Florida basketball: 3 questions heading into Saturday's game at No. 5 Kansas State

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Jan 25, 2023; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Florida Gators guard Kowacie Reeves (14) dunks against the South Carolina Gamecocks during the second half at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida basketball (12-8, 5-3 SEC) will begin a daunting four-game stretch with an emotional challenge Saturday when it plays at No. 5 Kansas State (17-3, 6-2 Big 12) in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge (6 p.m., ESPN2).

The Gators have won five of their last six but will face a Kansas State team that is surging under first-year coach Jerome Tang and Florida transfer Keyontae Johnson. who is averaging 18.3 points per game and is in the running for Big 12 Player of the Year honors.

Johnson was not medically cleared to play at Florida after a cardiac incident in a 2020 game at Florida State that left him in intensive care at a Tallahassee hospital for more than a week.

"Obviously, not ideal to have to go and face him for the guys on our team who have been teammates with him and the history he has with the program," Florida coach Todd Golden said. "But again, it is what it is. We have to do whatever we can to eliminate that hidden element for those 40 minutes on Saturday to give ourselves the best chance to win.”

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The game presents another opportunity to pick up a Quad 1 win in the NET rankings, which helps determine whether the Gators qualify for the NCAA Tournament. Florida picked up its first Quad 1 win last week against Mississippi State and is 1-6 on the season against Quad 1 opponents.

There will be more chances after Saturday as Florida will host No. 4 Tennessee on Feb. 1, followed by back-to-back games at Kentucky (Feb. 4) and at No. 2 Alabama (Feb. 8).

"They’re great opportunities, the types of games that if you can win them will flip your whole resume," Golden said. "These are the type of games that we like playing. High upside, low downside. If you lose them, it doesn’t really hurt you. If you’re competitive, if you win it can change the whole complexion of your season."

Florida senior center Colin Castleton said the Gators are ready for the difficult four-game stretch.

"We've been battle-tested all year," Castleton said. "Our non-conference schedule was one of the best, so being able to go through those games. I feel like it's gonna help us in this little stretch we have here. And I think the guys are starting to connect, like I've talked about. We're able to just jell a little bit more, but we'll really see what we're made of in these next couple games,"

Golden said starting forward Alex Fudge will be a game-time decision after suffering a head injury last week at Mississippi State. Fudge sat out Florida's 81-60 win over South Carolina on Wednesday.

"He’s definitely making positive strides," Golden said.

Here are three questions for the Gators heading into Saturday's game at Kansas State:

Can the Gators stop Kansas State from getting out in transition?

Kansas State is a team that likes to push the pace, averaging 77.8 points per game. Florida has sacrificed grabbing more offensive rebounds for getting back in transition to get its defensive set.

“One of the biggest keys to the game will be how we can do to get back and load up our defense against them, make them operate in the half court," Golden said. "They play at a fast pace and they really try to push, really aggressive in transition. That’s going to be a huge part of the game as far as the push and pull, who can win that battle.” 

In addition to Johnson, playmaking 5-foot-8 point guard Markquis Nowell is a dual-offensive threat, averaging 17.1 points and 8.3 assists per game, which ranks second nationally.

"We've got to do a great job limiting him," Golden said. "We want to turn him into a 2-point finisher and fanning out and making him finish in the point. Him, Keyontae have played really, really well for them all year and are a huge reason they’ve had the success they’ve had.”

Can Florida continue its stellar ball movement?

Florida has posted an assist-to-turnover of 37 to 13 over its last two games and is coming off posting a season-high 21 assists in its 81-60 win over South Carolina. Playing point guard Kyle Lofton and combo guard Myreon Jones on the floor at the same time has helped the Gators stay steady taking care of the ball while enhancing ball movement.

"That extra pass is where we’ve gotten really good, turning down a good shot to get a great one," Golden said. "We’ve had a ton of extra pass 3s over the last couple of games, which are the best shots, right, catch and shoot 3s off rotation where there’s nobody coming at you. So, it’s a big reason as to why we’re playing better."

Can the Gators keep Kansas State off the boards? 

One area Florida struggled with in its last game against South Carolina was rebounding, as South Carolina outrebounded 45-36 and scored 21 second-chance points against the Gators with the 6-foot-9 Fudge out of the lineup. Florida could be forced to play more smaller lineups if Fudge can't go again on Saturday.

For the season, Florida enters the matchup with a rebounding margin of -0.6, while Kansas State is at plus-1.5. The 230-pound Johnson is a rugged rebounder inside, averaging 7.5 boards per game.

"We’ll be able to tell after the game how good of an opportunity we gave ourselves depending on what we did on the defensive glass," Golden said. "A challenge, but again we’ll be prepared to go do it and we just have to go out on the floor and execute it.”