The Gators’ forward depth was put into question as soon as Ole Miss junior forward Jaemyn Brakefield collided with Florida graduate student forward Colin Castleton’s right hand.
Without the team's leading scorer, who’s also one of the best-shot blockers in the Southeastern Conference, UF has switched around its forwards to find an answer inside the paint. The situation, however, has not been easy.
“It’s a difficult thing to have to overcome at this point in the season, but at the same time it’s an opportunity for a lot of guys to step up,” Florida head coach Todd Golden said. “Guys who haven’t had the same opportunity earlier in the year, we’re going to see what they’ve got.”
Castleton broke his hand with only five games remaining in the regular season. His injury came in the middle of UF’s push to make the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
Florida lost the past two games — against Arkansas and Kentucky — following Castleton’s injury. However, the Florida Gators (14-14, 7-8 SEC) showed what they look like without Castleton.
The Gators currently have three forwards and one center active on the roster. Senior center Jason Jitoboh is expected to receive the majority of the starting minutes in Castleton's absence.
Jitoboh was in a similar situation last season when Castleton injured his shoulder during the 2021-22 campaign.
The 6-foot-11-inch center said he thinks a lot about his time as a starter last season and said it reminds him to not take his increased playing time for granted. The experience also gave him a lot of confidence, he said.
“Obviously Colin is big shoes to fill,” Jitoboh said. “I’m not trying to fill them. I’m just trying to do the best I can.”
Golden said the big man’s unexpected role last season was very valuable, and UF expects Jitoboh to step up once again.
The Nigerian center made his first starts of the season against Arkansas on the road and Kentucky at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center. His offensive efficiency in the two games — averaging about 24.5 minutes per game — didn’t fully replace Castleton’s presence.
Through those two games, he scored 12 points on 6-12 shooting from the field; he also corralled two rebounds and converted two personal fouls in each game.
Florida senior forward CJ Felder played three minutes against Arkansas and never saw the court Wednesday versus Kentucky.
The game against the Razorbacks marked the South Carolina native’s first minutes since he took time away from the team due to personal reasons Jan. 13.
Florida sophomore forward Alex Fudge has improved on the defensive glass and will be important for UF on both sides of the court, Golden said.
“He’s feeling more comfortable and confident out there, and I just expect him to continue to play better as he is coming back from that injury,” Golden said.
Fudge is still working back to full strength following a concussion he sustained against Mississippi State Jan. 21.
The Louisiana State transfer has been efficient from the floor in the Gators’ past two games. He shot 3-4 from the field and finished with six points against the Razorbacks. However, he only played five minutes versus the Wildcats.
In a season that has seen a lot of first-year Gators succeed, Florida freshman forward Aleks Szymczyk has been thrown into the fire. His first game of more than five minutes on the court was at the Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville, Arkansas — which Golden called one of the hardest places to play in America.
The German big man played a total of 20 minutes and showcased his shooting ability against the Razorbacks. Szymczyk made back-to-back 3-pointers within a minute during the game against Arkansas.
He finished the game with eight points, six rebounds and a team-high four steals in the game. They were all career highs for Szymczyk.
“For a freshman in that environment, I thought it was really good and says a lot about what his potential is for his future here,” Golden said.
Unfortunately for the 20-year-old, whom the team calls “Shimmy,” his performance against Kentucky senior forward Oscar Tshiebwe and the Wildcats was no career best.
Tshiebwe, who surpassed 1,000 career points as a Wildcat Wednesday, took advantage of the unseasoned rookie by creating space with jab steps for jumpers and easily putting offensive rebounds in the basket for second-chance points.
The West Virginia transfer finished with 25 points and missed only one of his 13 shots from the floor.
Szymczyk, when playing defense against Tshiebwe, struggled to stop the Wildcat forward at the rim despite contesting a majority of his shots.
The Florida freshman ended the game scoreless as there were no available openings to score easy baskets at the rim. However, he grabbed a career-high two assists.
Szymczyk, who grew up in Germany, appears to still be getting used to the fast-paced style of basketball in the United States. In time, he could potentially grow into a solid piece for UF’s future.
The freshman’s body and game have continuously transformed throughout the season, Golden said. Szymczyk consistently practices every day, even after team practices, he said.
Florida’s game Wednesday exposed its lack of players with big enough frames to box out opponents for rebounds. Kentucky outrebounded the Gators 40-21 in Castleton’s absence.
One of the most important rebounds of the game was grabbed by Wildcats freshman forward Chris Livingston. He beelined straight down the baseline after freshman guard Carson Wallace missed a shot from the top of the perimeter as Kentucky held a 74-72 lead with 50 seconds left.
Livingston caught the rebound and was fouled on his shot attempt by Florida freshman guard Riley Kugel. The Gator rushed to get in front of the 6-foot-6-inch guard to contest the shot.
Livingston’s shot went in and he completed the three-point play. UF never took the lead back and lost 82-74.
Rebounding has been something Golden has emphasized with his team throughout this season. Florida needed to rebound better, he said, even though Kentucky is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country.
“We need guys to step up and be a little more aggressive and a little more physical on the glass,” Golden said. “As we get into our remaining three games we need to do a better job that way.”
The Gators will continue to look for answers under the basket with less than two weeks until the SEC tournament.
UF’s next two games will be on the road, starting with a rematch against Vanderbilt at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville, Tennessee. The game will be broadcast on ESPN2.
Brandon Hernandez is currently the enterprise sports writer and sports podcast host for The Independent Alligator. He likes long walks on the sidewalk and watching basketball tape in his off time. You can find most of his work @BranH2001 on X and on The Courtside Podcast on Spotify.