The Florida Men’s Basketball team took their show on the road this week, traveling ninety miles south to Tampa’s Amalie Arena to play an early season, out of conference game. Their opponent was the Ohio Bobcats. While their record may not indicate it at 5-4, the Bobcats are the third highest scoring team in their conference. The Florida Gators, also with four losses to FAU, Xavier, West Virginia and most recently fifth ranked UConn, needed a win. Their loss to both UConn and West Virginia were convincing enough to demonstrate this team has a lot to learn.
Led by first year coach Todd Golden, an entirely new era of basketball has begun in Gainesville. As an alum and Gator basketball fan who has been attending games since the late 1980s, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to see this team play in my hometown and provide you a thorough report.
After a stagnant and disappointing, few seasons, I was curious to see what the new regime would bring. Would I be impressed with what they had to offer, or would they suffer another devastating loss to a team they had no business losing to?
I’m happy to say it was the former. Our fourteenth-row seats put us close to the action in what was a Gator-intensive crowd. Only a smattering of green Ohio shirts adorned the stands. After forty minutes of basketball, they went home unhappy. The fan base was so Gator-intensive, in fact, that when the Jumbotron panned to a young boy wearing a Georgia Bulldog shirt, the crowd booed him intensely. Ah, how I love college athletics.
We, the Furious Five, sat directly across from the Florida bench so we could catch a glimpse of the heir apparent, Todd Golden, who you would not pick out of a lineup if you spotted him at your local supermarket. The 37-year-old Golden was born in 1985, a few years before I first stepped into the O’Connell Center. He of St. Mary’s, Maccabi, Auburn and USF fame was the man pegged for the job, only the third basketball coach the Gators have had since 1996. By comparison, the football team has had 11 coaches over that span, if you include the interim coaches they employed after firing their predecessors. Fortunately, our basketball program demonstrates more patience than our football, but the question remains, will the new breed coach slated as sabermetrics-intensive fill the void that Mike White could not?
The 2022-23 Gators start a healthy balance of youth and experience. They return senior, big man Colin Castleton who stands all of 6’11” and perhaps plays even longer. He leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. All offense runs through him first and foremost, which is good. That night against Ohio, the Gators remained disciplined, pounding the paint, working inside out to establish an offensive rhythm. While Castleton’s numbers on the night might not reflect it (6 points, 8 rebounds), he was effective on both ends of the floor. If altered shots were a statistic, this kid might lead the nation. Defensively, he was rarely caught out of position. The Bobcats were unable to score over his outstretched arms. In fact, the Ohio Bobcats only shot 31% from the field. Meanwhile, the Gators scored an effective 52%.
I’m happy to report this game was never close. This was a mismatch from the outset. With only four minutes left in the first half, the Ohio Bobcats had only mustered ten points. I’m not sure whether it was because Golden had lit a fire under this team’s ass after the UConn loss, or perhaps they were refreshed playing in front of a different crowd, but the Florida Gators led handily from start to finish in a game which they outhustled, out-shot and outplayed their opponent in virtually every aspect of the game.
I rarely saw Ohio get an uncontested look. Relentless defensive pressure led to easy baskets on the other end. The Gators were also feeling it from distance, hitting ten out of 22 shots from behind the arc. Their leading scorer on the night, 6’6” sophomore guard Kowacie Reeves, poured in 20, resorting to heat checks midway through the second half, until finally a shot didn’t fall.
I liked what I saw from this team. A hustle, intensity, togetherness and promise that had lacked in previous years.
As the competition gets bigger, I am concerned that the Gators might lack depth down low. I was curious to see whether this team could score without Castleton on the floor but even on a night where their starting center only scored six, the backcourt hit shots from the perimeter and effectively drove the line for easy looks. And when they got to the line, they made their free throws (16-21).
Now, Ohio might not be the best measuring stick for this team. Surely this was a game and an opponent the Gators should have easily handled. But they did. A friend and Ohio alum I ran into at the game informed me that Ohio had given 20th ranked Michigan a run for their money in a loss, so they’re no slouch. They might not be a tournament team (they didn’t look so on Wednesday) but a lot of that had to do with how the Gators played. In the past, Florida could not put opponents away. Wednesday night, that was not an issue.
Castleton and Reeves weren’t the only stars of the night. Senior transfer Kyle Lofton chipped in fifteen points. He recently returned from a back injury although it didn’t show on Wednesday. He was active defensively, blocking one shot at the rim that sent the Gator crowd into a roar. The lengthy 6’9” sophomore forward Alex Fudge contributed with 13 points and 10 rebounds without the Gators running a play for him all night. His length as both ends of the floor showed promise. Guard Trey Bonham rounded out the scoring with 12.
Most impressive was the Gator’s defensive intensity. They held the Ohio Bobcats to one and done shooting all night, allowing only four offensive rebounds.
Of course, this team bears the burden of being measured by all others that have worn the uniform before them. That’s why Mike White was fired. It wasn’t all that long ago that the Gators were making quite a name for themselves in the tournament. Is this team capable of making a run in March? That remains to be seen. Castleton will remain the focal point for this team’s offense. He’ll need to up his physicality as the competition gets stiff in conference, but he can’t do it alone. The guard play will need to remain efficient as it was against Ohio if the Gators want to remain balanced. There is no reason this team shouldn’t be tournament bound but they can’t continue to play .500 ball in conference as they’ve done in years past. The hustle must remain. So far, it appears Coach Golden will demand it.
Many moons ago, another undersized guard few had ever heard of, with similarly limited coaching experience, took over the Florida program. He had some pretty good success. Fans are hoping Golden will make that sort of lasting impression on the floor which bears the name of the man that did it before him.
As one who attended basketball games in Gainesville long before anybody had ever heard of Billy Donovan, I couldn’t help but think back to all the basketball I’ve watched this team play over the years and all the players in other uniforms I’d seen come through those doors: Chris Jackson, Shaquille O’Neal, Jamal Mashburn, Robert Horry, Latrell Sprewell, Charlie Ward, Bobby Sura, Corliss Williamson. I also couldn’t help but think of all the Gator players I’d cheered for, from Dwyane Schintzius, Livingston Chapman and Dwayne Davis, to the Lon Kruger Final Four team of Dan Cross, Craig Brown, Andrew Declercq and Dametri Hill, to Billy D’s first title contenders with Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Matt Bonner and Teddy Dupay to the back-to-back champions whose names you know and love. Those were fond years. Now it is Todd Golden’s turn to write a whole new history.
I got every impression the players on the floor that night understood what’s at stake, that the future is theirs to create and that there is a legacy to continue. That is something I hadn’t seen out of the program in years. It was a refreshing change.
The players were even kind enough to grant photo opportunities with fans after the game. One such young fan I know snuck down to find the game’s high scorer, Kowacie Reeves, who took the time out to snap a selfie.
Yes, the future of Gator basketball looks to be in good hands indeed.