The Florida Gators have turned a corner after starting Southeastern Conference play with back-to-back losses. They’ve rattled off three straight conference wins to earn a positive SEC record.
The Gators (10-7, 3-2 SEC) continue to build momentum as they head past the midway point of the season. Florida secured its first SEC win against the Georgia Bulldogs and followed it up with two more wins against Louisiana State and Missouri. Its defense has been a point of emphasis over the winning streak.
Florida played LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tuesday night. Allowing opponents to get ahead early has been an issue all season for UF, and the game against the Tigers was no different.
“We’re really consistent at being bad in the first four to six minutes of the game,” said Todd Golden, UF head coach. “We need to stop digging ourselves holes.”
The Gators trailed 7-0 before sophomore guard Kowacie Reeves scored the team’s first points. Florida trailed 28-25 at halftime after an abysmal shooting performance — the team shot just 8-28 from the field.
Florida turned its shooting around in the second half. The Gators shot 11-20 from the field and outscored LSU 42-28 in the half to secure their first SEC road win, 67-56. The defense played a massive role in the road victory.
The Gators forced 16 turnovers, which led to 23 points. They stifled the Tigers down low to the tune of eight blocks. Louisiana State was held to 32.2% shooting and 17.9% from beyond the arc.
UF headed back to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center to take on the then-No. 20 Missouri Tigers Saturday. Florida once again started poorly. It fell behind 11-0 before scoring its first points of the game.
The Gators rallied back to tie the game at 28 apiece going into halftime. They finished the first half 9-22 from the field despite missing their first five shots.
Missouri and Florida traded baskets to start the second half, but efficient shooting helped UF pull away. The Gators finished the second half 15-29 from the field and put the Tigers away, 73-64.
Graduate student forward Colin Castleton was the driving force behind Florida’s success over the three-game stretch.
Castleton got to the charity stripe time and time again against LSU; he finished 12-15 from the free-throw line. He scored 18 points and collected five blocks in the win.
The 6-foot-11-inch forward compiled 16 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against Missouri. His scoring performance helped him surpass 1,000 points in his Gators career. Castleton is the second UF player to score 1,000 points as a Florida transfer, joining former Gator Dorian Finney-Smith.
His presence in the paint has also helped the Gators win games — his 3.1 blocks per game ranks third in the country, according to ESPN. Castleton was also named SEC Men’s Basketball Player of the Week Monday.
“I really love defense,” Castleton said. “So I’ll take pride in it.”
Another key factor behind Florida’s recent success was its defense. The Gators rank 14th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency as of Monday, according to KenPom.
The Gators tamed both Tigers from 3-point range in their past two games — holding LSU and Missouri to under 20%. Florida was also a presence in the paint with 5.9 blocks per game, which is tied for the seventh best average in the country, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.
“It’s a great backbone to have in your program, to be a great defensive team,” Golden said. “You’re going to give yourself a great chance to win more often.”
The Gators' defense could become a deciding factor in close games. Florida’s winless in one-possession games, accounting for three of its seven losses. The Gators rank 319th in the NCAA in luck, a stat that compares actual records to expected records, according to KenPom.
Maintaining this level of defensive efficiency could help UF turn what would’ve been close losses into wins heading into the latter half of the season.
Florida graduate student guard Myreon Jones has emerged as a key contributor. He only played more than 20 minutes in a game once in the team’s first 14 games. However, he’s played 27 minutes or more in every game of the Gators’ three-game winning streak.
Jones dropped a season-high 13 points in UF’s first SEC win against Georgia. He put up eight points against LSU. The 6-foot-3-inch guard played a massive role against Missouri; he finished with eight points, five assists and four rebounds.
“You’re able to do different things with [Jones] on the floor,” Golden said. “He’s been fantastic.”
Florida’s next game will be on the road against the Texas A&M Aggies at 7 p.m. Wednesday in College Station, Texas. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network.
Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.