Florida basketball 2023-24 primer: Todd Golden’s rebooted Gators aim for rebound in Year 2

By OnlyGators.com Staff
November 6, 2023
Florida basketball 2023-24 primer: Todd Golden’s rebooted Gators aim for rebound in Year 2

Image Credit: UAA

Welcome to the Golden era of Florida Gators basketball didn’t get off to a shining start last season. With the Gators still searching for a return to the prominence they once held under future Hall of Fame head coach Billy Donovan, Florida in Year 1 under head coach Todd Golden instead finished below .500 for the first time since 2014-15 and just the second time since 1997-98.

Donovan’s run, of course, included two national championships and four Final Fours with a .715 winning rate — levels of success that would be tough for anyone to replicate. However, the Gators are presently a nonfactor in the national conversation. (Most of Golden’s time at SEC Media Days this year was spent talking about others teams and coaches.) Once a consensus top-two SEC program on the hardwood, Florida has stepped back to become a middle-of-the-road team while others have loaded up with talented coaches and highly recruited prospects.

The Gators have suffered double-digit losses in six of the last seven seasons. They have not advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2016-17.

While other SEC programs have recently gone with stalwarts of the profession to help reestablish their squads (Arkansas’ Eric Musselman, Auburn’s Bruce Pearl, Ole Miss’ Chris Beard, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams), Florida zigged where they zagged.

Golden, 38, remains one of the youngest coaches in Division I. He is seen as a bright, ambitious coach who is heavily focused on analytics. Upon his hiring, one comparison shared with OnlyGators.com by a veteran coaching agent source was Mike McDaniel, the former San Francisco 49ers running game coordinator in Year 1 as head coach of the Miami Dolphins. (For what it’s worth, the Dolphins have been a juggernaut in Year 2 with McDaniel becoming one of the NFL’s most popular coaches.)

Golden is focused on putting individual players in the best position to put the ball in the hoop, eliminating negative plays and creating otherwise advantageous scenarios.

The jury is still out whether Golden will be the right fit, but the way he completely remade the Gators’ roster this offseason was undoubtedly a boom-or-bust move. Five players transferred out. Others left for the NBA Draft, none of whom were actually selected. Ultimately, Golden had nine of 13 scholarships available at one point this offseason.

“We knew we had issues we needed to address, and we did a decent job addressing those issues,” Golden said of the remade roster. “… I don’t ever expect us to bring in [as many] transfer guys as we did this year [again].”

Let’s take a look at where everything stands as Florida opens the 2023-24 season Monday night.

Successful re-recruiting offers hope

For the second straight offseason, Golden’s biggest recruiting wins may have been internal. Florida retained multiple high-level contributors who could have departed the program in the offseason, and Golden once again convinced the Gators’ top player at the close of a season to return rather than try his hand at the NBA Draft.

Riley Kugel, G, sophomore: Golden’s first high-school signee, Kugel blossomed last season. He achieved numerous point-scoring achievements not seen at Florida since Bradley Beal (the last such player to depart after one season for the NBA Draft), including becoming the first Gators freshman since Beal to score double digit points in 10 straight games. As such, he gave Golden a legitimate scoring threat and fulcrum upon which the rest of the team could be built around.

A member of the 2022-23 postseason All-SEC Freshman Team and the 2023-24 preseason All-SEC first team, Kugel averaged 18.5 points over his last six games, shooting 45.4% from 3-point range during that stretch. In many games, he was the lone bright spot for the program. Golden said he had a “fantastic” offseason after tackling a detailed plan to improve in Year 2. He praised Kugel’s consistency and stronger body, which will help him when driving to the hoop.

Will Richard, G, junior: Though Richard was not as likely to leave, keeping him in tow alongside Kugel gives Florida a legitimate one-two punch in the backcourt. He found his role with the team as the season progressed and had his best games at the end of the regular season, shooting 15 of 21 (8 of 14 from downtown) with 42 combined points in consecutive victories. Richard is expected to play more of a pure guard role with Kugel operating as a wing.

New faces, new places

Walter Clayton Jr., PG/G, Iona: Clayton (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) has two years of eligibility remaining. He chose Florida rather than follow his former head coach, Rick Pitino, to St. John’s. Regraded as a four-star prospect and ranked No. 46 overall in the 247Sports transfer rankings, he was a unanimous All-MAAC first-team selection who averaged 16.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 1.8 steals in his second season with the Gaels, starting 31 of the 32 games in which he played. He hit 45.5% of his shots, 43.1% of his 3-pointers (51st nationally) and 95.3% of his free throws (second nationally).

Clayton was widely considered one of the top backcourt players available in the transfer portal, and while he will handle the ball on occasion — and is expected to start games at point guard — he will also go to work creating his own scoring opportunities. Golden believes he will be one of the SEC’s top shooters this season.

Micah Handlogten, C, Marshall: Handlogten (7-foot-1, 227 pounds) is one of the largest players in program history. He averaged 7.6 pounds, 9.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks while starting all 32 games for the Thundering Herd, a season-long performance that earned him Sun Belt Freshman of the Year honors. Listed as the No. 17 overall player in the 247Sports transfer rankings, Handlogten has also been regraded as a four-star prospect. He has three years of eligibility remaining. Though it took him a while to adjust in practice, Golden believes Handlogten has seriously high upside already this season.

Zyon Pullin, PG/G, UC Riverside: Pullin (6-foot-4, 195 pounds) was the top backcourt player left in the transfer portal when he chose to join Florida over Gonzaga, LSU, Michigan, Xavier. He posted career-highs of 18.3 points and 48.6% shooting along with 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 39.4% accuracy from 3-point range in his fourth season with the Highlanders and should contribute as a top pick-and-roll option due to a solid midrange jumper. Pullin has one year of eligibility remaining. He is suspended for the first three games of the season after participating in a postseason tournament aimed at featuring NBA Draft prospects.

Tyrese Samuel, C, Seton Hall: Samuel (6-foot-10, 235 pounds) committed to Florida over Wake Forest. He started all 33 games for the Pirates last season averaging career-highs of 11.0 points and 5.9 rebounds in 23.8 minutes. The three-time Big East All-Academic team selection played in 118 games across his four seasons with Seton Hall, though he did not become a starter until the 2022-23 campaign. The three-star prospect has one season of eligibility remaining.

It was expected that Samuel would serve in a high-usage bench role at the four and five, but if he becomes more of a scoring threat, he could definitely see additional minutes. Early results from practice and preseason scrimmages appear to indicate that he has taken a major step forward this offseason and may be a surprisingly significant part of Golden’s offense.

Julian Rishwain, G, San Francisco: Unlike Florida’s five other transfers, Rishwain (6-foot-5, 190 pounds) was not expected to be a high-impact acquisition but rather a roleplayer to improve the team’s bench once he’s healthy, which he now is after tearing his ACL last season. (Whether he will play this year remains to be seen.) Rishwain started three games for Boston College as a true freshman before transferring to San Francisco. However, after averaging 7.7 points for the Dons across two seasons, including shooting 43% from 3-point range in 2021-22, he fell off massively last year when he started 11 games but averaged just 5.0 points and hit 24.3% of his triples before getting hurt.

EJ Jarvis, F, Yale: Jarvis (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) was one of the top frontcourt players in the transfer portal. He started 22 of 30 games for the Bulldogs last season and had one season of eligibility remaining. His addition drastically improved Florida’s depth at a key position of need. However, Jarvis stepped away from basketball in September amid a “personal” situation, and it is unknown whether he will return to the program this season or ever.

Freshmen who will bolster roster

Alex Condon, C, Australia: Condon (6-foot-11, 230 pounds) participated in the NBA Global Academy but is not draft-eligible until 2026 giving him at least three years with the program. He was rated by 247Sports as the second-best Aussie in the Class of 2023 but has been seen as a high-level developmental talent. If he develops as Golden expects, he may well become a star player for Florida in short order.

Thomas Haugh, PF, Pennsylvania: Haugh (6-foot-9, 200 pounds), originally a member of the Class of 2022, did not have any offers from power conferences, so he made a conscious decision to return to preparatory school. Seen as a late bloomer with a high ceiling, he ultimately chose Florida over Illinois and Maryland, among others. The Gators are his dream program, and Golden said he progressed nicely during the offseason.

Final preseason notes

Secret scrimmages: Florida reportedly defeated No. 13 Miami (91-89 on a buzzer beater from Pullin) and FIU (by 42 points!) this offseason. Kugel remained a tremendous scoring threat, while Samuel and Richard each had standout performances as well. Neither game included much in the way of defense with the Gators’ interior scoring standing out.

Expected starting 5: Clayton – Richard – Kugel – Samuel – Handlogten

Off suspension: Pullin will be clear to rejoin the team on Nov. 17 against Florida State, which he is anticipated to do at that time.

Early birds: Condon and Haugh are both expected to contribute legitimate minutes as true freshmen.

Fine nine: Golden said he would like to have a bench nine players deep in most games.

Not ready yet: Sophomore C Aleks Szymczyk will be out until late November with an injury. He came on to play significant minutes late last season once Colin Castleton went down and was said to have his arrow pointing out during the offseason.

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