Gators men’s basketball began its week with a blowout win against the Ole Miss Rebels Feb. 15.
The win ended a three-game losing streak, but Florida was dealt a major blow. Graduate student forward Colin Castleton broke his hand and will miss the remainder of the regular season.
The rest of the roster will get a chance to play more with the loss of Castleton, UF head coach Todd Golden said. His goal is to capitalize on the players the team already has.
“It’s an opportunity for a lot of guys to step up,” Golden said. “We’re going to see what they’ve got.”
The Gators traveled to Fayetteville, Arkansas, to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks Feb. 18. Florida held its own early on, but the loss of its key man was too much to overcome as the Razorbacks ran by UF, 84-65.
Florida (14-13, 7-7 SEC) has lost four of its last five games and has slid off the bubble of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament. The Gators' chance to dance took a major blow after Castleton went down, and Florida will crawl its way to the finish line with four games left in the season.
UF sits just one game above .500 and will look to avoid its second losing season this century — the first came in the 2014-15 season.
Castleton averaged 31.2 minutes per game. The biggest challenge will be trying to fill those missing minutes at the five position, Golden said.
“That's going to be really where we need multiple guys, and Jason's gonna be the main one, but multiple are gonna need to step up and shoulder that load,” Golden said.
Adjustments this late in the season are difficult to make but will be necessary, he said.
Castleton averaged 16 points, 7.7 rebounds and three blocks per game, which all led the team. The only other player on the roster who averages double-digit points is sophomore guard Will Richard; he scores 10.3 points per game.
The Gators will need to make tweaks offensively, Golden said, but he believes players like senior center Jason Jitoboh and freshman forward Aleks Szymczyk can fill the hole left by Castleton’s absence.
“We'll have to adjust some things in order for our guys to be successful, but we're not going to reinvent the wheel,” Golden said. “Our base is very solid.”
The Gators floundered in their first game without the graduate student forward against the Razorbacks. Florida shot just 37.3% from the field and finished 4-21 from deep in a 19-point loss.
Jitoboh started the game, but Szymczyk split time with him. Jitoboh finished with four points on 2-5 shooting and two rebounds in 24 minutes.
Szymczyk tallied eight points on 3-7 shooting and connected on two 3-pointers. The German forward also collected six boards and four steals and played 20 minutes — his previous career-high in minutes was three.
Golden applauded Szymczyk’s play, and while he thought there was room for improvement, the freshman proved his potential, he said.
“Didn’t like his rotation early in the second half, but he came back and hit two threes and kind of showed what he’s capable of from an offensive standpoint,” Golden said. "I thought there were some positives there."
The frontcourt pair combined for only eight rebounds, so UF was dominated on the glass. The Razorbacks outrebounded Florida 40-25, which also led to 15 second-chance points for Arkansas.
Castleton was tied for first in the Southeastern Conference in blocks per game before his injury. The Gators missed his presence in the paint against Arkansas. The Razorbacks relentlessly attacked the rim and finished with 52 points in the paint.
Arkansas shot 57.6% from the field, and despite only two made triples, defeated Florida by 19 points. Five Razorbacks finished in double-figures scoring. Senior forward Jalen Graham shredded the Gators with 26 points on 12-15 shooting.
Golden believes Jitoboh can be effective at protecting the paint if he can stay out of foul trouble, he said. The senior center committed two fouls in the Arkansas game. Although he managed to play more than half the game, Jitoboh failed to be a defensive presence.
“I thought Jason competed hard — didn’t have his best game, but competed hard,” Golden said.
Freshman guard Riley Kugel led the Gators in scoring with 17 points on a 5-12 clip. The Orlando native embraced the next-man-up mentality and is confident Jitoboh and Szymczyk can fill Castleton’s role going forward, Kugel said.
“We believe in Jitoboh and Szymczyk and believe they can step up and make plays in the long run,” Kugel said.
Florida’s next game will be against the rival Kentucky Wildcats Feb. 22. The added time in between games gives the team a chance to make more adjustments, Golden said.
The Gators held the Wildcats’ leading scorer, senior forward Oscar Tshiebwe, to just four points the last time the two teams met Feb. 4. The game ended in a 72-67 UF defeat, but it could be more difficult to slow Tshiebwe down again without Castleton available to guard him.
Florida will head back to the Stephen C. O’Connell Center to take on Kentucky Feb. 22. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on either ESPN or ESPN 2.
Jackson Reyes is a UF journalism senior and The Alligator's Fall 2023 Sports Editor. He previously served as Digital Managing Editor and was a reporter and assistant editor on the sports desk. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and watching Bo Nix.