in first round of NIT
Notable departures: Colin Castleton (NBA), Kowacie Reeves (Transferred to Georgia Tech), Kyle Lofton (Graduated), Alex Fudge (G-League)
Notable non-conference games: vs. Virginia (Nov. 10, in Charlotte), vs. Florida State (Nov. 17), at Wake Forest (Nov. 29), vs. Michigan (Dec. 19, in Charlotte)
PG: Zyon Pullin (6-4, 206, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 18.3 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 4.2 APG (UC-Riverside)
SG: Walter Clayton Jr. (6-2, 195, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 16.8 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 3.2 APG, 95.3 FT% (Iona)
SF: Riley Kugel (6-5, 207, So.)
2022-23 stats: 9.9 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 1.0 APG, 37.6 3P%
PF: Tyrese Samuel (6-10, 239, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 11.0 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 0.7 APG (Seton Hall)
C: Micah Handlogten (7-1, 235, So.)
2022-23 stats: 7.6 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 1.2 APG, 2.3 BPG (Marshall)
6: Will Richard (6-4, 206, Jr.)
2022-23 stats: 10.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 0.8 APG, 39.8 3P%
7: EJ Jarvis (6-8, 240, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 11.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 0.6 APG (Yale)
8: Aleks Szymczyk (6-10, 250, So.)
2022-23 stats: 2.1 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 0.2 APG, 7.8 MPG
9: Denzel Aberdeen (6-5, 190, So.)
2022-23 stats: 1.6 PPG, 0.3 RPG, 0.2 APG, 3.4 MPG
10: Thomas Haugh (6-9, 210, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 185 rated recruit
11: Julian Rishwain (6-5, 200, Gr.-Sr.)
2022-23 stats: 5.0 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 0.9 APG (San Francisco)
12: Alex Condon (6-11, 230, Fr.)
247Sports Composite No. 214 rated recruit
Florida Gators MVP: Riley Kugel
It seems like every basketball writer in America was sprinting towards their computer, phone, or Twitter account in mid-February to be the first to predict a Riley Kugel 2023-24 breakout. Truth be told, he’s already broken out. It’s no secret in the SEC that Kugel is Florida’s best player after stepping up in the wake of Colin Castleton’s absence.
The 6-5 guard averaged 12.6 PPG in 17 conference games with 11 starts, while shooting 40.7% from deep. A four-star recruit from the class of 2022, Kugel’s full-season stats don’t jump off the page, but his conference splits (against tougher competition) do him proper justice. 2nd on the team in SEC games with a 59.5 eFG% and 1st on the team in points per 100 possessions, Kugel was the focal point of the offense once Castleton was lost for the year, and even a few games before that.
It took time for Kugel to find his niche in the offense, which is actually good for Florida, because he’d be on an NBA roster right now if not. If it weren’t for Brandon Miller, Cason Wallace, or GG Jackson, Kugel could’ve won SEC freshman of the year. The conference just happened to have a very solid, diverse underclassmen class. Throw in the fact that Florida wasn’t up to bubble standards for most of the season, and it’s easy to see why Kugel’s emergence went under the radar a bit.
It’s completely real, however. A player very rarely is able to luck into a >40.0 3PT% in a full SEC conference slate, especially on 3.5 attempts per game. If Kugel can score 24 on Kentucky, (albeit a down-year Wildcat squad) he’s more than capable of scoring 20+ against all of the Gators’ non-conference opponents this year. Despite placing near the team lead in almost every positive analytic in conference play, Kugel only averaged 25.6 MPG in those contests, behind Kyle Lofton and Myreon Jones. Todd Golden isn’t likely to make that same mistake twice, and with an increased role, Kugel’s numbers could continue to rise.
It’s very possible that Kugel averages 16+ PPG this season, and with the rotation of possible point guards combined with questions in the frontcourt, he’s a very good bet to lead the Gators in scoring. After that, however, Golden is going to have to scout the portal again, because Kugel is NBA-bound.
Florida Gators make-or-break player: Micah Handlogten
The 7-footer from Marshall isn’t Colin Castleton, but no one is expecting him to be. A true rim protector, Handlogten (pronounced hand-log-ten) will live in the paint and barely venture out of it.
Averaging more rebounds than points for the Herd last year, he’s crucial to the Gators’ fortunes this season. Golden knew hitting the portal was a must after losing an all-SEC caliber player, and he went and got Handlogten. Uber-efficient at 66.2% from the field, the 7-footer started all 32 games as a freshman. While not a good free throw shooter (54.3 FT%) and not at all a threat from behind the arc (8.3 3P%), Handlogten is a paint presence that Florida needed to bring in.
In what could be a major assist to Florida’s rebounding woes, Handlogten ranked first in the Sun Belt in offensive rebounding percentage at 14.3%. His defensive rebounding percentage was just as impressive, coming in 2nd in the conference at 26.1%. A defensive rim protector at heart, Handlogten’s 2.3 BPG placed 12th nationally, which is about as good of a rim defender to replace Castleton that the Gators could have gotten. An analytics darling, he placed tops in the conference in defensive rating, defensive box plus/minus, 2P%, and total rebounding percentage.
However, there is another stat he led the conference in that could spell trouble in Gainesville. Foul trouble, specifically. Not only was his 111 personal fouls tops in the Sun Belt, but it was good for 11th nationally. Marshall as a team finished slightly above average with 16.5 FPG, but Handlogten accounted for over 21% of those fouls just by himself. He picked up a foul in every game he played in, and picked up multiple fouls in every game but one. Fouling out 6 times in 32 games, he also recorded four or more fouls in 50% of the games he played in. It wasn’t just adjusting to the college game either. Of the six times he fouled out, three of those instances came in the last 8 games of the season.
That’s certainly not a recipe for success, especially when moving up from the Sun Belt to presumably a starting position in the SEC. If Handlogten fouls out against Tennessee Tech, Toledo, and Old Dominion, what happens when he faces Trevon Brazile, Johni Broome, or Tolu Smith? Despite the hype around Handlogten, there’s real questions about if he’ll be able to translate to the SEC, both offensively and defensively. Regardless of how it works out, there won’t be the same efficiency from the center position as last year, but there’s a possibility that if all goes well, Florida won’t drop off quite as significantly as they could’ve in the frontcourt.
Key analytics: Opponent rebounds per game
Not just last in the SEC, but worst among Power 6 schools, the Florida Gators had trouble cleaning the glass last year. Even before Castleton was lost for the season, the Gators could not manage to rebound on either end at a consistent rate. Allowing an average of 38.3 RPG, that mark was good for 352nd out of 363 D-1 programs.
When the Gators did have a good night rebounding, it typically worked out well. In the seven games in which Florida allowed less than 30 rebounds, they went 7-0, including wins over Missouri, Florida State, and Oregon State. However, when giving up 37+ rebounds in a game, which happened 17 times, the Gators compiled a 4-13 record.
One game that summed up the Gators’ season was the conference tournament loss to Mississippi State in overtime. In a 69-68 loss, the Gators allowed 46 rebounds, 18 of which came on the offensive end for Mississippi State. In a one-point game, with the season on the line, giving up 46 rebounds in 45 minutes truly was a microcosm for Florida’s season.
The team’s rebounding woes weren’t just a result of Castleton’s injury, either. In fact, in the 11 games in which Florida gave up 39+ rebounds, Castleton played in 9 of them. From the start of the season to the end of it, this was a team that struggled in that aspect. How much of the already low production leaves the team? Castleton, the leading rebounder, is gone. Will Richard, second on the team with 4.5 RPG, returns, but little else does. Overall, five of six leading rebounders from last season depart the team.
That could be a case of addition by subtraction, or it could be a case of a major red flag entering the 2023-24 season. Bringing in Handlogten will help, as will Tyrese Samuel from Seton Hall. Pullin, Richard, and Kugel all bring height to the guard position, but there’s only so many shots a guard can rebound amongst the trees. This is where freshmen Haugh and Condon come in. If either of the two of them show any ability to rebound at a consistent rate, offensive or defensive, they’ll get an extended role as an underclassman.
For this stat category to not be seen as a major weakness this upcoming season, Florida will have to drop their opponent RPG to around 34.5, about four less per game than this past year. It’s not a death sentence if they can’t pull it off, but it would certainly help the team’s chances of making the tournament.
Florida Gators 2023-24 projections
Projected conference finish: 7th in SEC
Projected postseason ceiling: NCAA Tournament – Round of 32 Exit