Florida basketball: 3 things learned from Phil Knight Tournament heading into Florida A&M matchup

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports

First-year Florida basketball coach Todd Golden is looking forward after a humbling Thanksgiving weekend at the PK85 Legacy Tournament in Portland, Ore.

The Gators (4-3) dropped two of three games, falling 90-83 to Xavier and 84-55 to West Virginia on Sunday night. The 29-point loss to West Virginia was Florida's most lopsided in 23 years. The last time Florida lost by 29 or more points was on Feb. 10, 1999, when the Gators lost 91-56 at Tennessee.

Golden and 3-pointers:Florida basketball coach Todd Golden talks defending the 3-point line

Early-season loss:After Florida basketball's loss to FAU, here's what the Gators hope to fix vs. rival FSU

He's Golden:Todd Golden, youngest coach in the SEC, bringing an energetic approach to Florida Gators

Golden said Florida showed fight battling through foul trouble in the first half of the West Virginia game to pull within 8 points at halftime before collapsing in the second half.

"Those first four minutes of the second half were disgusting," Golden said. "We've got to be able to respond better than that. But that was the first time with this group that I felt that we weren't competitive enough and that we didn't fight hard enough. And so we will definitely address it. But I'm not going to make a mountain out of a molehill either unless it's something that continues to rear its head as we move forward.” 

Florida pulled off one win over the weekend, beating Oregon State 81-68 in a game in which it shot 56.6 percent from the floor and 42.1 percent from 3-point range.

"Probably our most complete game of the year," Golden said.

Nov 25, 2022; Portland, Oregon, USA; Oregon State Beavers forward Tyler Bilodeau (10) struggles to gain possession of the ball during the second half against Florida Gators forward Colin Castleton (12) at Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

The Gators will begin a three-game homestand on Wednesday when they host Florida A&M (8 p.m., SEC Network Plus). It's a chance to re-set and to work through some issues before the start of SEC play in late December.

"It’s still relatively early in the season," Golden said. "We have plenty of time to get back on our horse, and get things back right, and continue to improve as the year goes on.

"So in a way it’s a good opportunity for us to hey, kind of learn how resilient we are, how willing we are to put in the work and address the areas where we have been deficient and see how we can proceed going from here.” 

Here are three things learned from Florida's performance in the tournament over the weekend:

Kowacie Reeves not in the doghouse

Forward Kowacie Reeves appeared in just one of the three games over the weekend, an eight-minute stint off the bench against Oregon State. But Golden said Tuesday it was not a result of disciplinary reasons and blamed himself for not managing rotations better.

Golden said he was going with the hot hand in guard Trey Bonham, who took over for Reeves in the second half of the Florida State game and started all three games over the weekend. Bonham scored 23 points against Xavier and 19 against Oregon before being limited to 3 points on 0 of 9 shooting in the West Virginia loss.

"Wacie got the short end of the stick," Golden said. "That’s on me. He didn’t deserve to not play, but just kind of caught in the moment. It just kind of happened and he’ll be back out there (Wednesday) night.”

Transition defense needs work

Florida gave up an average of 80.7 points in the three games, including a season-high 90 points in the loss to Xavier. Per KenPom, Florida currently ranks 66th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

With Castleton and athletic forward Alex Fudge, Florida has been strong protecting the rim and altering shots, averaging 6.4 blocks per game.

“We have been an above-average halfcourt defensive team the first seven games," Golden said. "We have been an atrocious transition defensive team. That’s something that has not been an issue for my teams in the past so we spent a lot of time collectively trying to figure out what we can do differently with our process to become a better transition defensive team."

Some of it is offense bleeding into defense. West Virginia scored 20 points off 14 Florida turnovers, while Xavier scored 20 points off 11 Florida turnovers. Florida needs to be stronger with the ball moving forward when facing pressure defenses.

 "There are other teams currently that pressure like that, like a (Texas) A&M or an Auburn," Golden said. "We’re going to see it again and we have to handle it better, but again we picked some things out of that game to say OK we can do this to alleviate some of that pressure and do this to take some heat off our guards to be able to attack it better.”

Colin Castleton needs to get back on track

 Florida will only go as far as its best player takes them. Castleton was up and down in the three tournament games, averaging 8.7 points and 7 rebounds. He shot just 38.5 percent from the floor (10-26) over the three games.

Golden said Xavier and West Virginia took the 6-foot-11, 240-pound Castleton out of his game by being physical with him.

"With him being our most impactful player, best player, we need him to play better for us to be the best we can be," Golden said, "And, you know, it’s, we’ll go as he goes. When he plays well, I think we play like a top-25 club, and when he doesn’t, we haven’t."

Against West Virginia, Castleton struggled with foul trouble, picking up two early fouls. Golden brought Castleton back in the game at the 10-minute mark in the first half and he picked up his third foul on a moving screen. Overall, Castleton logged just 18 minutes against the Mountaineers and finished with a season-low 3 points.

Golden defended his decision to bring Castleton back into the game in the first half with two fouls as an analytics-based move.

"We can sit him with two fouls if he gets them, but then, we don't have him for eight minutes in a game or six minutes through the rest of the first half," Golden said. "And those minutes matter just as much to me as the second half.

"I expect him as a senior to be able to play through two fouls and make good decisions. It didn't really affect us in any game other than the West Virginia game, and that happens sometimes. You're not always going to make the right decision. So we're going to continue to be aggressive that way. It's just in my nature.”