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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Despite early exit in March Madness, signs of promise evident for Florida program

After a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament, there was still a sense of pride from the Gators

Gators men's basketball freshman forward Thomas Haugh goes to help up guard Walter Clayton Jr. in the team's win over the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, February 18, 2024.
Gators men's basketball freshman forward Thomas Haugh goes to help up guard Walter Clayton Jr. in the team's win over the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday, February 18, 2024.

In what was the most successful season for the Florida men’s basketball program in recent years, it was far from the finish Florida fans were hoping for. The No. 7-seeded Gators fell to 10-seed Colorado in the Round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament, Friday. 

The matchup marked the earliest March Madness exit in 14 years for UF. However, this year’s team undoubtedly exceeded outside expectations and brought the program back to a relevant status.

In an era of college sports where it may be more difficult than ever for a head coach to put together a talented roster while dealing with NIL negotiations, evaluating the transfer portal and recruiting high school players, Florida’s Todd Golden was up for the task in just his second year.

Regardless of the team’s early exit, Golden utilized the transfer portal and built a winning culture and formula at UF in just one year after an underwhelming 16-17 record during his first stint in 2022-23.

For upwards of 20 games, Golden rolled out a starting lineup consisting of five players who hadn’t played a single minute of meaningful basketball together prior to the season starting.

The additions of junior Walter Clayton Jr., sophomore Micah Handlogten and graduate students Zyon Pullin and Tyrese Samuel from the transfer portal paid massive dividends throughout the season.

“We’re going to miss ZP and Tyrese a lot,” Golden said Friday. They’re going to be hard to replace. But the goal is that these younger guys will continue to grow and get better, and we’ll find guys that are the right fit with great attitudes and great work ethics and [that] really want to be Gators.”

It can be difficult for a team with four first-year transfers to come together and mesh in just one offseason to form a starting lineup. 

And there were struggles early. UF started just 1-3 in SEC play. 

However, this team’s ability to compliment one another’s style of play on the court, while forming a connected bond off the court, led to the winningest season the Florida men’s basketball program has had in the last seven years.

“I just can’t thank the coaches enough for bringing this group together,” Samuel said. “Obviously, it’s not the finish we wanted, but I think we put on for Florida and we put Florida back on the map, and this is the foundation that’s set, and the standards that are only to get better from here.”

It will be a hard pill to swallow for a Florida team that will enter its offseason earlier than expected. 

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Though, the Gators were picked to finish ninth in the SEC standings. UF’s fourth-leading scorer on the year, in junior forward Will Richard, is well aware that there shouldn’t be much room for a team that overachieved to hang their heads. 

“Nobody thought we’d get to this point,” Richard said. “So we’re still proud of each other, proud of this group and just keep our heads up [and] improve from it. Definitely still looking at the brighter side. Nobody expected us to get here. So it’s something to definitely hang your head up high on.”

The loss against Colorado halted the hopes of what many analysts thought was a Florida team that was capable of making a deep run after making its first appearance in an NCAA Tournament since 2021.

But this season showed a glimpse of promise for a program that had its most conference wins since 2020, most overall wins since 2017 and was the highest-scoring team in the history of the program at 85.6 points per game.

“Yeah it was special,” Pullin said. “I appreciate the coaching staff and these players for embracing me. The season didn’t finish the way we anticipated, but I can’t be more thankful to put this jersey on.”

However, this year meant more than just the wins and loss column to Pullin. The level-headed point guard played in his last collegiate basketball game of his career, Friday. 

Out of the five teams that Pullin has been a part of between his four years at UC Riverside and one at Florida, he said he has never experienced as close-knit of a group as he did during his only season dawning the Orange and Blue.

“I’d definitely say it’s probably the closest team I’ve been on,” Pullin said. From the stuff on the court to off the court, guys just wanting to be around each other, something that stands out, and I can’t thank these guys enough just like I said earlier, just embracing me. We’ve got a lot of great guys on this team.”

As Golden enters his third offseason as Florida’s head coach, he will be faced with the tall task of replacing key contributors such as Samuel and Pullin.

However, retaining his leading scorer in Clayton Jr. would be a huge first step in getting the program back to March Madness in 2025. The Iona transfer scored a career-high 33 points against Colorado and kept the Gators’ hopes of victory alive until the final buzzer sounded.

“Walt is a fantastic player,” Golden said. “Got a lot of heart, got a lot of belief. He believed the whole time that we could get back in the game. He’s a stud, man. He’s a Gator. We’re fortunate to have him.”

UF’s head coach will need to embrace the challenge of getting his team over the hump to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament next season. 

Golden found success last offseason tapping into the transfer portal to bring quality players into the program who contributed immensely to the team’s impressive 2023-24 campaign. It'll be likely that Golden will use the same recipe for success to replace the production from this year’s squad.

With the program perhaps ahead of schedule compared to where outsiders may have thought, Golden has a great deal of confidence in the direction of his team. 

“Really proud of where this program is right now,” Golden said. “The way this team played all year, 24 wins in our league is really hard to do. A good building block season for us, and our hope is to continue to raise the bar as we move forward.”

Contact Max at mtucker@alligator.org. Follow him on X @Max_Tuckr1.

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Max Tucker

Max Tucker is a junior transfer student at UF. After obtaining his A.A. in Journalism from Santa Fe College in 2023, he chose further his education at Florida's College of Journalism and Communications. Max is currently pursuing his Bachelor of Science in Journalism with a specialization in sports and media. He enjoys golfing and going to the beach with his friends in his free time.


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