BASKETBALL

Florida basketball: 3 questions heading into Saturday's SEC matchup against No. 20 Missouri

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun

In the span of a week, Florida basketball has turned progress into wins under first-year coach Todd Golden.

The Gators (9-7, 2-2 SEC) followed up an 82-75 home win over Georgia with a 67-56 road win at LSU. Now, Florida will try to pick up its first win against a ranked team under Golden when it hosts No. 20 Missouri Saturday at the O'Connell Center (3:30 p.m., SEC Network).

Florida Gators guard Myreon Jones (0) drives to the basket during the first half against the Connecticut Huskies at Billy Donovan Court at Exactech Arena in Gainesville, FL on Wednesday, December 7, 2022. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

“This is what’s great about being in this slate," Golden said. "You have great opportunities and challenges every night."

Florida was competitive in back-to-back SEC losses to Auburn and Texas A&M to start SEC play, losing both games by an average margin of 3 points.

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"Getting that win against Georgia was a huge moment for us, simply because it was a tight game that we finished," Golden said. "It’s kind of funny, but you have one of those and it’s like, ‘OK, we can do it. We can do it.’ You go into that LSU game and just honestly I felt really good about that game for us. I thought our prep was good. I thought our guys' energy and enthusiasm was good."

Here are three questions for the Gators heading into Saturday's matchup with Missouri:

Can Gators maintain defensive intensity?

Florida has held its last six opponents to under 40 percent shooting from the field and has vaulted to 21st in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Gators did more switching on defense in the second half against LSU and it was effective, as Florida held the Tigers to 29 percent shooting in the second half.

“We’ve done it a little bit at times, but in that game it made sense to do so," Golden said. "We like to kind of change the way we guard throughout the course of the game when teams get comfortable or kind of see how we’re covering something, and then at another point, guard it a different way. I think it keeps teams on their heels a little bit.

"To have the ability to switch is really important. Our team because of our flexibility and just because of our personnel we’re able to do it."

Colin Castleton is providing elite rim protection inside, averaging an SEC-best 3.1 blocks per game.

" He’s been the best shot blocker, if not one of the best in the country, all year and it’s why we are one of the best two-point field goal percentage defenses in the country," Golden said.

Missouri, which leads the SEC in scoring at 85.7 points per game, will present a challenge because of its ability to get out on the break and score in transition. Florida's transition defense has improved since its decision to send less players to the offensive glass.

"We’ve proven over the last month that we are a very good halfcourt team when we get teams in that situation," Golden said. "So willing to trade a little bit of that. Again (Saturday) will be a great test for us because if we can get that team in the halfcourt, we can defend probably pretty much any team on our schedule that we have in the halfcourt.” 

Can the Gators avoid another slow start?

Florida has scored less than 30 points in the first half of three of its first four SEC games. The lone exception was against Georgia, but even in that game, Florida fell behind by as many as 13 points in the first half before taking a 39-34 halftime lead.

Against LSU, Florida settled for too many 3-pointers in the first half, going 3 of 17 from beyond the arc in the first 20 minutes before attacking the basket more and getting to the foul line in the second half.

"We got some good looks," Golden said. "We’ll continue to address it. We’ll continue to emphasize it. Then we've just got to go out and do it. Hopefully (Saturday) will be a better start.”

Can Myreon Jones continue his strong play off the bench?

Jones has carved out a role as Florida's first guard off the bench and has stayed on the floor due to buy in on defense. In 30 minutes off the bench against LSU, Jones had a solid all-around floor game with 8 points, 3 assists and 2 steals.

"Had an awesome floor game against LSU and has done a really good job defensively as well," Golden said. "He’s got a lot of deflections, really smart defender, you’re able to do different things with him on the floor. He’s been fantastic."

Jones is averaging 10.5 points and 2.5 points during Florida's current two-game win streak. A transfer from Penn State, Jones has also found the 3-point shooting stroke he demonstrated with the Nittany Lions, going 5 of 9 from 3-point range (55.6 percent) over his last two games.

Down the stretch against LSU, Jones joined Castleton and point guard Kyle Lofton as three fifth-year seniors who were able to navigate the Gators to a big road win. "Just having us three leaders out there, just kept everyone calm and collected during the game," Jones said.