BASKETBALL

Florida college basketball: 3 questions for Gators heading into Tuesday's matchup at LSU

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Florida Gators guard Riley Kugel (24) can only watch as the University of Connecticut lead the entire second half. The University of Florida menÕs basketball team hosted the University of Connecticut at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. OÕConnell Center in Gainesville, FL on Wednesday, December 7, 2022. The University of Connecticut defeated the Florida Gators 75-54. [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]

Florida basketball will head back on the road and look to build off its first conference win of the season when the Gators face the LSU Tigers on Tuesday night at the Maravich Assembly Center (7 p.m., SEC Network).

The Gators (8-7, 1-2 SEC) had lost their first two SEC games by an average margin of three points before pulling away to beat Georgia 82-75 on Saturday.

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"We did a good job taking care of the ball down the stretch and put ourselves in position to finish the game, which you know obviously is a big confidence boost for our guys moving forward," first-year Florida coach Todd Golden said.

LSU (12-3, 1-2 SEC) is off to a solid start under first-year coach Matt McMahon, who took three of his top players with him from his prior job at Murray State. There is a familiarity between the two coaches as McMahon's Murray State team knocked Golden's San Francisco team out of the NCAA Tournament last season in a tight game, with Murray State edging USF, 92-87.

"We know these guys pretty well," Golden said. "Matt runs good stuff. They're always going to have good actions with their shooters ....

"He's a good coach and they're a good team. It's a good opportunity for us. I feel like we match up well against them and it should be a good opportunity for us to go on the road and see what we got."

Here are three questions for the Gators heading into their matchup with the Tigers:

Can the Gators contain talented LSU center K.J. Williams?

A Murray State transfer, the 6-foot-10, 250-pound Williams is a polished big man who ranks second in the SEC in scoring (18.2 ppg) and sixth in rebounding (7.7 rpg). He's an inside-out threat who can score in the post while also stepping out beyond the 3-point line, averaging 1.9 3-pointers per game.

"They're going to find ways to take advantage of having a guy like KJ who can shoot it from the frontcourt position," Golden said. "We've got to be mindful of that."

The primary responsibility of guarding Williams will fall upon Florida All-SEC center Colin Castleton, who leads the SEC in blocked shots at 3.0 per game and is coming off a game in which he blocked seven shots against Georgia. But Castleton may need help inside from forwards Alex Fudge, C.J. Felder and center Jason Jitoboh to avoid fatigue and foul trouble.

"When (Castleton) plays at the next level and he plays professionally, he's going to be seeing a lot of really good players," Golden said. "So he's going to have to be ready to go on any given night and I think, for me, that's what I'm most happy with him about. It could be easy at times when you're getting doubled and tripled to allow that to take you out of your game or maybe take your focus away from what's best for the team, but he's been really great about staying with that."

It will be a homecoming game for the 6-9 Fudge, who transferred to Florida from LSU last season after playing sparingly there as a freshman. Fudge is averaging 7.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in his first year with the Gators.

"Obviously, I’m sure he feels fondly for his time in Baton Rouge," Golden said. "But it’s a lot different, the program and the people that are there. My expectation for him is to treat it like any other game, just like we had to do Saturday with Mike (White) coming back."

Can Riley Kugel build off his game against Georgia and stay in the rotation?

Kugel made big shots and big plays down the stretch against Georgia. He was inserted in the game for his on-ball defense to help slow hot-shooting Georgia point guard Terry Roberts. At 6-5, 207 pounds, Kugel has the size and athleticism to become a shut-down, on-ball defender.

"Riley came in and I thought did a really nice job on Terry Roberts, especially in the second half," Golden said. "Cooled him down a little bit, forced a couple misses and you saw Riley’s athleticism and just quickness on display and a little bit of his brain, too.

"Just an incredible cut with about 20 seconds to go off Kyle’s ball screen and was able to get behind his defender for a big dunk that got us back up by 6 points. But when he’s playing at that level and he’s engaged the way he was, he can really help us win."

It's been an up and down freshman season for Kugel, who started three straight games in late November and early December. But he played just three minutes last week against Texas A&M as coaches have pushed him to try to become a more consistent practice player.

“I’m really proud of Riley and the way he played, the minutes he got last game was really impactful for us," Florida guard Will Richard said. "I say all the guys really tried to take him under our wing and stuff like that just keeping him confident in himself and his abilities and stuff and let him know he’s really good and he’s going to be a big impact for us.” 

Will the Gators counter LSU's size with smaller lineups?

LSU will start on the frontline with a pair of 6-10 players with Williams and forward Derek Fountain.

In Saturday's game against Georgia, Florida went with smaller lineups against Georgia and it was effective, using 6-6 forward Kowacie Reeves and even 6-4 guard Will Richard at the power forward spot. Richard held his own on the boards against the bigger forwards he faced, winding up with a season-high 9 rebounds.

On offense, Richard also benefitted from having bigger and slower players try to guard him on the perimter.

"It was definitely easier for me to get more open looks like that, spacing out," Richard said. "It made it easier for other guys to be able to penetrate and stuff like that, so I definitely felt like it helped our offense.”