Florida basketball: 3 questions heading into Wednesday night's game against Kentucky

Kevin Brockway
The Gainesville Sun
Feb 1, 2023; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Florida Gators head coach Todd Golden reacts against the Tennessee Volunteers during the second half at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Florida basketball enters the last two weeks of the season in must-win mode for any last chance of reaching the NCAA Tournament.

The Gators (14-13, 7-7 SEC) will begin that process on Wednesday when they host Kentucky (7 p.m., ESPN). Florida will look to avenge a 72-67 loss at Kentucky (18-9, 9-5 SEC) earlier this month and will try to do so without leading scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker Colin Castleton, who is done for the year with a broken hand.

"We’re without one of our really good players but the way I look at it is it’s an opportunity for others to step up, and an opportunity for us to show like hey, we’ve still got some really good players in the program," Florida coach Todd Golden said. "Obviously, it’s going to take a little time to adjust but again, like I’m leaning on competitive spirit, I’m leaning on physicality, guys that aren’t going to run from the fight, and those are the guys we are going to roll with down the stretch.” 

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Without Castleton, Florida was run off the floor in a 84-65 loss at Arkansas on Saturday. The Gators trailed 37-31 at halftime but were outscored 17-2 to start the second half and never recovered.

"We’re not who we were for the first 26 games, but I still have confidence in our guys," Golden said. "I think our guys definitely have confidence in our staff. We’ve done a really good job staying together that way and my hope is as we continue to build back up we’ll continue to be more confident and have a chance to go win some of these games down the stretch."

Here are three questions for the Gators entering Wednesday night's game with the Wildcats:

Can UF keep star Kentucky center Oscar Tshiebwe from being a factor?

Florida held Tshiebwe to 4 points on 2-for-14 shooting in the first meeting between the two schools before fouling out in the closing minutes. But that was with Castleton, who blocked three of Tshiebwe's shots and altered others throughout the game.

Kentucky is getting inside scoring from both the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Tshiebwe (15.8 ppg, 13.0 rpg) and 6-6, 220-pound freshman Chris Livingston, who earned SEC freshman of the week honors after averaging 12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in wins over Mississippi State and No. 11 Tennessee.

Florida allowed 54 points in the paint without Castleton in the Arkansas loss. The Gators will throw a bevy of other defenders at Kentucky's frontline, including 6-11, 300-pound center Jason Jitoboh, 6-10 center Aleks Szymczyk, 6-9 forward Alex Fudge and 6-7 forward C.J. Felder.

"We did a great job on Oscar the first time, and Colin was a big part of that," Golden said. "We've got to do a better job collectively of helping each other out, knowing that it's probably going to be hard for one guy to just load up and stop them for 40 minutes. But we'll have some different things that we can do and that we can look at that I think will help us take on that challenge tomorrow night.” 

Can others step up around freshman guard Riley Kugel?

Kugel has scored in double figures in four straight games, averaging 15.5 points during the stretch. But Golden said the Gators are going to need others to step up offensively in Castleton's absence. Florida had five players score in double figures in its 79-64 win over Ole Miss, but just two, Kugel (17 points) and guard Will Richard (10 points) scored in double figures in the Arkansas loss.

"When Colin's out, everybody has to step up," Golden said. "Everybody has to do a little bit more."

Can Florida get momentum from the crowd?

Florida games against Kentucky at the O'Dome often sell out, but that's due to the Wildcats being a national program with fans throughout the country. They don't call it Big Blue Nation for nothing. The less Florida fans that show up on Wednesday, the more Kentucky fans will be eager to fill those seats.

Florida's average attendance of 8,697 ranks 13th in the SEC, ahead of just Ole Miss (6,632).

"My hope is that we have a huge contingent of Gator fans there tomorrow night," Golden said. "That's what I hope it's going to be every game that I'm the coach here."

On Feb. 1, Florida rode the momentum of a sellout crowd (10,160) to upset No. 2 Tennessee, 67-64. The Gators got off to a quick 17-4 lead, which energized the crowd and kept them engaged throughout the game. Florida may need to get off a similar quick start to get fans enthused on Wednesday.

"It's why teams generally play better at home than on the road and if we have a great crowd like we did against Tennessee, it will definitely help us as we look to beat Kentucky tomorrow night," Golden said.