Just seven months ago, Florida basketball was in a dangerous position. Former head coach Mike White, following a disappointing seventh season with the team in which the Gators missed the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, opted to depart the team for cross-state rival Georgia.
In the aftermath of the decision, Florida lost out on top recruit Malik Reneau after the five-star power forward flipped his commitment to Indiana. UF had seemingly no direction in a competitive transfer market and nobody at the helm to guide the way. Uncertainty surrounded Florida’s star Colin Castleton, with many believing he’d take the next step to pro basketball.
UF had no coach, no exciting prospects and no signs of success on the near horizon. However, inside the gym at Florida’s first preseason practices this week, things looked very different.
It starts with new head coach Todd Golden.
At 37 years old, he’s making the step up to Southeastern Conference head coaching after three promising seasons leading the San Francisco Dons. He previously worked under Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl and has been categorized into the up-and-coming wave of analytics-focused coaches.
From his introductory press conference, Golden expressed his desire to reshape the roster and construct a more modern offense.
“You should expect to see a big, strong and deep roster that has a lot of skilled and unselfish players that are willing to put the team in front of themselves,” Golden said.
He made good on his promise, bringing in a group of transfers that are set to make an immediate impact. Specifically, guard Kyle Lofton, forward Alex Fudge and guard Will Richard all fit that description.
Lofton, a fifth-year from St. Bonaventure, should make a splash offensively for the Gators. He was second in assists per game and assist-to-turnover ratio in the Atlantic 10 Conference last season. His fast-paced playmaking ability should ease in initiating the offense Golden is striving for.
Fudge looks to serve as an all-around motor for the team. His size and athleticism make him a promising defensive prospect. Fudge averaged just 14 minutes per game his freshman season with Louisiana State but got run with many of the Gators’ returning starters in practice.
Richard, who is out two to four weeks due to a minor leg injury, missed the majority of the week’s practices. Lofton also left the final practice of the week with a groin injury. The team insists the two incidents are minor. In short, Florida will need its transfer class to act as key contributors this season.
Perhaps more imperative than Golden acquiring a solid transfer class; however, is the fact he convinced Castleton to stay for his fifth year of eligibility. The former Michigan transfer was the centerpiece of the Gators’ roster last season. When out with injury, Florida looked like a completely different team. Castleton was primed for another dominant year, and convincing him to return and fulfill that potential is a huge win for Golden.
“Colin’s our most proven player,” Golden said. “It definitely helps when your best player is your best leader. In his mind, he came back here to win and be successful. He’s not gonna leave anything up to chance that way.”
Also returning for the Gators is sophomore Kowacie Reeves. Besides Castleton, the young combo guard will likely have the highest impact of any returning member of the team. He broke out near the end of last season, putting up a career high 21 points in the Southeastern Conference tournament versus Texas A&M. Reeves is poised to take full-time ownership of a starting role this season and will be a focal point offensively for UF.
Apart from anecdotal evidence at team scrimmages, there’s little to show for the Gators at this point before the season. However, excitement within the walls of the Florida basketball practice complex and beyond is slowly growing.
“I think this team has the makings of being an NCAA Tournament team,” Golden said. “That’s a simple barometer that we can use once we get into March to see if we feel like we’ve had a successful season or not.”
The public gets its first chance to see the Gators men’s basketball team in action during the Orange & Blue scrimmage Nov. 1. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
Regular-season action begins six days later when Florida hosts Stony Brook.
Jackson Castellano is a second-year sports journalism student and the assistant sports editor at the Alligator. In the past, he has covered UF basketball and baseball for the Alligator and was an associate editor at ClutchPoints.