By Jack Steen
On Nov. 6, the Florida Gators basketball season begins, after a rather disappointing season last year, going 16-17 and getting eliminated in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), the Gators are poised for a big year. Todd Golden, as he enters his second year as the head coach of the Gators, has once again brought in a very impressive class of transfers which have garnered lots of attention from the media. Despite not cracking the top 25 in preseason polls, the Gators received enough votes to be placed in the top 50, and I would not be surprised to see them make the top 25 if they perform well in the first few weeks of the season.
In fact, the Gators have already picked up wins over Miami and Florida International University (FIU) in secret scrimmages. Miami is ranked #13 in the preseason AP Poll and went to the Final Four last year. So, the Gators defeating the Hurricanes 91-89 in a closed-door contest is very promising for Golden and the Gators. Their win over FIU may not be as impressive, as FIU is projected to finish only fifth in their conference. The game ended 102-60 and was led by returning junior guard Will Richard who had 29 points. While Richard may not even start for the Gators this year, he will certainly be a key contributor for the team.
My projected starting lineup for the Gators features four transfers, but the star of the team is a veteran from last season.
Sophomore wing Riley Kugel averaged 17 points per game with very efficient shooting percentages in the last 10 games of last season. Of course, the final 10 games last year, the Gators were without All-SEC center Collin Castleton who is now playing for the NBA Los Angeles Lakers. The absence of Castleton allowed Kugel to shine and give us a preview of how the team may look this year. Kugel has experience playing both point and shooting guard but will spend most of the year playing small forward.
The class of transfers Golden brought in ranks top 5 in the country and second in the SEC only behind the Missouri Tigers. The class is headlined by 4-star combo guard Walter Clayton Jr. Clayton averaged 17 games last season with Iona University and looks to be the starting shooting guard for the Gators this year. The starting center for the team, Micah Handlogten, a transfer from Marshall, is the other top transfer from the portal. Handlogten won’t be asked to score much at all for the team, but he will be asked to get down and dirty in the post. He averaged almost 10 rebounds and 3 blocks a game last year with Marshall University’s Thundering Herd. The projected point guard and power forward for the gators are Zyon Pullin, from UC Riverside, and Tyrese Samuel, from Seton Hall. Pullin averaged 18 points, four assists, and a steal a game and will be asked to be more of a distributor than scorer this year. Samuel will be asked to be a very physical power forward for the gators, a position which seemed to serve as another guard spot as last year it was filled by Alex Fudge and Will Richard, two players who are not ideal power forwards as neither have the size for the position. Samuel averaged 11 points and six rebounds for the Pirates, along with a steal and a block each per game.
As important as players are, in a sport like college basketball the schedule is of highest importance. If you schedule too easy of teams you will miss the NCAA tournament due to a weak strength of schedule. If you schedule too hard of teams you won’t win enough games to make the tournament. Finding a good balance of both is very important and seems to be a thing Coach Golden has a knack for. The Gators will face many good teams outside of conference play, matching up against the Virginia Cavaliers Nov. 10 at a neutral site; Baylor Nov. 24 at a neutral site; at Wake Forest on Nov. 29 in the SEC/ACC challenge; and Michigan on Dec. 19 at a neutral site in the Jumpman Invitational. If the Gators can win at least nine of 13 of their non-conference games, they will be in a good spot to make the tournament for the first time in Golden’s tenure, and the first time since 2021.
The Florida Gators are set to face the Loyola Maryland Greyhounds on November 6th at 8PM in Exactech Arena. While I doubt this game will tell us much about the Gators, it should be a good warm up for their game against Virginia which will be the first real test for Golden and his team.