Whitley: Riley Kugel shows there might be life after Colin Castleton for Florida basketball

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
Feb 22, 2023; Gainesville, Florida, USA; Florida Gators guard Riley Kugel (24) dunks the ball during the second half against the Kentucky Wildcats at Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Mandatory Credit: Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

“It just stinks.”

Those were the words of the visiting coach at the O’Connell Center late Wednesday night. He wasn’t talking about the locker room or the postgame meal or that night’s officiating.

John Calipari was talking about Colin Castleton. And for once, Florida fans could totally agree with Kentucky’s coach.

“The year he was having, it just stinks for him that that happened,” Calipari said. “Because he was having a fabulous year.”

“That,” of course, is the broken metacarpal heard ‘round the Gator World. When Castleton cracked a bone in his right hand last week, all seemed lost. In UF’s first home game without their 6-foot-11 centerpiece, the first-half scoreboard confirmed that.

Kentucky 30, Florida 15.

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Instead of the orange or blue T-shirts that were draped over every seat to start the game, Meldon Law should have handed out white flags.

Then came the mini epiphany.

“That team didn’t quit,” Calipari said. “And they fought. And they made shots. And they made threes. And they made every free throw.”

What they definitely didn’t do was keep Kentucky from rebounding the ball or contain center Oscar Tshiebwe. That’s largely why Florida eventually lost, 82-74.

But don't squench your noses too tightly, UF fans. If Kentucky is any indication, all is not lost.

“Overall, no moral victories,” Todd Golden said. “But our effort was pretty good.”

Ah, the M word.

Moral victory for Gators?

There may be no such thing as moral victories. But promising defeats are better than getting your Tshiebwe handed to you.

This isn’t a vintage year for Kentucky basketball, but the Wildcats were certainly capable of making things ugly for a team that’s retooling on the fly. Given that, it’s time to redefine the meaning of success for Golden’s first season.

It was making the NCAA tournament. That was iffy before Castleton got hurt.

Now it’s avoiding a losing season. The mark is 14-14, with three regular-season games to go.

Beyond the numbers, success would be a team that doesn’t pout. A team that plays as if an NCAA bid is still on the line. A team with young players who will take advantage of a stinky situation and give hope for the future.

For that, all eyes now turn to Riley Kugel. The 6-foot-5 freshman guard was impressive from his first practice last fall.

He could play defense and slash to the rim as well as anyone. But he was often out-of-control and crashed to the floor without a basket to show for his effort.

It was typical freshman stuff, adjusting to the speed of the college game. Now everything is slowing down.

“I’m starting to feel real comfortable with the game,” Kugel said. “I feel like me getting to my spots is becoming easier than it was before.”

He has numbers to back that up. Kugel’s averaging 17.2 points over the past six games. He had 24 against Kentucky, the most by a UF freshman since Noah Locke had 27 against Texas A&M in 2019.

Golden was asked what areas UF is looking at Kugel for help. Defense? Scoring? Rebounding? Clutch play? Leadership?

Yes to all the above.

“You know, it's tough for a freshman to be expected to be a complete player,” Golden said, “but that's where we are right now.”

Kentucky controlled the boards vs. Castleton-less UF

One thing Kugel can’t do is make up for Castleton’s presence near the basket. Kentucky outrebounded UF 40-21, including a 13-2 edge in offensive rebounds. The Wildcats had 15 second-chance points to zero for Florida.

Fittingly, Chris Livingston was fouled while putting back an offensive rebound with 46 seconds left. The 3-point play gave Kentucky a 77-72 lead.

“We need guys to step up and be a little more aggressive and a little more physical on the glass,” Golden said.

Short of UF Health suddenly developing an instant-healing hand transplant breakthrough for Castleton, it’s hard to see a cure for Florida’s rebounding woes. But the roughest part of the SEC schedule is now over.

“They were gritty as hell. I wish them luck,” Calipari said. “I’m glad we’re not playing them anymore.”

The Gators will play Vanderbilt, Georgia and LSU. Before Wednesday night, it was fair to doubt if Florida would win any of those games.

Now it seems that things might not stink that badly after all.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley