Take a bath, Todd Golden. (Photo via Florida Gators)
In the first year of Gator basketball’s Todd Golden Era, three things have been noteworthy.
Florida has played with faster tempo on on offense and thus garnered more possessions, and with those extra possessions came more bad shots and turnovers. Florida has also brought the intensity on defense on a near-nightly basis, resulting in an adjusted KenPom rating of eighth in the country- meaning that Florida allows the eighth-fewest points per possession in the country. And, oh, yeah, Colin Castleton is still a monster.
At long last, those three things came together on the same night against a quality opponent. And now, Todd Golden and the Gators have the type of victory on their NCAA Tournament resume that the Selection Committee cannot ignore in the form of an emphatic 67-54 victory of the #2 Tennessee Volunteers.
Florida jumped out to a 17-4 lead in the early minutes, weathered the Vols’ best shots, survived Tennessee’s recapturing of the lead in the second half, and ground it out late. The win puts Florida at 13-9 (6-3) on the season; it also vaults the Gators up from #52 in the NCAA NET rankings to #41. Typically, being a top-35-ish team in the NET rankings means a team is safe for the NCAA Tournament.
But one game at a time. It’s still too early to think about March, as February has just begun. This night was about a spectacular performance from Colin Castleton and his supporting cast- and about Florida finally showing the apex of its abilities.
After going up 17-4, the Gators’ lead slowly melted away. Tennessee would claw back to within one on back-to-back layups from Josiah-Jordan James and Olivier Nkamhoua with 4:27 remaining in the first half. Florida, to its credit, responded by locking down defensively and shutting the Vols out for the remainder of the half, adding a Will Richard three and an Alex Fudge dunk to punctuate the half. But then the Vols came out and began to turn the game around in the second half.
The Gators and Vols traded buckets in the first few minutes of the second half, but after the first media timeout, Tennessee began to really close in. Zakai Ziegler’s three with exactly 13:00 showing on the clock knotted the game at 36, and though Castleton put Florida back up n the next trip down the floor with a dunk, Zeigler’s next three moments later gave Tennessee its first lead since it was 4-2.
In the ensuing moments, it seemed like the Vols were set to take control. Santiago Vescovi hit all three free throws after being fouled to put the Vols up by six, and after Florida had cut it down to two with nine minutes left, Zeigler buried a jumper to put Tennesseee back up by four. This was the point in the game, it felt, that the championship-caliber Tennessee team was set to answer anything Florida did with a bucket of its own.
The Gators had other ideas.
Myreon Jones’ rainbow three drew the Gators within a point on the next possession, and Riley Kugel’s layup on the ensuing trip down the floor gave Florida the lead for keeps. This started a 13-0 Gator avalanche that featured another three from Kyle Lofton, and though Zeigler finally broke it with another three of his own, Castleton’s response to that was an and-one that made it 58-49 with 3:25 to go. That knocked the Vols down for the count.
And though Tennessee would fight back to within seven on a trio of free throws following a questionable (bad) foul call on Jones, Richard’s layup seconds later proved to be the dagger. And that was that.
To some, the victory was somewhat reminiscent of last year’s victory over #2 Auburn. And the similarities are fair to point out: last year’s Auburn team, like this year’s Tennessee team, was ranked #2 in the country, and was very good, albeit not great on offense, while elite defensively.
But in terms of what the respective victories do for the programs, the differences were night and day.
The Auburn win came with limited joy because of who the coach was, and the situation he had the program locked in. Mike White was what he was. And what he was was a slightly-above-average basketball coach at a top-15 basketball job that’s easy to win at for great coaches; yet in White’s seven years at Florida, he managed to coach Florida to two top-four finishes in the SEC standings and one trip to the Sweet 16 or farther.
And on top of the above sentence that reads, “he was what he was,” the words “we knew what he was” have to be added. He’d run his course. He’d hit his peak. We all knew, whether we wanted to admit it or not, that the program under White had seen its best days. We’ve documented those many… many… many times before.
But with Todd Golden, there’s real hope. The Gators’ truculent, swarming defense that held Tennessee to its season-low of 54 points is part of what gives us reason to believe the program can return to the heights it’s supposed to strive for, not part of a vicious cycle that was predictable as sunrise. We had too many data points to believe anything other than, whenever Florida would win a big game under White, they’d give it right back in the standings with a head-scratching loss to cancel it out.
There’s hope that what this team showed can be a blueprint for the program, not just the top of a Ferris wheel we can expect to enjoy one or two times a month. There’s hope that this year’s team can ride this momentum forward, and build off it in the final month of the season. There’s hope that Florida can round into form at just the right time, and be that dangerous 9 or 10 seed that nobody wants to face in the NCAA Tournament.