Two SEC teams clash on the hardwood as the No. 20 Missouri Tigers travel to Gainesville to face the Florida Gators on Saturday. Missouri, posting a 13-3 record, looks to bounce back from a rough loss against Texas A&M while the Gators, holding a 9-7 record, seek to continue their SEC win streak. Florida beat LSU in Baton Rouge on Tuesday and defeated Georgia on Saturday.
Battle of the first-year head coaches
Both teams feature new head coaches this season, and a victory for either would be a boost in confidence. Gators head coach Todd Golden was hired in March 2022 after Mike White left to coach the Georgia Bulldogs. Golden previously coached at the University of San Francisco and created a solid program there. In three seasons leading the Dons, Golden posted a 57-36 record. In his final season, San Francisco had a 24-win season capped off by a NCAA Tournament bid. It was the first time the program had been in March Madness since 1998.
Missouri hired Dennis Gates as their head coach in March 2022 to replace Cuonzo Martin, who was fired on March 11. Gates formerly coached at Cleveland State University and flipped the weak program around in just three years. After a 11-21 record in his first season leading the Vikings, Gates rebounded with a 39-19 record in his final two years coaching the squad. Cleveland State also had an appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 2021.
Each coach built a winning program at their respective school and were brought in by SEC teams hoping they’d replicate that success. A win for either Golden or Gates will be an impressive feat for the new coaches.
A key point in this matchup will be how Missouri deals with Florida’s big man, Colin Castleton. At a towering 6’11, Castleton has been a dominant force for the Gators this season, leading the team in points (14.9), rebounds (7.4) and blocks (3.1). The fifth-year senior, who transferred from Michigan in 2020, is a focal point in both the Gators offense and defense. He is able to consistently score and draw fouls in the paint and sends shots and players away from the hoop.
Missouri, lacking a true “big man,” will have their hands full with Castleton. The Tigers’ head coach Gates often plays a “small ball” five. Kobe Brown, a 6’8 guard/forward, is usually the tallest player on the floor for Missouri. However, Brown rarely plays like a center, opting to rather play outside of the paint on both sides of the court. In their victory over Vanderbilt on Saturday, the Tigers had a tough time dealing with the Commodores’ 7’0 senior Liam Robbins. He scored 16 points, including six free throws, and posted seven rebounds. Missouri’s lack of a legitimate forward/center opens up a big opportunity for Florida’s Castleton to have a big game. Expect the Gators to feed Castleton often in the paint.
Gators depend on defense
While the Gators will heavily rely on Castleton on Saturday, the rest of the team also needs to step up. The Tigers’ offense is efficient, posting relatively high scores with the exception of their last outing against Texas A&M. The Gators defense has been fairly solid thus far. In four of their past five games, Florida has allowed fewer than 70 points. Still, the Gators’ offense will need to keep up with their defense. The Gators sometimes struggle to put up points, scoring 53, 58 and 63 in a three-game losing skid between December and January. The squad needs to infiltrate Missouri’s constant zone defense and use ball movement to score. Castleton will likely be swarmed in the paint by the Tigers’ crashing zone. He’ll have to either draw fouls and shoot plenty of free throws or dish the ball out to shooters Kowacie Reeves, Will Richard and Myreon Jones.
Also, Florida needs to find ways to stop Missouri’s dominant scoring guards D’Moi Hodge and Brown. Both Hodge and Brown average over 15 points per game and can score from all parts of the court. They each shoot over 40% from behind the arc, and Brown’s 6’8, 250-pound frame allows him to drive and score inside. Brown’s athleticism for his size will be tough for Castleton to guard. So, Florida will likely lean on 6’9 Alex Fudge and even 6’7 CJ Felder to help. This game will come down to who can play better defense. In order to win, Missouri’s zone needs to stop Castleton from getting the ball. On the other hand, Florida will have to find the personnel to lock down Brown and Hodge.
The game will tip off at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Exactech Arena. Both teams are 2-2 in the SEC and look to get an impressive conference win.