After putting the country on notice with multiple top-25 wins and a postseason berth to the NIT last season, the Florida Gators have tasted success, and this year, they want more. As Coach Todd Golden builds on the foundation he and the team established in his second year at the helm in Gainesville, he’s determined to help the Gators get back in the picture of title contention. Picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the preseason media poll, Florida is primed to be a sleeper contender in the SEC this season.
Coach Golden has been meticulously building his program in two ways: through recruiting—both the transfer portal and prep ranks—and instilling a winning mentality and commitment to collective success that all starts on the defensive end. The Gators climbed into the top 10 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings at a point during last season, and they finished ranked eighth in the nation in blocks per game with just over five. Between a mix of highly touted transfers and returning players who’ve improved their games, the Gators added some offensive firepower to the fold, which should make for an exciting brand of basketball.
Riley Kugel is a player many people are expecting to have a breakthrough season. A lot are surprised he even returned to college after the skills he showcased last year and the potential he had to jump to the NBA. The former top-100 recruit earned SEC All-Freshman honors and averaged 12.6 ppg in conference play, the most by a Florida freshman since Bradley Beal in 2011-12. This year, Kugel was voted to the Coaches’ Preseason All-SEC Team.
The 6-5 swingman is the main building block for the Gators, and he’s off to a great start this season, showing why he’s destined to be a first-round pick whenever he does decide to take that step. He dropped a smooth 25 points and 9 rebounds on No. 13 Baylor and continues to thrive in his role despite being at the top of opponents’ scouting reports. Luckily for him, he doesn’t have to bear the burden of offensive output alone. His backcourt partner is proving to be just as lethal.
That partner is Walter Clayton Jr, a 6-2 combo guard transfer by way of Iona, who earned 2023 MAAC Player of the Year. He creates tempo and is going to be a key ingredient to what Florida is aiming to accomplish this season and beyond. His scoring prowess has been on full display, with an early season-high of 28 points against the ACC’s Pittsburgh Panthers. It appears that playing for Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino the last few years at Iona has paid off. Making the jump from mid-major to high-major, Clayton Jr seems right at home. While Kugel might be the player who receives most of the attention due to his NBA frame and pro-style game, Clayton Jr is the head of the snake whose production will dictate how far this Florida team goes.
Other key players include 6-4 graduate transfer Zyon Pullin and 7-1 Micah Handlogten, a sophomore transfer from Marshall. Pullin is a three-time All-Big West honoree who poured in over 1,300 points during his four years at UC Riverside, and Handlogten is a versatile big who was the 2023 Sun Belt Freshman of the Year.
On paper, this Florida roster can compete with anyone in the country. And by the looks of things early on, they might be ready to go dancin’ come March.
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