Florida basketball: 3 questions heading into Gators' game at Georgia Bulldogs

David Whitley
The Gainesville Sun
Feb 18, 2023; Fayetteville, Arkansas, USA; Florida Gators guard Riley Kugel (24) drives against Arkansas Razorbacks guards Anthony Black (0) and Jordan Walsh (13) during the first half at Bud Walton Arena. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Florida’s basketball salvage operation moves to Georgia Tuesday night, where the Gators might find a team as vulnerable as they are.

Both teams have lost three straight games, though Florida probably has a better excuse. Life without Colin Castleton is turning out to be as challenging as UF fans feared.

Georgia hasn’t lost its best player to a broken hand, but Mike White’s team has struggled mightily since beating Kentucky on February 11. The Bulldogs beat LSU 65-62, then lost to Alabama, Arkansas and Missouri by an average score of 96-62.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to get back on track,” UF coach Todd Golden said. “Two teams that are scratching and clawing, trying to get back on track, trying to find wins. So, I would expect to see two hungry teams, you know, trying to find a way (Tuesday) night.”

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Both teams are looking for a way to be the 10th seed in next week’s SEC Tournament. The 11th-through-14th seeds have to play Wednesday night. The top 10 get to wait until Thursday and would have to win four games to take the title.

The Gators (14-15, 7-9 SEC) are currently 10th, one game ahead of Georgia (16-13, 6-10). A win at Stegeman Coliseum (7 p.m., SEC Network) would not only solidify that lead, it would leave hope that UF might avoid its first losing season in eight years.

Here are three key questions the Gators face against Georgia:

Can UF find a semblance of its old defense?

The Gators were one of the nation’s better defensive teams before Castleton was injured February 15. A drop-off was inevitable without the 6-foot-11 human eraser, though the schedule contributed to the problems.

Arkansas, Kentucky and Vanderbilt have accomplished big men. Georgia does not. Its best inside player is 6-11 Braelen Bridges, who’s averaging 8.4 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. He’s not a slouch, but Bridges is not Oscar Tshiebwe or Liam Robbins, who had 32 point, nine rebounds and four blocks in UF’s 88-72 loss to Vanderbilt last Saturday.

Georgia’s offensive punch comes from guards Terry Roberts and Kario Oquendo. Roberts scored 25 points in UF’s 82-75 win on January 7. Containing him and pressuring Georgia’s 3-point shooting will be high on the Gators’ To-Do list.

Can Georgia make Riley Kugel look like a freshman?

Somebody had to step up when Castleton went down. Kowacie Reeves and Kyle Lofton have averaged double-figure scoring, but the Alpha male has been Riley Kugel.

He’s averaged 20.3 points over the last five games and is the first freshman with consecutive 20-point games since Kenny Boynton in the 2009-10 season. Expect the Bulldogs to focus their defense on Kugel and force somebody else to beat them.

“It’s a lot to put on your shoulders, but he's done a great job answering what we need from him right now,” Golden said. “I just expect him to continue to get better every game out there.”

Will a Post-Castleton Funk Set In?

The Gators haven’t won since Castleton went down, but there have been few hints of despair. They played tough at Arkansas for a half, almost beat Kentucky and were overwhelmed by a hot-shooting Vandy team.

Winning any of those games would have been an upset due to the talent discrepancy. That won’t be the case against Georgia, but Florida will have to play with the same competitiveness it’s been showing.

“It's got to be that way the whole rest of the way. It really does,” Golden said. “I mean, if you're not wired to compete, you're not going to do well in our program.

“And, you know, one of the things that we have to do a great job of is being mindful of controlling the things that we can control. We can’t control Colin going out, but we can control our energy every time we step on the court.”

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