The Florida Gators men’s basketball program is all-in on calling Todd Golden’s tenure as head coach the Golden Era. (There are even t-shirts!) And as the first look at the new-look Gators Golden has assembled comes this Monday night against Stony Brook, even I — perhaps the Internet’s staunchest defender of Mike White’s oft-lamented tenure in Gainesville — am hopeful that Florida’s future has a lot more high seeds than bubble sweats when it comes to the SEC and NCAA Tournaments.
But pun aside, whether Golden and his staff will be able to achieve an actual golden era is something that will take quite some time to evaluate — and if White was unfairly judged against the towering accomplishments of the Billy Donovan Era, so too will Golden be unfairly judged against what many perceived to be a Mike White Error.
What the Gators do against Stony Brook probably shouldn’t factor into that all that much — even if last year’s team mauled the Seawolves, 87-62, in December, and that squad went on to go 18-13 and play respectable ball in the America East Conference, it’s not like that win was a marquee triumph.
The America East has been bad outside of Vermont in recent years, which is part of why Stony Brook has defected to the Colonial Athletic Association. And it’s not as Stony Brook was on the Catamounts’ heels, as it last made an NCAA Tournament in 2016, under Steve Pikiell — a veritable miracle worker who boosted the Seawolves from the 300s in KenPom to multiple top-100 finishes and has, since departing, also resurrected Rutgers.
Worse, the trend line is downwards: Under Jeff Boals (now at Ohio), the Seawolves regressed to the 200s in KenPom and made just one NIT in three years, and under Geno Ford, who is beginning his fourth year leading Stony Brook, those same efficiency numbers have declined from year to year, even though the Seawolves won 20, nine, and 18 games in 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22, respectively.
There’s a chance that this Seawolves team is somehow a great one that will prove it over the course of the season, but it seems far more likely — especially with the leading returners on this team being Frankie Policelli and Tyler Stephenson-Moore, who combined to average just over 15 points per game last year and had a combined two points in the Seawolves’ trip to Gainesville — that this is just going to be a game in which Florida’s size and athleticism are safeguards against calamity and the fuel for a blowout. A pair of seven-footers — graduate student Keenan Fitzmorris, imported from Stanford after a 33-minute career with the Cardinal that impressively featured five turnovers and six points, and freshman Rocco Muratori, listed at 7’3” — could give Colin Castleton some difficult angles to solve.
But Golden’s rep as an adherent to the analytic revolution in basketball should still get a first test tonight, with a (theoretically) overmatched opponent giving the Gators a chance to show good process even when it’s not necessary. Are they going to hunt for and get good shots? Will Golden’s lineups and rotations make sense in terms of positional flexibility and maintaining freshness? Is the offense going to be a step up in both design and results from what plenty of fans found fault with under White?
I am optimistic about all of this, as someone who found the numbers side of what Golden did at San Francisco to be rather impressive and who enjoyed what little I actually saw of the Dons under his tutelage. I also think Golden’s first roster — highlighted, of course, by Castleton and returning sophomore Kowacie Reeves, but also by a fleet of transfers including Will Richard (Belmont), Alex Fudge (LSU), Kyle Lofton (St. Bonaventure), and Trey Bonham (VMI) — is one that will allow the Gators to be competitive in the middle tier of the SEC at a minimum, with a chance to surprise some of the bigger names in the robust and still-improving conference.
What I don’t think is likely is Golden immediately getting Florida to that elusive plateau at the top of the SEC, unless multiple players on this team are even better than bullish expectations project — and I think Castleton will probably vie for All-American honors, with Lofton joining him as a potential All-SEC performer. White’s great struggles with his Gators teams were getting consistent excellence (and shooting) from rosters mostly comprised of players a step or two back of elite recruits in most estimations, finding enough elite recruits to be on par with perennial power Kentucky and rising programs like Arkansas and Auburn, and, frankly, getting the right mix of health and form to be great for a full two months of SEC play. (Granted perfect health for Castleton and Keyontae Johnson, Florida’s last two seasons probably result in White being in Gainesville, not Athens, for this one.)
Those problems are probably not fixable in a single year, even if Golden is a genuinely massive an upgrade on White — though I am ready and willing to deem him one, should he wring something like 25 wins and a No. 7 seed in March out of a roster that might once again be light on range-finding guards. More likely, this Florida team will be good enough to make the NCAA Tournament, but not great enough to win it — a status that rendered White persona non grata to a loudly dissatisfied contingent of Gator Nation.
Todd Golden getting the Gators out of that stratum and up to a better one is what will make his tenure truly golden. And Golden just getting the Gators to where White had them might teach us more about expectations than expertise in basketball coaching.
The work on the court — in games that matter, not practices or secret scrimmages or exhibitions — to make either or both of those things a reality? It begins tonight.