After a seemingly endless wait, Virginia Cavaliers basketball is back in action! The ‘Hoos opened the 2023-24 campaign with a commanding 80-50 victory against Tarleton State at John Paul Jones Arena. There were a lot of positive signs from Virginia’s win, but there are just as many unknowns waiting to be answered in the coming games.
Fortunately, instead of easing their way into the season by just scheduling buy-games, Virginia is set to take on a high-major opponent in just their second game of the season: The Florida Gators.
The Gators had a middling 2022-23 season — finishing 8th in the SEC with a 16-17 record overall — but with a few big transfers and some players poised for breakouts, Florida could find their way back into the NCAA Tournament.
Game Time: Friday, November 10, 7:00PM ET
Three Players to Watch
Micah Handlogten (Center)
The 7’1 sophomore transfer from Marshall is coming off a great freshman season in which he impacted the game in many different ways. Handlogten led Marshall in rebounds (9.8) and blocks (2.3) per game as a true freshman starter.
The seven-footer will be hard to miss in Friday’s game, considering that Virginia only plays one player listed above 6’9. Like most really tall guys, Handlogten thrives around the kidney. He’s a problem on the offensive glass, putting up a stellar 13.7% offensive rebound percentage in his freshman year. Against smaller mid-major opponents, he could effortlessly reach over top of opponents for easy put-backs.
Handlogten can be a bit clumsy at times, struggling with his footwork on offense or closing out on the perimeter on defense. Against athletic SEC bigs, Florida will need Handlogten to be mobile enough to not be a complete liability in switches on defense. Regardless, he’ll log most of the minutes at the center position, and his ability to score on the inside and impact shots in the paint make him a truly formidable five-man.
Riley Kugel (Wing)
Kugel is one of several Florida guards who can drop 20 points on any given night. The 6’5” sophomore guard was picked by many as a popular breakout candidate in 2023-24, after he flashed his potential as a dynamic scorer in his freshman year, averaging 9.9 PPG and making the SEC All-Freshman Team. He’s certainly off to the right start, scoring a team high 23 points against Loyola Maryland this past Monday.
Kugel excels when attacking the rim — particularly when driving to his right — and he’s comfortable finishing through contact, using his size and strength to fend off smaller defenders. He’s got excellent touch off the backboard, whether shooting runners in the middle of the paint or scoop layups against bigger defenders. Kugel’s also a capable three point shooter: he shot 37.6% from three in his freshman season, making about one three per game.
On the defensive side, he anticipates and jumps passing lanes, securing a remarkable six steals last game against Loyola-Maryland almost entirely from intercepted passes. He’s a bouncy player with the kind of quick-twitch explosiveness that has NBA scouts salivating.
Walter Clayton Jr (Point Guard)
The former Iona guard left a scholarship with Rick Pitino to join Todd Golden and the Gators for his junior season. Clayton’s the best pure shooter on Florida (43.1% from three last season). He’s confident firing off the dribble, operating as a pull-up jump shooter from mid-range and three-point range in ball screen scenarios.
If Kugel’s the explosive high-flying prospect, then Clayton is the smooth, crafty guard who can be counted on to do all the little things well: he rarely turns the ball over and shot a ridiculous 95.3% on free throws last year.
With fellow transfer point guard Zyon Pullin suspended for the first three games of the season, Clayton has the opportunity to cement his role as the starting point guard for the Gators.
Two Key Matchups
Virginia’s Undersized Frontcourt vs Florida’s Bigs
Virginia’s biggest strategic question coming into the season was how to utilize its new, undersized group of big men. For much of the offseason, the media expected Jordan Minor to start at center. He played just 11 minutes last game off the bench.
Instead, Jacob Groves got the start, proving his abilities as a forward who can stretch the floor by knocking down three threes vs Tarleton State. Meanwhile, freshman Blake Buchanan looked remarkably comfortable in his first game for the Cavaliers, bringing much needed size and mobility on defense.
To contain Handlotten and Florida’s other bigs, Virginia will need their entire frontcourt to contribute. I expect Tony Bennett to send a lot of double teams in the post — especially when Handlogten catches it — which will require snap decisions and quick feet from Virginia’s bigs. Ryan Dunn will be the X-factor who can lock down the opposing four-man Tyrese Samuel and irritate the five with his length on traps.
Virginia’s 3-Point Shooting vs Florida’s 3-Point Shooting
Both Virginia and Florida struggled to hit threes for much of last season. But with some transfer sharpshooter additions and potential breakout snipers, there’s a strong expectation for both squads to improve their outside shooting.
Isaac McKneely leads the way for Virginia, making 51 threes in his freshman season, while Florida’s got a couple of wings who can get hot and hit threes in bulk.
Virginia wants to run a lot of offensive sets intended to get three-point shooters open, so their ability to find space and hit shots against a long, athletic Florida defense may determine the outcome of the game.
If either Kugel, Clayton, or Will Richard start to light it up from a distance to Florida, then the ‘Hoos might be in for a long night.
Frankly, Florida’s much more talented and athletic than anyone the ‘Hoos will face until the Fort Myers Tip-Off over Thanksgiving Break. The Gators have some dudes who can really score. But there’s few defenders I trust more than Reece Beekman and Ryan Dunn, with Tony Bennett at the strategic helm.
Virginia needs Reece Beekman to play close to the full 40 minutes, and this game will be his first chance to step up and lead the young group against a talented opponent. Beekman’s the best player on either team, and he needs to play like it on Friday.
If the supporting cast can continue to shoot like they did against Tarleton State, and the defense plays a clean 40 minutes, I like Virginia to start the season off with a 2-0 record.
Prediction: Virginia 69, Florida 62