From retention to recruiting: Todd Golden boosts his first Florida Gators team with additions

Graham Hall
Gator Sports
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Recruiting in collegiate athletics no longer is limited to high school athletes, returning players and the occasional graduate transfer. 

The current setup of the NCAA’s transfer portal allows student-athletes to transfer freely between institutions and gain immediate eligibility, meaning coaches are scouring the portal for players to fill voids on the roster. Following a coaching change, a rebuild of an entire roster is possible. LSU coach Matt McMahon had to rebuild nearly the entirety of the Tigers’ roster in the wake of Will Wade’s departure, for example. 

Fortunately for Florida basketball coach Todd Golden, the rebuild at UF wasn’t as extensive. After imploring the Gators who had eligibility remaining to keep an open mind upon his arrival, Golden was able to retain six scholarship players, two walk-ons and one of Florida’s signees in the 2022 class. 

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Two losses and two gains for Florida Gators

LSU Tigers forward Alex Fudge (3) dunks against Lipscomb Bisons forward Kaleb Coleman (5) during the first half on Dec. 22 at Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge. Fudge, a Floridian, has joined the Gators.

Jalen Reed and Malik Reneau, a pair of players who signed letters of intent nearly six months prior to play for the Gators, asked for their release, resulting in six available scholarships remaining for Golden to fill out the roster. 

He and his newly hired coaching staff quickly got to work. 

Highly touted Belmont University transfer Will Richard became the first player to commit, bringing a guard with length capable of playing multiple positions into Golden’s system. 

Next, Golden looked to a player with ties to both the Southeastern Conference and the area in LSU forward Alex Fudge, one of the many players looking to depart Baton Rouge following Wade’s exit. 

A Jacksonville native, Fudge had initially been recruited to Florida under Mike White, but the offer from LSU was ultimately too enticing to turn down. 

A year later, the Gators were able to do what White and his coaching staff couldn’t: Land the 6-foot-8 Fudge, who proved to be a capable defender and consistent contributor at the Power-Six level as a fresh-faced 18-year-old. 

“He’s super young. He was a highly recruited kid out of high school, played about 10-15 minutes a game on a good LSU team last year as a freshman and now he’s a sophomore with us," Golden said. "He just turned 19, like 10 days ago I think. He’s a guy we saw a lot of good things on the defensive side of the floor at LSU. I think he’s got a lot of potential offensively that was untapped a little bit with him just getting more confident and just playing within the system we’ll have for him will be beneficial. He’s someone I’m really excited about. He’s really a great kid.”

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Gators get some guards

St. Bonaventure Bonnies guard Kyle Lofton (0) passes the ball against the Xavier Musketeers during the NIT college basketball semifinals at Madison Square Garden. Now a graduate student, Lofton is a new Gator.

A day after Reed reopened his commitment and 10 days after the addition of Richard, Golden landed a commitment from Trey Bonham, a 6-foot guard out of Mobile, Alabama, who started 29 games last season at Virginia Military Institute, leaving the Gators with three available spots. 

UF continued to host transfers on official visits over the coming weeks while also taking an exhaustive look at prospects remaining in the high school ranks. The latter group was considered to be sparse in comparison to the number of impact transfers searching for a change of scenery. 

On April 26, and with just five days until the deadline for players to enter the transfer portal until Aug. 1, St. Bonaventure guard Kyle Lofton opted to depart the Bonnies, and he quickly became a priority target for double-digit programs, including the Gators. 

Lofton garnered All-Atlantic 10 first-team honors after averaging 12.8 points and 5.9 assists per game, and he was looking to elevate to the high-major level for his final season. Rutgers pursued Lofton aggressively, but Florida’s void at the point guard spot coupled with the allure of SEC basketball helped Golden sign Lofton as a graduate student.

Summer workouts have yet to commence, but the outside perception is Lofton is the early favorite to lock down UF’s starting point guard role. 

“For him, whether you’re a fan of the transfer portal or not, I think there are some benefits not only for the players but for the programs,” Golden said. “We were able to get a lot of data on Kyle. He played a ton of minutes at St. Bonaventure. They won a lot of games. He’s a really good point guard, someone who ran that team for a long time. So we knew what we were getting when we got Kyle. We had some really good guards, but I think Kyle kind of completes that group.”

Golden isn’t ruling out those competing with Lofton for the role of UF’s spot at the one, however.

“All of those guys, when I talk about Kyle, Trey (Bonham), Myreon (Jones) specifically, as kind of our smaller guards,” Golden continued,” all three of those I think are really good players.” 

Korey McCray gives UF a recruiting assist

The Gators were hardly the only program faced with an extensive rebuild across multiple levels following a change at the helm. 

Mississippi State's Ben Howland was one of six coaches to depart the SEC at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season, and Golden decided to build his inaugural staff at Florida with one of Howland’s former assistants in Korey McCray, who had spent the previous seven seasons with the Bulldogs. 

McCray had also served as the primary recruiter for Riley Kugel, the program’s highest-ranked signee and the teammate of Denzel Aberdeen, UF’s lone signee to remain with the program through the coaching change. The familiarity among McCray, Aberdeen and Kugel, along with the proximity to Gainesville from Orlando, gave the Gators an opportunity to push for Kugel’s signature — though it wasn’t a sure thing like many predicted. 

Georgia, led by Mike White, came into the mix with an appeal similar to the one presented to Kowacie Reeves: It’s the SEC, and playing time in Athens is more abundant in the backcourt. LSU pushed for Kugel, too, with similar incentives. 

Eventually, UF’s pitch won out, giving the Gators their 12th scholarship addition for the upcoming season. 

Todd Golden's first roster almost complete

The chemistry between Aberdeen and Kugel may result in an easier acclimation process for both players. But as Golden nears the conclusion of the roster-building process — the Gators have just one scholarship spot remaining — what should pay larger dividends is the success he’s had on the recruiting trail in his first two months on the job, especially in Florida.

Golden and his staff have boosted Florida’s roster with coveted players from multiple levels of various skill sets. Work remains to be done, but the establishment is firmly in place. 

“I’m just more excited, like I said, that (Aberdeen and Kugel) are from Florida and want to be here and can be, along with Alex (Fudge), a Florida kid we were able to bring back,” Golden said. “So we have some momentum that way, and hopefully as they experience some good things in our program, I think it will rub off on the next class, and so on and so forth.”

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