Photo by James Gilbert | Getty Images

Coming into the 2023-24 season, the Gators are looking to bounce back after a disappointing first year under head coach Todd Golden. Florida finished last season with a 16-17 record and went .500 in conference play. With lots of new faces on the squad this year, Golden and company are hoping to get the Gators back in the NCAA tournament for the first time in three seasons.

New Look Gators

This Florida Gators team is going to look a lot different than it did a year ago. Florida lost nine of it’s 15 rostered players from last season. The most notable of those nine is big man Colin Castleton. Castleton was the Gators’ leading scorer, rebounder and blocker in the ’22-’23 season. He was also a captain and leader on the court with his enthusiasm and passion for the game. He signed with the Los Angeles Lakers this summer as an undrafted free agent.

With just six returners for this year, Golden had to find high-level talent to replace some big holes in the team. He did that in both recruiting and the transfer portal.

Walter Clayton Jr. was one of Florida’s big splashes in the portal this summer. Clayton is a junior guard who spent his first two years in college with Rick Pitino at Iona. Last year, he averaged 16.8 points per game to go along with four rebounds, three assists and 1.8 steals per contest. He shot 46% from the field and 43% from deep. He also led the nation in free throw shooting as he went 102-107, a 95% clip. Clayton’s impressive season earned him MAAC Player of the Year honors.

To go along with Clayton in the backcourt, Golden added graduate transfer Zyon Pullin from UC Riverside. Pullin brings a lot of experience to this Gator group as he has scored over 1,300 points in his 109 game career. He scored 18.3 points a game a year ago, shooting at an efficient 49%. Pullin was awarded First Team All-Big West honors last season, the third time was named to an all-conference team. The sharpshooting guard will be a great piece for this Florida squad.

The Gators added three more transfers this offseason. Graduate transfer guard Julian Rishwain played at and graduated from San Francisco where he was coached by Golden for two years. He will be reunited with his old mentor in Gainesville.

Micah Handlogten and Tyrese Samuel are the final two pieces from the portal added to the Florida Roster. Handlogten is a 7’1″ center from Marshall who will add some much-needed size to the Gator roster. Samuel is a graduate of Seton Hall who started every game for the Pirates last season.

Familiar Faces

While Florida added some big-name transfers in the summer, there are a few guys coming back who will be key to the success of this program going forward.

Riley Kugel is the first name that comes to mind. Kugel, who is now in his sophomore season, will play a huge role on this Gators’ team this year. As a freshman, he averaged over 12 points per game in SEC play, including back-to-back 20 point performances against Kentucky and Vanderbilt. He was put on the Jerry West Award Watch List and earned Preseason All-SEC Second Team honors before the year tips off. His scoring ability earned him SEC All-Freshman honors last year and solidified his spot in the starting lineup this season.

Will Richard is another guy who will need to be on his game if Florida wants to get back into the Big Dance. Richard led the Gators in 3-point shooting volume and accuracy as a sophomore. He made 51 threes on 40% shooting from deep. His best performance last year was a 24-point game with five made triples against Georgia. Richard will be playing a bigger role this season, and it looks like he is up for the task.

Tip-off Around the Corner

The Gators will open their season at the O’Dome on Monday against Loyola Maryland. While Florida should handle the Greyhounds and a few other mid-major schools, there will be some tough tests for the Gators in non-conference play.

Florida will face off with Virginia, Florida State, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and Michigan all before the conference schedule begins.

Once the Gators get into the SEC play, it does not get any easier. They start conference play with a bang against Kentucky at home on Jan. 6. There are five SEC teams ranked in the preseason AP Poll and Florida will have to face all five, including Alabama and Kentucky twice.

Although the Gators lost some key players from last season’s roster and have a tough schedule this year, Golden has high hopes for his squad. Look for Florida to make a big jump forward in the shooting department and show some exciting sparks on the defensive end. It will be interesting to see if these components will be enough to get the Gators back in the national conversation.

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