Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to March.
The Florida Gators (16-15, 9-9 SEC) start postseason play in the second round of the Southeastern Conference Tournament Thursday against the Mississippi State Bulldogs (20-11, 8-10 SEC). The game is scheduled for 1 p.m. and will be held at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
The Gators locked up the eighth seed in the tournament after their victory against the Louisiana State Tigers at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center March 4. The Bulldogs placed ninth in the conference to set up the matchup.
The last time the teams faced each other was Jan. 21 at the Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Mississippi. UF defeated Mississippi State 61-59.
Bulldogs redshirt senior forward Tolu Smith — who tallied a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds — led the way for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs came within two points with a minute and a half left after being down 33-24 at halftime.
However, Gators graduate student forward Colin Castleton foiled Mississippi State's comeback attempt by contesting three Bulldogs at the rim in MSU’s last possession. Florida freshman guard Riley Kugel said UF needs to prevent a late run this time around.
“I feel like we play the same how we played last game and just stop that little run they tried to go on in the late end of the stretch, I feel we’ll be fine,” Kugel said.
The Orlando, Florida, native shined for UF in the latter part of its regular season. Kugel averaged 20 points per game in Florida’s last three games and earned SEC Freshman of the Week Monday for his performances against LSU and the Georgia Bulldogs — who the Gators beat 77-67 Feb. 28 in Athens, Georgia.
Kugel was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team Monday as well to add to his other accolade.
“It’s an honor,” Kugel said. “To be in high school a couple of months ago — now being in the SEC — all these awards, it’s just very blessing.”
UF head coach Todd Golden plans to send different guys toward Smith on defense Thursday, he said, similar to what Florida did March 4 against LSU fifth-year senior forward KJ Williams. The Gators need to be mindful, he said, and prevent Smith from getting the ball deep inside the paint.
“He’s just a monster on the glass and a really, really good physical athlete,” Golden said. “He’s a very good player and one that’s probably the main reason Mississippi State’s in the position they’re in.”
Florida struggled defensively after Castleton injured his right hand against the Ole Miss Rebels Feb. 15. However, the defense has improved across the last two games. UF held teams to less than 40% from the floor in its last two matchups.
Golden acknowledged the Gators are now a different team from the last time they played MSU, but he said their late-season success boosted his team's confidence.
“Getting those wins builds that foundational belief that you can go out and compete with anybody, and I think going into Thursday, we needed that,” Golden said.
Florida used a “diamond and one” formation on defense throughout the regular season. The defensive formation sees players align into a 1-2-2 or 2-3 zone and quickly changes into a man-to-man defense, depending on what the opposing offense does in its possession.
This staple of UF’s defense won't be something that the Gators will do solely throughout the tournament, Golden said. However, Florida will still press depending on the situation, he said.
The Bulldogs — who have six players listed at 6 foot 5 inches or taller on their roster — use their physicality and height to their advantage on defense. Mississippi State held opponents to 60.4 points per game and averaged 37.1 rebounds per game, almost three rebounds more than UF.
The Bulldogs’ defense is similar to the Gators’ when Castleton was still healthy, Golden said.
“Big, long, athletic, tough, and they do a really good job on the boards,” Golden said. “The way they compete to keep guys in front and to finish possessions is something that we respect a lot.”
The SEC Tournament is a great opportunity for Florida to go on a run and make the national tournament, Golden said.
“It’s kind of a fresh start for everybody going into this one week mini-season,” Golden said. “If you win a couple of games, you can get yourself a bid to the tournament.”
Florida’s fresh start begins in Nashville at the Bridgestone Arena at 1 p.m. Thursday. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network.
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.