Florida basketball: 3 questions for the Gators when they host No. 2 Tennessee Volunteers

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Jan 28, 2023; Manhattan, Kansas, USA; Florida Gators forward Colin Castleton (12) drives around Kansas State Wildcats forward Ismael Massoud (25) during the second half at Bramlage Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Florida basketball will get another opportunity during a brutal four-game stretch when it hosts No. 2 Tennessee on Wednesday at the O'Connell Center (7 p.m., ESPN2).

The Gators (12-9, 5-3 SEC) are coming off scoring a season-low 50 points in a 64-50 loss at No. 5 Kansas State. Tennessee (18-3, 7-1 SEC) has won nine of its last 10 games with a suffocating defense that has held six of its eight SEC opponents under 60 points.

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Florida will face its third different Top 5-ranked opponent in 2022-23, matching the most different Top 5 teams the Gators have faced in the course of a season in program history.

"It’s a tough challenge," Florida coach Todd Golden said. "It will test you, but again, my hope and what I’m confident about, we’ve been going the right way. We’ve won five out of six in the SEC, which is really tough to do. So, our guys should be confident in knowing what we’re doing is working."

Here are three questions heading into Wednesday's game:

Can the Gators get Colin Castleton going earlier in the game?

Florida center and leading scorer Colin Castleton (14.9 ppg) scored 2 points in the first half of Florida's last game, a big reason why the Gators were behind 37-16 at halftime. At times, Florida settled for too many 3-pointers instead of trying to work the ball inside to Castleton.

Castleton has faced double teams throughout the season, but Florida's inability to knock down open shots has caused teams to continue to sag down low and take the 6-foot-11 center out of the game.

"We're going to try to continue to get him the ball in spots where he can be more efficient scoring," Golden said. "But at the same time, we have to do a better job taking advantage of the way teams guard us. Really every team we've seen the past couple of weeks is doubling him instantly on the catch. It's not a lack of his ability in terms of being able to finish through that or score.

"I feel we've gotten some looks when we throw out and move the ball out of those double teams. Especially on the road, we have to step up and shoot the ball a little bit better."

Can the Gators take better shots returning home?

Florida went 6-for-29 from the field in the first half against Kansas State, a combination of taking some rushed ill-advised shots and misfiring on other open looks.

"In the first half, we took some quick ones early on that I didn't think were great," Golden said. "But we got enough good ones, or some good ones, that you have to on the road against a top-5 team you have to step up and knock down at the same time. We could probably manufacture a few better looks but given what we got, we probably should have scored more than we did in the first half."

The Gators shot 4 of 22 from 3-point range (18.2 percent) on Saturday. Florida returns home, where it has averaged 7.8 3-pointers per game in its first four SEC games while shooting 34.1 percent (31 of 91) from beyond the arc.

"You’ve got to have that confidence, that belief and knowing that when you are taking the right ones that eventually if you stay the course, you’ll knock them down," Golden said.

How will Florida handle Tennessee's physicality?

The Vols are a rugged, veteran team who lead the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (per KenPom) and leads the SEC in scoring defense (54.5 ppg allowed). On offense, Tennessee works the ball inside-out with four scorers averaging in double figures, led by senior guard Santiago Vescovi (12.2 ppg).

"They do a good job of taking advantage of their size and physicality," Golden said. "They duck in a lot around the rim. We’ve got to take away those easy catches. We’re going to probably put them in a spot where they have to make some threes, which if they do, you’ve got to tip your hat a bit. You can’t take away everything."

Tennessse's rebounding margin of 8.1 per game also leads the SEC.

"We’ve got to fight to keep them off the glass," Golden said. "That’s going to be a big challenge for us. They’re one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country."

Florida senior center Jason Jitoboh is aware of how physical the Vols play. Jitoboh took a finger to the eye in a game against Tennessee, an injury that ended his 2021-22 season and nearly ended his career. He's had four corrective surgeries since the injury to repair nerve damage and a detatched retina.

"It's definitely emotional," Jitoboh said. "I feel a lot of emotions when I think about Tennessee, and I think about that game and I think about the year I've had. I just prepare for it like it's another game but just knowing that there's something I need to prove to myself."

At 6-11, 300, Jitoboh will be counted on to provide relief for Castleton and bang in the paint.

"For me, it's about being able to match their physicality but without fouling," Jitoboh said. "Being able to stay on the court and impacting the game."