Florida basketball: 3 questions entering Saturday's SEC contest against Vanderbilt

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Florida forward Colin Castleton (12) works against Alabama center Charles Bediako, while Alabama guard Jaden Bradley (0) watches during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt)

Florida basketball survived a rough four-game stretch against three top-five ranked teams with an overall and SEC record that remains over .500.

But the Gators (13-11, 6-5 SEC) still have work to do if they want to reach their goal of returning to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence.

That process begins Saturday when the Gators host Vanderbilt (3:30 p.m., SEC Network). The Commodores (12-12, 5-6 SEC) enter the game with some confidence after upsetting No. 6 Tennessee 61-60 on a three-pointer by guard Tyrin Lawrence.

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"They’re a little healthier now," Florida coach Todd Golden said. "We know what we’re up against in terms of having a good team. It’s a very good offensive team analytically coming in. A team that’s been a little bit below average defensively, but I think they’re figuring that out, as well."

Here are three questions for the Gators entering the matchup with the Commodores:

Can Florida get its defensive mojo back after two subpar games?

Florida gave up a season-high 97 points in its 97-69 loss to No. 3 Alabama on Wednesday night and 72 points in a 72-67 loss to Kentucky at Rupp Arena a week ago. Before the current two-game losing streak, the Gators went seven straight games without giving up more than 70 points.

“We've just got to stay with it," Florida senior center Colin Castleton said. "We've got to be consistent, come to practice today, work hard, focus on the little things we haven’t been doing as well the last couple games. Transition has definitely been hurting us, I think rebounding also. The last few games we’ve been out-rebounded like by four every single game."

Florida remains No. 11 in the country in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. The Gators have been burned at the 3-point line, allowing opponents to shoot 44.4 percent from 3-point range (20 of 45) during their current two-game skid. Vanderbilt is shooting 32.4 percent from 3-point range, compared to 32.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc for the Gators.

 "I don’t anticipate that being a trend," Golden said of the 3-point line defense. "We’ll get back to being ourselves that way and hopefully being on our home floor we’ll be a little more comfortable in that regard. I wouldn’t say I’m worried about it, but we’re definitely focused on it moving forward.”

Who will win the matchup between teams' shot-blocking standouts Castleton and Robbins?

Castleton (6-foot-11, 250 pounds) and Liam Robbins (7-foot, 250 pounds) rank first and second in the SEC in blocked shots at 3.0 per game. The center who does a better job protecting the rim could determine the outcome of the game.

Castleton said he sees a lot of himself in Robbins.

"Just got to attack them and that’s the only way you go at a shot-blocker," Castleton said. "Guys score on me, they just got at me against my body, so it’s the same thing when they’re going versus a shot-blocker.”

Castleton is on an offensive tear of late, averaging 23 points and 9 rebounds over his last three games. He's tied with Al Horford for fourth on Florida's all-time shot block list with 189.

Can Florida sophomore swingman Kowacie Reeves step up?

The sixth man role appeared to be a good fit for Reeves, who scored in double figures off the bench in three of his first four SEC games this season. But in the last eight games, Reeves has scored in double figures just once, when he poured in 15 against South Carolina on Jan. 25.

Of late, the 6-6 swingman has struggled both making shots and with his shot selection. He's 3 of 20 from the floor over his last four games and, on the season, is shooting 30.7 percent from 3-point range.

"We need him," Golden said. "When he plays well, we’re really, really good so we’re continuing to pour into him. I think his attitude and his energy has been really good and I’m hopeful that as we get back on our home floor and attack this seven-game stretch that he will continue to get better for us.”