Todd Golden’s Gators eager to test themselves against FSU in rivalry matchup
GAINESVILLE — Florida point guard Zyon Pullin is a San Francisco Bay Area native new to the Sunshine State, but he’s had Friday night’s visit from Florida State marked on his calendar.
Pullin’s first appearance for the Gators (2-1) arrives during a heated rivalry game where cooler heads might need to prevail against the Seminoles (2-0).
Down the stretch of last Friday’s 73-70 loss to national power Virginia, UF could have used Pullin, suspended by the NCAA for the first three games for participating in an offseason NBA Draft showcase for players who’d exhausted their eligibility. A couple of late-game turnovers against the Cavaliers by dynamic combo-guard Walter Clayton Jr. ended the Gators’ upset bid.
“Definitely wish I was a part of that game,” Pullin said. “Those are the games you get up for and love to compete in. So, it was definitely tough not playing that game.”
FSU offers Todd Golden’s re-tooled Gators an opportunity to beat another established program, though one with something prove.
The Seminoles’ miserable 9-23 finish in 2022-23 followed a lackluster 17-14 campaign on the heels of the best run of success in school history — an Elite Eight run in 2018 and Sweet 16 appearances in ’19 and ’21. Before the pandemic ended the ’20 postseason, veteran FSU coach Leonard Hamilton might have had his best team in Tallahassee.
UF was 16-17 during Golden’s debut last season, ending with a one-sided loss to UCF in the NIT. The 38-year-old coach subsequently overhauled the roster by swapping out nine scholarship players.
Pullin and Clayton headlined the newcomers to join forces with preseason All-SEC shooting guard Riley Kugel. The transfer guards combined to average 35.1 points, 7.4 assists, 8.7 rebounds and 42.1% from 3-point range.
Pullin’s addition will help the Gators’ backcourt stabilize and take shape.
“He’s a little more of a natural point guard, I’d say, than Walt,” Golden said. “Walt’s an incredible threat back there with the ball because he’s really aggressive, but Zyon’s played at the position for four or five years. He’ll do a really good job keeping our team on an even and a level playing field when things can get high or low, which is really important.”
Meanwhile, Hamilton lost several players to the transfer portal, headlined by talented guard Matthew Cleveland to Miami. Yet, the 75-year-old coach in his 21st season at FSU has a squad featuring the length, athletic ability and an aggressive streak he likes to unleash on opponents.
Shooting guard Darin Green Jr., a 6-foot-5 senior, averages a team-high 17 points and 3.5 made 3-pointers.
“He’s a threat really from 26 feet in,” Golden said. “Somebody you’ve got to be mindful of. We’re going to do what we can to make sure he can’t get shots off.”
The Gators’ 3-point defense was a focal point this offseason. A even bigger concern was Florida ranked 328th in rebounding margin last season.
In an effort to improve on the glass, Golden signed 7-foot-1 sophomore Micah Handlogten from Marshall, 6-foot-10 Tyrese Samuel, a grad transfer from Seton Hall, and 6-foot-11 freshman Alex Condon from Australia.
The group has responded. UF has a plus-15 rebounding margin the past two games.
“It’s been a strong suit of our team so far,” Golden said. “We knew we needed to address it. We’ve been consistent … willing to battle on the boards. We’ll have to do it again. That’s going to be a big part of this game.”
The Gators have won two straight against the Seminoles after dropping seven in a row from 2014-20.
Florida rallied from 43-26 down at halftime to win 76-67 a year ago as center Colin Castleton scored 19 of his 25 points after intermission.
“One of the craziest games I’ve ever coached in,” Golden said.
A native of Phoenix who played at St. Mary’s and coached at San Francisco, Golden is new to the Gators-Seminoles rivalry but also a quick study.
He’s not alone.
“It’s a big, big rivalry,” Pullin said. “Not a bad first game to come back to. The crowd energy will be great. I know a lot of guys on the team are juiced about that game.
“We’re looking forward to it.”
Edgar Thompson can be reached at moc.lenitnesodnalro@nospmohtge