Florida basketball: 3 questions for Gators heading into Saturday's game at Arkansas

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Florida Gators center Jason Jitoboh (33) shoots over Connecticut Huskies guard Apostolos Roumoglou (33) during the first half at Billy Donovan Court at Exactech Arena in Gainesville, FL on Wednesday, December 7, 2022. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

Florida will begin the tough road without standout center Colin Castleton when it plays Saturday at Arkansas (2 p.m., ESPN2).

The Gators (14-12, 7-6 SEC) need to go on a late-season run to return to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year absence. Florida finds itself 51st in the NET rankings as of Friday afternoon, with a 2-9 record against Quad 1 opponents and a 1-2 record against Quad 2 teams.

Arkansas (17-9, 6-7 SEC) presents another Quad 1 win opportunity. The Razorbacks (21 in the NET) are trying to work talented freshman guard Nick Smith back into their rotation. Junior guard Ricky Council IV (16.5 ppg) has carried the scoring load in Smith's absence.

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"This is going to be a really important game for them as well and I expect them to have a really nice environment in their home gym," Florida coach Todd Golden said. "I know that they're not going to take us for granted coming in even without Colin. I know they'll be ready to play."

The 6-foot-11, 250-pound Castleton is likely done for the season after breaking his hand on Wednesday night during Florida's 79-64 win over Ole Miss.

Castleton has accounted for 23.7 percent of Florida's scoring, 22.5 percent of Florida's rebounding and 61.1 percent of Florida's blocked shots during the 2022-23 season.

"He was a good part of our team on both sides of the ball," Golden said. "Senior leader, a guy that we played through on offense, a guy that did a great job protecting us on the backside of our defense. It's not necessarily one thing more than just his presence not being there and having to fill 35 minutes."

Here are three questions for the Gators heading into Saturday's game at Arkansas:

Who will play center in Castleton's absence?

Right now, that answer appears to be senior center Jason Jitoboh, who at 6-11, 300, brings a bigger body inside than Castleton. Jitoboh started four games for Castleton when he went down with a shoulder injury, and he was productive, averaging 7.5 points and 3.3 rebounds during the stretch.

 “It definitely gives me more confidence knowing I was able to hold my own when I was out there and he wasn’t out there," Jitoboh said. "But obviously Colin is big shoes to fill. I’m not trying to fill them. I’m just trying to do the best I can.” 

Foul trouble has been an issue for Jitoboh throughout the season. He's been whistled for three or more fouls in nine games despite playing limited minutes off the bench.

"That’s the biggest piece for me right now, defending without fouling and just playing through fatigue and playing through all that to win the game," Jitoboh said. "It would mean discipline and picking my spots on the court.” 

If Jitoboh gets into foul trouble, the Gators could turn to 6-9 forward Alex Fudge at the center spot. Golden said 6-7, 240-pound forward C.J. Felder is still "getting back into shape" since returning to the team a week ago. Another possible option off the bench is 6-10, 240-pound freshman center Aleks Szymczyk, who scored the last bucket in Wednesday's game.

“He’s definitely gotten a lot better since he got on campus," Golden said. "We thought this would be kind of a development year for him and he’s really taken pride in that. He’s a guy who I’m excited to see what he can do. A very talented player from an offensive perspective; a guy who can make some shots, keep us in our offense."

What kind of adjustments will Florida make without Castleton?

The Gators ran most of their offense through Castleton in the post. An adept passer, Castleton often was able to create for others when he faced double teams, averaging 2.7 assists per game.

"It’s harder changing a whole lot at this time of the year, but we’re going to have to do things a little differently, trying to capitalize on the personnel that are going to be playing more," Castleton said. "Obviously, it’s a difficult thing to have to overcome this point in the season, but at the same time it’s an opportunity for a lot of guys to step up."

As the SEC's co-leader in blocked shots at 3.0 per game, Castleton provided elite rim protection. So, a big adjustment will come on defense as well.

"The fundamentals of our defense are really good," Golden said. "You know, I think our perimeter is really talented defensively, they do a really good job executing our game plans. And Jason, you know, isn't the same shot-blocker Colin is, but he does a great job using his body, staying between the player and the basket, challenging shots vertically, and he has really good feel and fundamentals defensively."

Can point guard Kyle Lofton provide leadership and scoring?

Lofton has posted a 19 to 2 assist to turnover ratio over Florida's last three games and has averaged 11 points over his last two games. With Castleton out, the points are going to have to come from somewhere, and Lofton could get more opportunities going to the basket and creating for others.

"He's had a handful of double-digit scoring games," Golden said. "His assist-to-turnover ratio is great, fantastic defender, great leader. We feel like we win that position more often than not with him in the game and now it's just going to be more of a shouldering the load down the stretch. We're going to need him to score a little more and continue to be more aggressive offensively."