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Gators have a long way to go, but at least they’re aiming high

John Romano | The Final Fours seem like ancient history, but a new coach and a fresh lineup have reignited Florida’s passion.
 
First-year Florida coach Todd Golden gathers his team after Wednesday night's 82-48 victory against Ohio at Amalie Arena in Tampa. The Gators are now 7-4 on the season.
First-year Florida coach Todd Golden gathers his team after Wednesday night's 82-48 victory against Ohio at Amalie Arena in Tampa. The Gators are now 7-4 on the season. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Dec. 15, 2022|Updated Dec. 15, 2022

TAMPA — The crowd is enthusiastic, but kind of puny. The team is ascending, but not quite there yet. The expectations are modest, and ain’t that a shame.

Eight years into a post-Billy Donovan world, the best thing you can say about the University of Florida men’s basketball program is that it knows it should be better.

Oh, the Gators were certainly good enough Wednesday night. Playing a one-off game at Amalie Arena, Florida blew Ohio off the court in a 82-48 victory in front of an announced crowd of 5,023 that looked much smaller.

It might have been UF’s best performance in the month-old Todd Golden era, and it provides a whiff of confidence with the Southeastern Conference schedule kicking in later this month. Kowacie Reeves scored 20, the Gators shot 51.9 percent and outrebounded Ohio by 13.

That’s all good stuff.

But it’s also a reminder of who the Gators used to be, and potentially how far they still need to go.

“It’s kind of been a little bit of what’s made this preseason challenging for us as a staff to really figure out who we are,” Golden said. “In terms of building our program and where we are, beating a team like this by 34 is not easy to do. So that means a lot. But our next step as a program, as a team, will be finishing the job against a (top) opponent.”

You might recall the final game Mike White coached at Florida was in this same building last March. UF’s hopes for an NCAA tournament bid evaporated on a last-second shot in overtime by Texas A&M in the second round of the SEC tournament.

Days later, White packed all his shortcomings in a duffel bag and headed to Georgia, where a 20-14 season might not feel like such a crushing disappointment.

And Florida went back to recasting a Donovan sequel.

That’s why Golden is here. He’s intriguing, he’s fresh, he’s vibrant. At 37, he’s the youngest coach in a conference that includes 68-year-old Rick Barnes (Tennessee), 62-year-old Bruce Pearl (Auburn), 63-year-old John Calipari (Kentucky) and 63-year-old Kermit Davis (Mississippi).

His pedigree might seem a little light (three years as a head coach with one NCAA appearance at the University of San Francisco), but his reputation in coaching circles is stellar. He’s charismatic and embraces this new age of analytics in college basketball.

Best yet, he isn’t afraid of the Donovan comparisons. Or the standards that come along with them.

Golden called Donovan shortly after he was hired at UF and promised to bug the Chicago Bulls coach on a routine basis as he searches for a path back to Florida’s glory days.

So can Florida rediscover relevance this year?

That’s hard to say. In their three toughest matchups so far (Connecticut, West Virginia and Xavier), they have lost by an average of 19 points. They also had an inexcusable meltdown against Florida Atlantic.

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And the SEC currently has a half-dozen teams in the Top 25, which means a .500 record in league play would probably be an accomplishment worth celebrating.

But Golden convinced Colin Castleton to stick around for his senior season, and he brought in an impressive class of transfers including Kyle Lofton, Will Richard and Alex Fudge.

“I’m glad we played UConn and West Virginia, and good teams so when we get to conference play that’s nothing new,” said Lofton, who had 15 points and seven assists. “We’re already going to be accustomed to playing those type of teams, and I think we’re only going to get better from there.”

The standard is high. Deliciously high.

Florida won six SEC titles, reached the Final Four four times and won two national championships during the Donovan reign. They have yet to reach the Elite Eight since then, and their last appearance in the Sweet Sixteen was in 2017.

White won almost 62 percent of his games at Florida but had a hard time dealing with the idea that a 20-win regular season wasn’t enough.

That doesn’t seem to be a problem with Golden. He’s not just accepting the idea of competing at an elite level, he’s embracing it.

The Gators aren’t there yet, but their willingness to aim high is the first step of the journey.

“It’s all part of the season,” Golden said earlier this week. “Our guys have done a good job of working hard with that level of belief and that level of staying true to what we’re doing. And we have gotten better in different areas. I think we can get to where we want to be a little faster than some other teams, because we’ve (already) faced that kind of adversity earlier in the year.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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