3 questions for Florida Gators basketball vs. Tennessee Volunteers

Florida basketball will get another opportunity during a brutal four-game stretch when it hosts No. 2 Tennessee on Wednesday at the O’Connell Center (7 p.m. ESPN2).

The Gators (12-9, 5-3 SEC) come away to a season-low 50 points in a 64-50 loss at No. 5 Kansas State. Tennessee (18-3, 7-1 SEC) has won nine of its last 10 games with a suffocating defense that has kept six of its eight SEC opponents under 60 points.

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Florida will face its third diverse top-five opponent in 2022-23, consistent with the most diverse top-five teams the Gators have faced over the course of a season in program history.

“It’s a tough challenge,” said Florida coach Todd Golden. “It will test you, but again, my hope and my confidence, we are on the right track. We won five out of six in the SEC, which is really difficult. So our guys should be able to rely on what we’re doing to work.”

Here are three questions that will feed into Wednesday’s game:

Can the Gators get Colin Castleton to work earlier in the game?

Florida center and top scorer Colin Castleton (14.9 ppg) scored 2 points in the first half of Florida’s last game, a big reason the Gators were trailing 37-16 at halftime. Sometimes Florida would settle for too many 3-pointers instead of trying to get the ball to Castleton.

Castleton faced doubles teams throughout the season, but Florida’s inability to parry open shots has meant teams have continued to slump deep, taking the 6-foot-11 center out of play.

“We’ll try to keep giving him the ball in places where he can score more efficiently,” Golden said. “But at the same time we have to do a better job by exploiting the way the teams are protecting us. Literally every team we’ve seen in the past few weeks immediately doubles him on catch. It’s not because of his skills in terms of ability to finish that or score.

“I feel like throwing and moving the ball out of those doubles teams has caught some looks. Especially on the street we have to improve and shoot the ball a bit better.”

Can the Gators take better shots upon returning home?

Florida went off the field 6:29 in the first half against Kansas State, a combination of rash, ill-advised shots and misses at other open looks.

“In the first half we made some quick moves early on which I didn’t like,” said Golden. “But we have enough good ones or some good ones that on the road you have to go up against a top five team and knock them down at the same time. We could probably craft some better looks, but given what, we probably should have scored more goals than we did in the first half.”

The Gators shot 4 of 22 from 3-point range (18.2 percent) on Saturday. Florida is returning home where it averaged 7.8 3-pointers per game in its first four SEC games while shooting 34.1 percent (31 of 91) from beyond the arc.

“You have to have that confidence, that belief and that knowledge that if you take the right ones, if you stay the course, you’re going to knock them down,” Golden said.

How will Florida deal with Tennessee’s physicality?

The Vols are a resilient, experienced team that leads the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (per KenPom) and leads the SEC in goal defense (54.5 ppg allowed). On offense, Tennessee works the ball with four scorers in double figures, led by senior guard Santiago Vescovi (12.2 ppg).

“They do a good job of exploiting their size and physicality,” Golden said. “They duck around the edge a lot. We need to take away these simple catches. We’re probably going to place them in a spot where they need to do some threesomes, which when they do, you need to grab your hat for a bit. You can’t take everything away.”

Tennessee’s rebound margin of 8.1 per game also leads the SEC.

“We have to fight to keep them off the glass,” Golden said. “It will be a big challenge for us. They are one of the best offensive rebound teams in the country.”

Florida senior center Jason Jitoboh is aware of how physically the Vols play. Jitoboh stuck a finger in his eye in a game against Tennessee, an injury that ended his 2021-22 season and nearly ended his career. Since the injury, he has had four corrective surgeries to repair nerve damage and a detached retina.

“It’s definitely emotional,” Jitoboh said. “I feel a lot of emotions when I think about Tennessee and I think about that game and I think about the year I had. I’m just preparing for it like it’s another game, but all I know is that there’s something I have to prove to myself.”

At 6-11, 300 is counted on Jitoboh to give Castleton relief and take the paint.

“For me it’s about being able to match their physicality but without fouling,” Jitoboh said. “Being able to stay on the pitch and influence the game.”

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