Florida basketball: 3 questions for Gators heading into game with Mississippi Rebels

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Jan 28, 2023; Manhattan, Kansas, USA; Florida Gators guard Riley Kugel (24) brings the ball up court during the first half against the Kansas State Wildcats at Bramlage Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: William Purnell-USA TODAY Sports

Florida basketball will wrap up a two-game homestand Wednesday against Ole Miss (6:30 p.m., SEC Network) in need of a win to keep its slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

The Gators (13-12, 6-6 SEC) are coming off a disappointing 88-80 home loss to Vanderbilt on Saturday. Florida has lost three straight and four of its last five as it continues a February stretch that will determine whether the Gators make the postseason in Todd Golden's first season as head coach.

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"Everybody in our program, staff, players included didn’t feel great about how Saturday ended up and realize everything we want is still in front of us," Golden said. "Obviously, it’s a little more difficult now."

Ole Miss (10-15, 2-10 SEC) has lost 11 of its 13 games but did pull off a 78-74 road upset at Georgia last week.

"Definitely a team we know is dangerous and we have to make sure our minds are completely focused for this one, otherwise it can be another tough one for us," Golden said.

Here are three questions for the Gators heading into their matchup against the Rebels:

Can UF regain its defensive intensity and shut down struggling Ole Miss?

Florida's defense has slipped during its three-game losing streak, allowing an average of 85.7 points.

"We guard, we win," Golden said. "We haven't guarded the last two games, which we need to get right for us to be the best we can be."

In reviewing the film, Golden said the issues defending Vanderbilt related to energy and lack of attention to detail to the scouting report.

"We just didn’t have the same tension in our body, the same urgency guarding things, which is why we got pretty good," Golden said. "Our attention to detail wasn’t as good as it has been in most games in terms of being on the scout, trying to take away certain things from other teams."

Ole Miss comes into the game ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring at 67.4 percent per game and 11th in 3-point shooting at 29.5 percent from beyond the arc. But Golden is wary of the best offensive player on the Ole Miss roster, junior guard Matthew Murrell, who is averaging 14.3 points per game and 2.0 3-pointers per game.

"He's been a good player in this league a long time, so we have to be mindful of him," Golden said.

Can Florida break a recent 3-point shooting slump?

The Gators shot a season-low 10 percent (2 of 20) from 3-point range against Vanderbilt and are 12 for 53 from beyond the arc (22.6) during their current 3-game losing streak.

For the season, Florida is shooting 31.4 percent from 3-point range, which ranks 10th out of 14 SEC teams.

"A little bit what we expected," Golden said. "There's certain guys that are maybe shooting a little bit better, certain guys are shooting a little bit worse. We thought that shooting would be a little bit of an issue for us this year in terms of having the depth on the roster to have enough guys that can do it."

Can Riley Kugel and Colin Castleton continue their high-level play offensively?

Castleton has scored 20 or more points in four straight games, becoming the first Florida player to achieve the feat since Nick Calathes in 2009. He's averaging 24.8 points and 9.5 rebounds during the stretch.

Golden said he expects Ole Miss to double the 6-foot-11 Castleton in the post.

"They will throw some different looks at him, whether it’s running a little double at him, or fronting him, making it hard to catch,” Golden said. “But the great thing about Colin is he’s so flexible in the way he can play offensively that if they’re doing that, we can get him catches in different parts of the floor and he can still be really effective.”

Kugel is coming off a career-high 18 points against Vanderbilt and is averaging 16.5 points over his last two games. The 6-5 freshman guard is finishing better at the rim, going 13-for-19 on two-point shots over his last two games.

 “It’s credit to him for continuing to put the work in and getting better," Golden said. "He is what you hope happens with a really talented young player."