Florida basketball: 3 questions for the Gators heading into Saturday's game at Kentucky

UF coach Todd Golden does not want his team relaxing after the upset of Tennessee. He says if that is the highlight of the season, "that probably means we didn’t make the (NCAA) Tournament."

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Feb 1, 2023; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Florida Gators forward Colin Castleton (12) celebrates as they beat the Tennessee Volunteers during the second half at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida is coming off its signature basketball win of the season, a 67-54 upset of No. 2 Tennessee on Wednesday night that showed the Gators are capable of competing at a high level against high-level opponents.

Now comes another herculean task: facing Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Saturday (8:30 p.m., ESPN). The Gators have only won three times in their last 15 trips to Rupp, dating back to 2007. Kentucky coach John Calipari is 23-9 all-time against Florida.

Florida (13-9, 6-3 SEC) needs more Quad 1 wins to improve its NCAA Tournament resume and Kentucky (15-7, 6-3 SEC) presents another opportunity. The Wildcats are ranked 31st in the NET, while Florida, which holds a 2-7 record in Quad 1 games, is ranked 41st.

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"This is why you want to coach in this league, you know, for opportunities like this," said Florida coach Todd Golden, whose last visit to Rupp was in 2016 as an assistant coach at Auburn. "To go you know, coach against Cal (John Calipari), coach against their team. They're playing a lot better lately. You kind of look at how they've gone and obviously that South Carolina loss at home was kind of a wake-up call for them. And to their credit, they've really picked it up since then. They're playing like a Top 10, Top 15 team."

Golden received congratulations from coaches, family and friends after pulling off the big win over the Vols but doesn't want it to be the highlight of UF's season.

"That probably means we didn’t make the (NCAA) Tournament or we didn’t have a good run at the end of the season," Golden said. "Awesome moment for us, something we feel like we can build off of. But at the same time, I don’t think we’re satisfied with where we’re at.” 

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

Who wins matchup of the centers, Florida's Colin Castleton or Kentucky's Oscar Tshiebwe?

Castleton leads the SEC in blocks per game at 3.1 and is coming off a strong game against the Vols with 20 points and 9 rebounds.

At 6-foot-11 and 250 pounds, Castleton is taller than the 6-9, 260-pound Tshiebwe, but not as physical as the reigning SEC Player of the Year, who is averaging 16.5 points and an SEC-best 13.6 rebounds per game

"It’s what has made college basketball pretty awesome this year," Golden said. "You have two guys that maybe five years ago would have gone pro and you don’t hear from them again and now they came back. I think it’s great for the fans, with the continuity of the rosters and for them to be able to see Castleton come back or Oscar come back and recognize them."

In the last head-to-head matchup between the two high-level SEC bigs, Castleton had 23 points and 11 rebounds, while Tshiebwe wound up with 27 points and 14 rebounds.

"We kind of messed with Colin about it yesterday, you know Colin had a great game against Oscar but Oscar had a great game against Colin also," Golden said. "So we’re going to need a little better defense (Saturday) night."

Can UF find a way to rebound better while playing smaller lineups?

With 6-9 forward Alex Fudge still working his way back from a head injury, Golden has opted to go with a smaller starting lineup. He's replacing Fudge with freshman guard Riley Kugel to go with a four-guard starting lineup around Castleton. As a result, Tennessee grabbed 18 offensive rebounds on Wednesday night. But the Vols only converted the rebounds into 16 second-chance points as Florida played strong second and third-shot defense despite getting beaten badly on the boards.

Golden said he's aware of the issue and wants Florida to play more physical against a rugged Kentucky team that ranks second in the SEC in rebounding margin at plus-7.7.

"Not a lot of solutions in life, a lot of tradeoffs and I feel like this club, we’ve obviously given up a little on the glass but we’ve gotten a lot better in other areas," Golden said.

With Kugel's athleticism in the starting lineup, the Gators have improved scoring and defending in transition. Florida outscored Tennessee 10-0 in fast-break points, a big factor in the win.

"We really run a lot, so I feel that’s a really key point," Kugel said. "Not a lot of teams start basically four guards, so, when you’re facing a team like us, it’s really hard to play against.”

How will Florida handle the atmosphere at Rupp Arena?

Florida will likely face an opposing crowd of more than 20,000 for the first time this season, when it plays at 24,000-seat Rupp Arena, were sellouts are the norm, not the exception.

The Gators have gotten off to slow starts in two of their last three road games, scoring just 12 points in the first half at Texas A&M and 16 points in the first half at Kansas State.

"Hopefully, previous experiences we’ve had so far, you know, we’ll be more comfortable," Golden said. "And I think the key on Saturday, you know, what I was most disappointed about after Kansas State, we didn’t get out to a good start, and it felt like we were a little timid.

"My hope is after this win on Wednesday and the success we’ve had in league play, we’ll go out there and try to throw the first punch on Saturday night."