An in-state rivalry will be reborn for the first time in nearly a decade in the heart of Gainesville Wednesday.
The Florida Gators (16-16, 9-9 SEC) will begin their campaign in the National Invitational Tournament against the Central Florida Knights (18-14, 8-10 AAU) at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
The last meeting between these two sides was Nov. 23, 2012, when the Gators defeated UCF 79-66 in the O’Dome behind former UF guard Kenny Boyton’s 24 points.
The Knights are coming off of a 81-76 loss in the quarter finals of the American Athletic Conference Tournament against the Memphis Tigers March 10.
Florida has adapted into a small-ball team since it lost its leading scorer, blocker and rebounder, graduate student forward Colin Castleton. UF is led offensively by freshman guard Riley Kugel and sophomore guard Will Richard.
Kugel has been a standout for the Gators in the second half of this season. He has scored double digit points in Florida’s last nine games, including back-to-back 20-point games against Kentucky Feb. 22 and Vanderbilt Feb. 25.
The Orlando, Florida, native struggled, however, in his first taste of collegiate postseason action.
Kugel scored 14 points and shot 4-13 from the field through 39 minutes — the most he’s played in a game this season — in the Gators' 69-68 overtime loss to the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Southeastern Conference Tournament March 9.
Richard had offensive troubles as well; the Belmont transfer scored six points and went 1-7 from 3-point range against the Bulldogs.
The extra games are great experiences for not only for the younger guys on the roster, but also the team itself, UF head coach Todd Golden said.
UF has recently seen more productivity from its veterans — graduate student guard Myreon Jones and sophomore guard Kowacie Reeves.
Jones has averaged 5.2 points per game throughout this season, but in the past three games he’s scored 9.3 points per game. This includes a heroic attempt in the SEC Tournament to keep Florida alive with 11 second-half points against Mississippi State.
Reeves — despite shooting at a 38.3% clip this year — made his presence known on the defensive end. He stole the ball 16 times this season and averages 0.5 steals per game.
The Macon, Georgia, native swiped two steals against the Bulldogs by pressing onto defenders heavily in man-to-man defense.
UCF struggled against this defensive scheme when challenged against the Tigers.
Florida ranks 30th in defensive efficiency in the nation, according to KenPom. The in-state matchup against the Knights will be a challenge as Central Florida is ranked 89th in offensive efficiency in KenPom’s rankings.
UF placed 112th in the same category.
Knights senior guard C.J. Kelly is the main focus of UCF’s offense. The Massachusetts transfer has scored double digit points in each of the past six games.
He scored 28 points against Memphis — the second most for him this season — off of 9-12 shooting from the floor.
Kelly is a ball handler with a bag as deep as the Grand Canyon. As a combo guard who can run the floor and also play on the wings, Kelly has an efficient shot and creates opportunities shooting off the dribble.
“He’s been playing very well and some of that we have to be really mindful of that tomorrow night,” Golden said.
The 6-foot-5-inch guard averages 44.5% shooting from the floor and 39.8% from behind the arc. Kelly averages 13.1 points per game.
The Knights’ offense is directed by sophomore guard Darius Johnson, who aids UCF to 14.2 assists per game by averaging 3.2 himself.
A majority of Central Florida’s assists come from pick-and-roll plays Johnson sets up effectively with usual starting forwards fifth-year Michael Durr and freshman Taylor Hendricks.
The challenge against the bigs inside is nothing new for the Gators — especially in SEC play, Golden said.
However, he did acknowledge that UF needs to find a way to close the gap on the rebounding battle under the basket against the Knights.
“I feel like, especially over the past week or two, we’ve done a better job combatting the size of the other team,” Golden said.
Hendricks is described as a potential one-and-done player for the 2023 National Basketball Association Draft by Sports Illustrated's Derek Parker. The 6-foot-9-inch big man leads the Knights with 15.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game.
He also adds on to UCF’s mirage of 284 made shots from past the perimeter this season — about a quarter of the Golden Knights’ total made shots from the floor. Hendricks shoots at 39.9% efficiency from 3-point range.
Golden said Hendricks is a really skilled and talented offensive player that can also get rebounds. Hendrick’s basketball IQ is ahead of a lot of freshmen in the country, Golden said.
“To be able to do what he’s done in that league over the course of the year is really impressive,” Golden said. “I think we’ll probably get a start on him, but multiple guys will have to guard him and do a good job.”
Johnson has been more aggressive getting to the basket this season for UCF and has led to him producing career best numbers with 10.3 points and 31.3 minutes on the floor per game.
However, he occasionally turns the ball over in tight situations on the ball. Multiple times in the Knights’ recent loss to Memphis, he drove inside the paint and threw the ball out of reach.
Johnson finished the game with eight turnovers.
With the transfer portal now open in men’s college basketball, Golden said the Gators are mindful of what’s going on but will not spend a lot of time on it until the conclusion of the season. He is fully focused on Wednesday.
“We’re still playing and we’re not gonna take that for granted,” Golden said. “We got to try to do everything that we can to get this win tomorrow.”
Florida’s matchup against Central Florida tip offs at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the O’Dome. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Brandon Hernandez is currently the enterprise sports writer and sports podcast host for The Independent Alligator. He likes long walks on the sidewalk and watching basketball tape in his off time. You can find most of his work @BranH2001 on X and on The Courtside Podcast on Spotify.