Florida basketball 2022-23 primer: Todd Golden’s retooled Gators aim for immediate success

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 7, 2022
Florida basketball 2022-23 primer: Todd Golden’s retooled Gators aim for immediate success
Basketball

Image Credit: UAA

Welcome to the Golden era of Florida Gators basketball. Well, Florida at least hopes it will be able to appropriately use that pun. It all depends on whether new Gators head coach Todd Golden can return the program to a similar level of success that it last experienced under future Hall of Fame head coach Billy Donovan.

Donovan’s run at Florida where he won two national championships and competed in four Final Fours with a .715 winning rate will be tough for anyone to replicate, but the Gators are at the point now where they’ve largely fallen out of the national conversation. Once a consensus top-two SEC program on the hardwood, Florida has stepped back while other teams in the league have loaded up with talented coaches and highly recruited prospects.

The last seven seasons under ex-head coach Mike White saw the Gators take double-digit losses six times. They have not advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since the 2016-17 season, and their .581 winning rate in SEC play kept them out of the conference championship picture, too. White seemed like a good guy with potential, but he is not what Florida needed. We’ll see if he answers the bell better at Georgia where he will coach after leaving UF knowing the program was prepared to seek a new coach.

Does Golden fit the bill? That remains to be seen. While other SEC programs have gone with stalwarts of the profession to help reestablish their squads (Arkansas’ Eric Musselman, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams), Florida zigged where they zagged.

Golden, 37, takes over as one of the youngest coaches in Division I after signing a six-year, $18 million contract with the Gators. He’s also one of the most unique in the game.

He is seen as a bright, ambitious coach who is heavily focused on analytics. Upon his hiring, one comparison shared with OnlyGators.com by a veteran coaching agent source was Mike McDaniel, the former San Francisco 49ers running game coordinator in Year 1 as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. (For what it’s worth, the Dolphins have been a juggernaut already this season.)

Golden’s analytical approach may be a shock to some. It might be difficult to spot throughout games, but it will be most obvious when it comes to shot selection and end-of-game situations. The idea is to put the players individually in the best position to successfully put the ball in the hoop, eliminate negative plays that impact the game and create scenarios that will be advantageous to the Gators. He is focused, specifically, on 3-point shooting and defensive rebounding given those are two areas in which the team struggled massively a season ago.

Golden is the first men’s basketball hire by Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, who reportedly had him as a top target and won a battle for his services with numerous other power conference programs going after him. CBS Sports’ Matt Norlander reported at the time of the hiring that “Stricklin wasn’t concerned with bringing in a big name from a power conference; he was focused on hiring the best fit.”

Will Golden be the right fit? He’s the fourth straight head basketball coach that the Gators have hired in his 30s following White, Donovan and Lon Kruger. He did lead the Dons to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998 and a top 25 KenPom defensive ranking, but San Francisco won 61.3% of its games over three seasons with a 51.1% mark in West Coast Conference play and no better than a four-place finish in their league across his three seasons.

Some thought Florida might target Matt McMahon, 44, whose Murray State Racers went 31-3 last season and beat Golden’s Dons in that NCAA Tournament game. McMahon was ultimately hired by LSU, in an ironic twist, with both programs replacing football and basketball coaches the same offseason. (The Gators and Tigers will be able to compare the Golden-McMahon hires and Billy Napier-Brian Kelly hires for years, hopefully with much success coming to both programs.)

“This team has makings of being an NCAA Tournament team, so that’s a simple barometer of what we’ll use,” said Golden when asked in September to define success for the Gators this season.

Changing who carries the whistle was just the start of Florida’s offseason adjustments, though, as Golden remakes the program in his image. Perhaps most impressive about the rebuild has been a significant amount of depth that Golden has established for the Gators. He said last week that it has become exceedingly difficult to dial down the bench to an eight-man rotation, noting it’s a “good problem for us to have” given there are up to 11 players with whom he’d be comfortable playing significant minutes.

“We’ve made some big strides in terms of really getting a good understanding, holistically within our program, of what we’re trying to be, what we’re trying to do and how we’re going to get there,” Golden said. “… We’re beginning to play with more purpose.”

Diving into that depth is the best way to take a look at what’s ahead for the Gators in 2022-23 given the multiple unknowns that exist with Golden roaming the sideline. Let’s take a closer glimpse at the roster.

Successful re-recruiting offers hope

While there were problems with Florida under White, the program did have a number of bright spots last season — namely three players that were high-level contributors, all of whom could have departed the Gators in the offseason. Golden not only retained all three by re-recruiting them to the program, he pulled one away from the NBA Draft and another out of the transfer porter while convincing a third to use his additional eligibility rather than try his hand at professional basketball.

“Everybody kind of bought back into the program when I got the job,” Golden explained. “The vision was pretty clear, and guys understood what our goals are.”

Forward Colin Castleton returns for his fifth season choosing to pull out of NBA Draft consideration and remain with the Gators. A two-way player with 13 double-doubles and eight 20-point games in his career, he averaged 16.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.2 blocks last season as the program’s best player. Though Castleton does need to improve his shooting rate, (.546 down from .597 in his third season), he’s spent the entire offseason working on just that with Golden while earning Preseason All-SEC first team honors.

Whereas Castleton is the best returning player, sophomore guard Kowacie Reeves has the highest ceiling. Reeves entered the portal along with three other players after White’s departure, but Golden pulled him back in less than 48 hours. Reeves was a bright spot for Florida in the 2021-22 postseason, averaging 16.3 points and 4.3 rebounds across those games. His rise may be notable with some projecting him to become a potential lottery (or at least first-round) pick in the 2023 NBA Draft. At the end of last season, Reeves began looking like the five-star prospect Florida recruited, and if he can improve his aggressiveness, he has the potential to be an elite scorer and ball-handler. “He’s becoming much more of a complete player,” Golden said. “In the past, he was more of a tough-shot maker, but a little volatile. His biggest growth has been eliminating that volatility and becoming more consistent.”

Guard Myreon Jones looked like he may leave the Gators after posting career-low statistical averages in his first season at Florida after transferring from Penn State. He instead decided to use his fifth year of eligibility as a graduate student and will remain at UF with hopes that Golden will help him improve from last season by giving him more chances to score off the ball. Jones started 21 of 33 games but averaged just 8.5 points while shooting 35.5% from the floor and 32.1% from three-point range. His talent has never been in question, however, as Jones not only had dominant games but lights-out scoring stretches at different points last season. “once he realized we wanted him to be here, he definitely wanted to be here,” Golden said. “The numbers don’t lie. What he did at Penn State was impressive. … He’s done it before. … I’m counting on him to be able to do that again. … He’s a guy that should have a good bounce-back year and will impact winning for us.”

Transfers bolster roster

With three players from last season’s roster leaving the program with eligibility remaining, Golden did some portal diving. This was not a move based solely on need but rather a philosophical decision as Golden believes developed players offer the Gators a greater chance at success on an annual basis than inexperienced prospects coming out of high school. That’s not to say Florida will avoid recruiting top-caliber high school talent; it’s just that it will not primarily rely on that method of roster building.

Point guard Kyle Lofton fills a major position of need for the Gators. Transferring in from St. Bonaventure, Lofton is a three-time All-Atlantic 10 floor general who averaged nearly 14 points, six assists, three rebounds and more than a steal per game across the last three seasons. Though not a high-percentage shooter (41% FG, 28% 3PT), he drains from an 82% clip at the charity stripe and will likely get plenty of opportunities there in Golden’s offense. Perhaps best of all for a team lacking any depth at the point guard position, Lofton played more than 38 minutes per game across his career for the Bonnies. He will bring a calming, experienced presence to the team while also serving as a playmaker with the ball in his hands. If Golden can help improve his shooting rate, the sky is the limit for him in his final season as a graduate student.

Sophomore F Alex Fudge, the No. 57 overall player in the Class of 2020, enters from LSU. A Jacksonville, Florida, native, Fudge decided to return close to home after playing just 13.9 minutes per game for the Tigers last season. Expect Fudge to make an immediate impact rebounding around the basket and on defense. Extremely lanky and athletic with a high motor, he has a chance to be the best on-ball defender on the team. Though there are no NBA expectations for Fudge at this time, if he develops well (particularly on offense), he could have potential as an impact roleplayer.

Sophomore G Will Richard joins from Belmont having averaged 12.1 points and 6.0 rebounds for the Bruins last season. Richard averaged 12.1 points and 6.0 rebounds for the Bruins last season and was among the top 20 transfers on the market, according to 247Sports. Juxtaposed with Fudge, Richard has more NBA upside largely because his offense will keep him on the floor. Reports from offseason practice are that his shooting is lights out. Pairing him with Reeves will keep defenders on their heels.

Junior PG Trey Bonham will provide depth behind Lofton as a floor general. Previously at VMI, he averaged 13.6 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists across two seasons while starting all 29 games and earning an All-Southern first team nod last season. A score-first combo guard, Bonham could be a breakout player for the Gators.

Familiar faces set to contribute

Junior G Niels Lane did not get much work last season, but he was a ball of energy on the court reminding some of Will Yeguete. Florida’s best on-ball defender entering the season, he will try and carve out a larger role given his offense remains a concern. You will see more of Lane than you expect because constant energy and effort on defense, while a learned skill, is not one shared by many players. “Niels, he’s an incredibly confident kid. He believes in himself a lot, which is really valuable,” Golden said. “… He’s a problem defensively. … He’s someone who can be a Swiss Army knife for us this year.”

Senior F CJ Felder saw a significant reduction in playing time last season after joining as a transfer from Boston College. Averaging 3.5 points and 2.3 boards in 12.1 minutes per game, he did improve his shooting drastically while dealing with injury issues. Going into this campaign, Felder says he’s the healthiest he’s been during his entire college career. If his conditioning has indeed improved, a larger on-court role is possible.

Senior center Jason Jitoboh can be a key piece for the Gators. He showed massive improvement last season averaging 4.1 points and 2.4 rebounds but only played 18 games with four starts after suffering an eye injury that kept him out for the remainder of the campaign. Early word is that he has extended his shooting range and is in great shape. “His progress has been really positive. His body is in really good shape,” Golden said. “Jason is really talented. He has great hands, a great understanding of how to play, great positioning defensively. He does some things you can’t coach. His hurdle has, obviously, always been health. … If he stays healthy, he provides another element people really haven’t thought about for us.”

New name to know

Freshman guard Riley Kugel became Golden’s first high-school signee. The nation’s No. 54 prospect, per 247Sports, he was previously committed to Mississippi State but reopened his recruitment following a coaching change. Some were concerned Kugel would qualify academically to play college basketball at a high level, but he put his nose to the grindstone and earned the opportunity at Florida. Kugel is a threat at all three levels and possesses immense scoring ability. “It’s fair to say [he will have a significant role on this team]. He’s done a fantastic job,” Golden said. “… He’s getting better and better, and he’s an impactful playmaker, paint toucher. He keeps it simple. He just makes the right play every time … and on the defensive end, he’s advanced for a freshman.”

Final preseason thought

“We have a lot of talented pieces. They were coming from a lot of different places. … Basketball, it’s complicated in the sense it’s more than Xs & Os,” Golden explained. “Teams are better when guys get along well. Teams are better when there’s that familiarity as well as comfort of knowing who you’re going to war with. We’ve done a good job of building that collective mindset in the way we approach things.”

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