Florida basketball: A Golden opportunity for Gators against No. 5 UConn

Kevin Brockway
Gator Sports

The Florida Gators men's basketball team made a few adjustments last week that resulted in much-needed back-to-back lopsided wins over Florida A&M and Stetson.

But the Gators (6-3) will get a chance to gauge how much progress they've made when they host No. 5 Connecticut (9-0) on Wednesday night at the O'Connell Center in the finale of a three-game homestand.

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Florida has won its last two games by an average margin of 39 points by digging in more defensively. First-year coach Todd Golden's decision to crash less players on the offensive glass has resulted in better transition defense. Florida has allowed its opponents to shoot 33.9 percent from the floor over its last two games and 12 of 35 (34.2 percent) from 3-point range.

"Part of measuring our progress or our growth is consistency, and it’s just a little bit too early to determine if we’re consistent or not," Golden said. "We haven’t been as much as I’d like us to be. I feel like over the past two weeks we’ve shown a lot of promise and some really good moments. "

Florida entered the week at No. 69 in the NCAA's NET college rankings. The Gators will be hosting a non-conference Top 10 team for the first time since falling 71-62 to No. 1 Baylor on Jan. 25, 2020. Florida's last win at home against a top 10 non-conference team was Jan. 30, 2016, when the Gators knocked off No. 9 West Virginia, 88-71.

"It’s a meaningful win if we do get this win," Florida freshman guard Riley Kugel said. "Top five ranked team in the nation I believe. It would just set a big accomplishment, and it would create a big journey for us moving on."

UConn an elite opponent

The Huskies have been on a tear to start the season under fifth-year coach Danny Hurley, winning all nine of their games by double digits. They are fourth nationally in KenPom, with includes a No. 9 ranking in adjusted offensive efficiency and a No. 10 ranking in adjusted defensive efficiency.

UConn's attack begins inside with center Adama Sanogo (18.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg) and stretches out to the perimeter with scoring, playmaking point guard Jordan Hawkins, an East Carolina transfer, who is averaging 13.3 points and 3.7 assists while making 3.9 3-pointers per game. In all, five players have led UConn in scoring through its first nine games, and six players have led its squad in rebounding.

"They’re solid in all three phases - offensive, defensively and on the glass," Golden said. "A team that has come together even quicker than even they expected.”

On offense, Florida will need to be wary of the pressure UConn applies on the ball. The Huskies are forcing 13 turnovers per game. Staying strong with the basketball was a big issue in Florida's last loss, an 84-55 drubbing by West Virginia in the PK85 Tournament in Portland, Oregon, as the Mountaineers scored 20 points off 14 Florida turnovers.

Associate Head Coach Carlin Hartman, left Florida Gators head coach Todd Golden signal a play to their players in the first half. The Florida menÕs basketball team hosted the Stetson Hatters at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. OÕConnell Center in Gainesville, FL on Sunday, December 31, 2000. [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]

"They’re just a really solid defensive team," Golden said. "They don’t pressure to the same extent as West Virginia, but they can at times, and they really try to disrupt your action and take you out of what you want to do. That’s going to be part of the challenge, to see if we can compete enough offensively to stay in our stuff.”

PG Kyle Lofton a game-time decision

Golden said point guard Kyle Lofton, who has missed Florida's last two games with back spasms, was expected to practice on Tuesday.

"We’ll make kind of a game-time decision whether he can go or not.," Golden said.

Lofton, who has posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 29-11, would provide an important factor in dealing with UConn's on-ball pressure. His absence has opened up opportunities for other players in the backcourt. Kugel made his first two career starts with Lofton out and has averaged 5.5 points, 1.0 steals and 1.0 assists during the stretch. Golden said the athletic, 6-foot-5 Kugel has earned time on the court based on how well he's defending.

"I’m definitely playing my game," Kugel said. "I don’t really look at it, you know, obviously they’re out that means more playing time for everybody. But I still take it as I do like every other game even when they are here. I just play my game and whatever comes, comes.”