Gators go out with a fitting whimper

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
Mar 9, 2023; Nashville, TN, USA; Florida Gators head coach Todd Golden disagrees with a call by a referee during the first half against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Bridgestone Arena. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

For a lot of proud basketball programs, there’s only one thing worse than making the National Invitation Tournament.

Check that, it’s two things.

The worst would be not even making the NIT. The second-worst would be making it and losing in the first round. And even worse would be losing to an in-state school that relishes beating its highfalutin neighbor.

All that is why the Gators would like to pretend their NIT opener was just a hallucination.

UCF didn’t actually beat them 69-47 to UCF. They didn’t finish the season 16-17, the first losing record in eight years.

Sorry, fans. It really happened.

But the evening wasn’t a complete waste for Florida. One year into the Todd Golden era, the NIT pratfall showed how far the Gators are from regaining their status among the nation’s proudest programs.

Let the autopsy begin.

“Honestly that I need a little time to figure that out,” Golden said. “You know, I think we did a lot of things that worked well, obviously some things didn't. And it's our job to figure out what to do moving forward.”

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One thing that worked well was the collective attitude. UF almost always played opponents tough, even after Colin Castleton broke his hand in mid-February.

That resiliency was nowhere to be found at the O’Connell Center on Wednesday night.

“We just got out-competed,” Riley Kugel said. “Not much to it, we were just out-competed.”

If you’re looking for excuses, you could start with the fact every team’s goal is to make that other tournament. North Carolina turned down its invitation to the Not-So-Big Dance. The haughty Tar Heels only take postseason calls from the NCAA Selection Committee.

“When that doesn’t happen, you have to find a way to rally,” Golden said.

UCF certainly did. The game was pretty much a miniaturized version of the 2021 Gasparilla Bowl. The Gators played like their minds were on spring break. The Knights played like they wanted to rub the Gators’ noses into the court.

“I’m new here, but I heard they were ducking us the past couple of years,” UCF guard C.J. Kelly said. “It feels good to actually get them.”

Florida’s familiar flaws were again on display. Terrible shooting (19-for-59, including 4-for-24 on 3-point attempts) and no inside defense or physical presence (where have you gone, Colin C.? Oh yeah, the bench).

Add some shoddy ball security, and it was a recipe for in-state humiliation. UCF took control with a 20-3 run, punctuated by a steal and dunk by Ithiel Horton with 8:32 left in the first half.

It was the Gators’ 10th turnover. They were on a 36-turnover pace. Maybe North Carolina had the right idea.

“Everybody has to be locked in and come out ready to play,” Will Richard said. “I just felt like we didn’t have it tonight.”

Now that it’s over, how do we judge Golden’s first year?       

He initially said making the NCAA Tournament would be the benchmark. By that standard Year One was a disappointment with an asterisk.

That asterisk was Castleton’s absence. But even before his injury, this team had NIT-caliber flaws. The talent Golden assembled wasn’t in the same league as Alabama or other SEC teams still dancing.

Golden knows what he’s doing. He darned sure knows he needs to upgrade the talent and convince Kugel that he’d be better off spending next year in college instead of riding some NBA bench.

As for that losing record, Golden pointed out that he wouldn’t be the first coach to stumble out of the gate.

Billy You-Know-Who went 13-17 in his first season at Florida. Mike Krzyzewski was 38-47 in his first three years at Duke.

Heck, James Naismith went 14-18 in his first three years at Kansas. And he invented the freakin’ game. Of course, that was long before the invention of the transfer portal.

Now programs can be rebuilt almost overnight. Witness the first-year successes at places like Kansas State and Missouri. If it can happen in Manhattan and Columbia, there’s no reason it can’t happen in Gainesville.

“This team did a lot of things that they can be proud of,” Golden said. “Not to the level I expect for this program as we move forward. But making the NIT in Year One, it could be a lot worse.”

As it turned out, making the NIT made people feel worse about Year One. But it really happened. So did all the shortcomings that led to Wednesday night.

The next step for Golden:

Making sure those things never happen again.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley