When: Wednesday, Dec. 7 - 9 p.m.
Where: Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Florida
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -4.5, over/under 143.5 (odds via Borgata)
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 78, Florida 72
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Bracketology just hits different this year for a UConn men’s basketball fan. The Huskies’ meteoric rise to start the 2022-2023 season has resulted in a No. 5 ranking in the latest AP Poll, its highest ranking since November 2011. The only thing these December laurels mean, though, is a growing target on your back. And with the Huskies facing their first true road test tonight, the college basketball world will be watching to see how they respond.
The Florida Gators (6-3, No. 46 KenPom) have lost to Xavier, a Jalen Gaffney-led Florida Atlantic, and West Virginia. But the Gators have good balance, ranking No. 43 in KenPom adjusted offensive efficiency and No. 56 on defense. Gainesville is also a tough place to play, and UConn will have to contend with a Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award nominee for the fifth-straight game.
Last year, Florida made it to the second round of the NIT, but that wasn’t enough for Mike White to keep his job. In typical SEC fashion, Florida went out and got one of the most sought-after coaches in the game, Todd Golden. Fresh off leading San Francisco to the NCAA Tournament, Golden is bringing the analytics-driven, modern basketball style to football country.
When Florida has the ball
In Year 1, Golden’s plan for the Gators seems simple. Surround first-team All-SECer Colin Castleton with three shooters and a pass-first point guard. Castleton is the Drew Timme of the Sunshine State, a fifth-year senior that feels like he’s been in college forever and looks like he should be in a Duke uniform.
Priority number one, two, and three is containing the 6-foot-11 forward, who is averaging 16.6 points and 7.4 rebounds per game this season. Castleton is widely regarded as one of the top 25 players in the country, a fifth-year senior that won’t beat you from outside but is an elite finisher around the basket.
Florida has respectable balance on the offensive end thanks to Kyle Lofton, a St. Bonaventure grad transfer that’s averaging four assists per game, who missed last year’s Bonnies-Huskies tilt due to injury. The 6-foot-5 senior is a pass-first table setter, and Florida as a team doesn’t turn the ball over much, so dialing up the ball pressure is a must for the likes of Tristen Newton and Andre Jackson.
Will Richard will be a tough matchup draw for the UConn guard that doesn’t check Lofton. The 6-foot-4 Belmont transfer is averaging 13.6 points per game and shooting 58.6 percent from three, and is the Gators’ most impactful player per BartTovik’s BPM. Kowacie Reeves and Trey Bonham can both get hot too, the latter torching Xavier for 23 points.
Castleton’s going to get his. If Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan can keep him from going off, UConn’s ball pressure and length should be enough to disrupt the multiple shooting threats on the roster. The Huskies haven’t given up a “kill shot” all season, classified by EvanMiya as a double-digit scoring run.
When UConn has the ball
Lofton and the backcourt won’t stifle you with ball pressure, with the Gators ranking No. 236 in steal percentage. However, the triumvirate of Richard, Reeves, and Fudge are all lengthy enough to disrupt offensive rhythms. Florida also allows opponents to shoot 36.5 percent from 3-point range, a clip that’s ranked No. 276 in the country. That means Jordan Hawkins will once more have the greenest of green lights, or maybe this is a game Nyheim Alleyne gets untracked, with the Virginia Tech transfer unfazed by Power 5 road games.
The X-factor for Florida could be 6-foot-9 sophomore Alex Fudge, who played sparingly at LSU as a freshman but is already an elite defender with the ability to guard all five positions. The Huskies have been running a lot of action through pick-and-rolls with either Jackson and Newton as the ball handler. If Fudge is guarding the screener, his hedging and switchability could disrupt UConn’s first and second options coming off the ball screen. It will be on UConn’s guards to stay patient, keep their dribble, and let the rest of the set play out.
UConn is a better team in virtually every KenPom metric (besides tempo; the Gators PUSH the ball). This game will be decided by discipline. The Phil Knight Invitational was played in a mostly empty gym, so can UConn bring the same intensity level it has brought all season in front of a hostile crowd? Can the Huskies avoid silly fouls not only down low against Castleton, but also on Florida’s wide array of shooters?
If some whistles don’t go UConn’s way and players get frustrated, who settles the team down? If the offense goes on another scoring drought, can the defense stay locked in? Can they trust their talent and depth in the face of all these hurdles? It sounds cliché, but if the Huskies win the mental edge, they’ll escape the Swamp without any bites.