GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida coach Todd Golden felt some relief, maybe even a little validation, when his overhauled roster played together — albeit unofficially — for the first time.
The Gators won at No. 13 Miami in a closed scrimmage last weekend, a meaningless exhibition that provided plenty of meaning for a Southeastern Conference program trying to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three years.
“I feel like we have a good team,” said Golden, who is entering his second season in Gainesville. “I feel like we’ve grown and gotten better. But until you go up against someone else, you always have those doubts and question marks.”
Florida should have added confidence now after knocking off a team that made the Final Four in April and returned three starters. And the Gators have plenty of room for growth considering Golden’s nine-man rotation includes six newcomers and a completely retooled frontcourt.
“You never know what effort you’re going to get,” Golden said. “This is a new group and it’s their first time playing someone else. I feel like we’ve had a good offseason and the ability to where I’m like, ‘All right, this team has a chance.’ But to go out and then perform that way is a completely different step in the right direction. I was definitely pleased for sure.”
The Gators aren’t quite ready to pencil themselves in for a deep NCAA Tournament run, but they believe they have a chance to have their most talented team since winning 27 games and making a regional final in 2017.
It starts with guard Riley Kugel, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who averaged 17.3 points over the final 10 games of last season. Kugel and backcourt teammate Will Richard are joined by transfers Zyon Pullin (UC-Riverside) and Walter Clayton (Iona). Clayton is expected to be the starting point guard, with Kugel and Richard comprising a three-guard lineup.
Golden welcomed Kugel back with open arms after he tested his NBA draft stock.
“I didn’t want to leave college — I won’t say as a loser — but I didn’t want to leave college with a negative record,” Kugel said. “I don’t want to leave college with a 16-17 record and going, ‘OK, I was on a team that barely won. He did that. That’s cool.’ I want to be on a winning team, show people I can play on a winning team, and I just want to make it as far as we can, hopefully play for a national championship.”
The frontcourt might be the key to Florida’s success. Needing to replace big man Colin Castleton, the Gators landed Marshall’s Micah Handlogten and Seton Hall’s Tyrese Samuel in the transfer portal and signed highly touted freshmen Alex Condon and Thomas Haugh.
Samuel, a graduate transfer, was brought in to “show the younger guys how this little college thing works.” He’s up for the challenge and ready to make the tournament along with everyone else.
“That’s the main goal right now,” he said. “If you make March Madness, everyone’s going to eat.”
Florida also added two more guards, freshman Kajus Kublickas from Lithuania and graduate transfer Julian Rishwain, who played two seasons for Golden at San Francisco. Rishwain averaged 7.4 points in 2021-22 and shot 43% from 3-point range (55 of 128).
The Gators open the season Nov. 6 against Loyola Maryland and play 2019 national champion Virginia in Charlotte four days later. Games against Pittsburgh, Wake Forest, Richmond and Michigan also highlight Florida’s non-conference schedule.
Pullin will miss the first three games because of an NCAA suspension. He was penalized for taking part in the Portsmouth Invitational, an NBA Draft showcase event for pro-bound seniors.
Florida opens at home Nov. 6 against Loyola (Md.) before games against Virginia, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and either Baylor or Oregon State by December. The SEC opener is at home Jan. 6 against Kentucky.
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