Florida basketball: 3 questions for Gators heading into the SEC Tournament

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Florida Gators guard Riley Kugel (24) can only watch as the University of Connecticut lead the entire second half. The University of Florida menÕs basketball team hosted the University of Connecticut at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. OÕConnell Center in Gainesville, FL on Wednesday, December 7, 2022. The University of Connecticut defeated the Florida Gators 75-54. [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]

For Florida basketball, one last shot to reach the NCAA Tournament comes down to this week in Nashville, Tenn., in the SEC Tournament.

The Gators (16-15, 9-9 SEC) will need to win four games in four days to secure an automatic bid to qualify for the Field of 68.

The good news? Eight-seed Florida will begin tournament play on Thursday against nine-seed Mississippi State (1 p.m., SEC Network) a team it beat 61-59 on Jan. 21 in Starkville, Miss. Florida can play the role of spoiler, as the Bulldogs (20-11, 8-10 SEC) enter this week on the NCAA Tournament bubble as one of the last four teams in the tournament, according to Joe Lunardi's Bracketology.

"The great thing about going to the tournament is everybody has equal opportunity to go on a run and get there," Florida coach Todd Golden said. "You know, it's been done before, so the opportunity’s there. It starts with Thursday. It's kind of a fresh start for everybody going into this one-week mini season where if you win a couple of games, you can get yourself a bid to the tournament.”

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If Florida can beat Mississippi State, it won't get any easier on Friday. The Gators will face top-seed and No. 4 Alabama. Florida lost 97-69 at Alabama on Feb. 8 in its lone meeting this season with the Crimson Tide.

The Gators have regrouped without standout forward Colin Castleton, who earned All-SEC first team honors this week after leading the Gators in scoring (16.0 ppg), rebounding (7.7 rpg) and blocked shots (3.0 bpg). Florida posted back-to-back wins over Georgia and LSU to close the regular season and is 2-3 since Castleton went down with a season-ending broken hand on Feb. 15 against Ole Miss.

"We knew it was going to take a little bit of time without Colin for other guys to get comfortable," Golden said. "And as we talked about, it's one thing to change some guys' roles. But when you lose Colin, who was the focal point really on both ends of the floor, now 2 through 13, everybody's job changes because everybody has to step up and take on more responsibility. It took us a little bit to get comfortable with that."

Here are three questions for the Gators heading into the SEC Tournament:

Can freshman guard Riley Kugel maintain his high level of play?

Kugel has scored in double figures in eight straight games, the longest streak for a Florida freshman since Bradley Beal scored in double figures 10 times in a row during the 2011-12 season. His 12.6 points per game in SEC play are also the highest for a freshman since Beal averaged 14.4 points per game as a freshman.

 "If he wasn't as mentally tough as he's proven to be, he wouldn't be in this position," Golden said. "You know, and he has, like all freshmen, gone through some tough stretches of the season. Beginning the league (play), didn't play in the game against Auburn. And then you look two months later where he made the commitment to continue to practice really hard, have a great mentality, great mindset, achieve the different things we put in front of him as coaches, and now he's reaping the benefits of that."

Kugel scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half to help Florida rally back from down 12 to beat LSU 79-67 in its regular-season finale last Saturday.

If Kugel can continue to step up in big spots, Florida may have a chance to make a tournament run.

"We could definitely make a run in this tournament," Kugel said. "There is no reason why we shouldn’t have any doubts of not winning this.”

How will UF handle MSU forward Tolu Smith and Bulldogs' on-ball defense?

The Gators held the 6-foot-11 Smith, who earned All-SEC, first-team honors this week, to 12 points on 5 of 15 shooting in the first meeting between the two schools. But that was when he was guarded in the post by Castleton, who earned USA Today SEC defensive player of the year honors this week and ranks fourth in the nation in blocks per game.

Golden said Florida will throw different defenders at Smith to compensate for Castleton's absence.

 "He’s just a monster on the glass and a really, really good, physical athlete," Golden said. "We’re going to have to run different people at him for sure and do the best we can to limit him."

On defense, Mississippi State can dial up the pressure, ranking second in the SEC in scoring defense (60.4 ppg allowed) and second in steals (8.9 spg). Florida senior point guard Kyle Lofton was terrific taking care of the ball in the first meeting with MSU, posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of 6 to 0. The Gators are going to need Lofton to be steady with the ball again Thursday.

"Their length, again, they’re very physical at the point of attack, both on the ball and in ball screen coverages," Golden said. "You have to be both mentally and physically tough to win against them and so, we’ve got to do a good job being prepared for that.”

Does Florida have enough depth to make a tournament run?

Florida has used 10 different scholarship players in each of its last two games. Junior guard Niels Lane and freshman point guard Denzel Aberdeen have carved out roles off the bench of late, with Lane providing value on defense.

Golden said the approach in the SEC Tournament will be to lean heavily on his veterans in the first game against the Bulldogs.

"My whole deal is do everything we can to win on Thursday and then figure it out," Golden said.

Lofton has logged heavily minutes at the point throughout his college career. He's averaging 32.2 minutes per game for the Gators and this season became one of eight players in the last 25 years to log 5,000 minutes in his career.

"Whatever it takes," Golden said. "In the past, playing Kyle 38-40 minutes to win the game, he's gonna play 38 to 40. We'll throw him in the ice bath and then run him back out there the next day. Bu, you know, the great thing is these guys are young, they're in great shape and they want to do everything they can to win."