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Observations and Notes From Gators Basketball Preseason Practice No. 5

What about Florida Gators' hoops stands out as they complete their first week of preseason practices?

Photo: Niels Lane; Credit: Zach Goodall 

The Florida Gators took the court for the fifth time this preseason on Monday, continuing to build toward their November 7 debut against Stony Brook.

Despite it still being relatively early, there are numerous observations to be made regarding the current state that can provide insight into the one that will hit the floor for the regular season in just over a month.

All Gators provides two observations and a few notes from practice No. 5 this preseason.

Niels Lane is a valuable defensive asset in deep rotation

Lane's fast rise from bench warmer to frequent contributor is a well-documented aspect of a tumultuous 2021-22 season for the Florida Gators.

On Monday, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound wing proved that he is well on his way toward carving out a role in the Gators' rotation this season with continued excellence as an on-and-off ball defender in the early practice sessions.

In 5-on-5 simulations, where the team split up into units to perform sets in the halfcourt, Lane played with the reserves as he has in each practice to this point in the season.  However, he presented a challenge to Gators star guard/wing Kowacie Reeves Jr. as he flashed his elite skills as a defender to fluster Reeves. 

Applying pressure on the knockdown shooter from beyond the three-point line, Lane used his length and active hands to disrupt passing lanes on multiple occasions. Most notably, pressing up on Reeves in an attempted pick-and-roll action with center Jason Jitoboh, Lane worked well with Aleks Szymczyk as he showed before returning to his man to allow Lane to work around the big man back onto Reeves. 

As he returned, Reeves attempted to dump the ball over the top of Lane to Jitoboh who stood near the top of the key. This enabled Lane to get his hands on the ball, forcing another turnover for him in practice No. 5.

His activity in the defensive end was a common theme on the day.

As the definition of a lockdown defender, Lane presents the Gators with a valuable piece to aid their efforts of locking down any offensive player from one guard to the four.

But, due to the influx of two-way talent on the squad, Lane's minutes will be contingent on his offensive impact and efficiency, an area that led to his minimal minutes in the early portion of his career. As a result, he could be the eighth or ninth player in the rotation this upcoming year, barely meeting the threshold of talent Golden wants to employ come time for conference play.

However, his skills as a defender give the Gators a matchup-based luxury, making him a surefire piece in the lineup in the upcoming year. How much time he sees is the only question.

That depth isn't a bad problem to have, leading us to our next observation.

Florida showing signs of considerable depth

Out of the 15 players on the Gators roster, Kyle Lofton, Trey Bonham, Reeves Jr., Alex Fudge, Colin Castleton, Myreon Jones, Will Richard, Lane, Riley Kugel, CJ Felder and Jitoboh are vying for considerable playing time in the upcoming season.

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Unlike in years past when Florida would be searching for rotational depth, there are 11 capable athletes ready to compete at the SEC level right now at all major positions.

The only concern is finding a way to adequately manage the influx of talent to ensure the best lineup is gracing the floor at the right time within the philosophy of employing just nine-to-ten players at most.

“Hard to say now, but generally over the course of the year, you’re not playing more than nine or ten guys," Gators head coach Todd Golden said on Tuesday. "That’s in the preseason. Once you get into the league it’s probably nine at the most but you’re going to have injuries that pop up and you’re going to have some different things that you don’t usually account for or think up. The great thing about our team is our depth.

"I think we have double-figure guys who can play and help us win games. Sorting through that will be tough so it’s also a good problem to have.”

The top seven listed above are expected to be frequent members of the rotation. The final four are the ones with question marks surrounding their role despite all having a case for playing time.

As previously mentioned, Lane's defensive prowess will likely allow him to assume one of the backend bench spots. Frontcourt pieces Felder and Jitoboh will at least see time as they work in brief relief of Fudge and Castleton, who will start.

That leaves Kugel — the highly promising freshman who will likely become more of a factor in the closing stages of the season similar to Reeves' emergence last season — on the outside looking in as of now in a vacuum, although Golden will likely employ players based off matchups more than Florida has in the past.

From there, reserve pieces include true freshmen Denzel Aberdeen and Szymczyk as well as walk-ons Alex Klatsky and Jack May. Simply put, Florida is at no shortage of weapons. 

The depth of the unit continues to prove evident as the Gators continue in the early stages of preparation for the upcoming campaign.

With the evident level of talent and experience the group possesses, Florida aligns with the sleeper teams that have made it to the Big Dance recently, a measure of success according to Golden for this year. The depth added to that mix gives the Gators a proven winning formula that has sparked exciting runs into the second weekend of March Madness from other programs recently.

Notes

• Kyle Lofton did not participate in practice on Monday as he nurses a minor groin injury he suffered on Saturday. His status is day-to-day.

• Riley Kugel continues to stand out in his early Florida career as an uber-talented, instinctual ball player. Showcased his offensive prowess with a fadeaway buzzer beater three, a drive to the bucket on the ensuing possession and numerous crisp passes to set up teammates.

• Colin Castleton is showing signs of elevation following his shoulder surgery this offseason. He continues to be a consistent factor around the basket on offense (maybe even more so with added weight to his frame). Meanwhile, he’s seemingly expanded his repertoire to include midrange fadeaways and triples from the top of the key.

• Alex Fudge looks the part of the “impactful player” Todd Golden and his teammates describe him as. Explosive two-way athlete with nonstop energy that feeds into his teammates.

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