Gene Frenette: How Gators coach Todd Golden sold Colin Castleton on UF return

Gene Frenette
Florida Times-Union
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Florida center Colin Castleton (12), seen here yelling in celebration of making a dunk against Iona in the NIT, was sold on returning to the Gators for one more season by incoming coach Todd Golden.

Anyone wishing to get a feel for how meticulous and detail-oriented Florida’s basketball program will be under new coach Todd Golden, the re-recruitment of Gators leading scorer and their most indispensable player, Colin Castleton, provides a fair amount of insight.

This was by no means a slam dunk or quick sales job for either party. Not with the low-profile Golden coming to UF from the University of San Francisco and few people connected to the Gators having even heard of him.

And certainly not with the 6-foot-11 Castleton still processing the abrupt departure of Mike White, the coach who brought him to Florida and left to take the Georgia job. 

You don’t have a major career transaction for a 36-year-old coach colliding with an abrupt change in a 21-year-old star’s basketball world, and then expect them to magically hit it off right away.

No, relationships and trust need some time for both people to get a proper feel for how it might work. As much as Castleton loved being a Gator — “If I wasn’t going to stay here, I wasn’t going to put another [college] jersey on” — he had to make sure he was comfortable playing for the new boss.

“Coach White had to do what’s best for him and I respect the decision he made,” Castleton said in a Tuesday phone interview. “I understood the things he was going through. Coach White gave me a great opportunity to come to Florida. I can’t be anything but grateful.

“At the end of the day, Coach Golden came in, so that’s what I was focused on. He was telling me things I needed to do next year if I came back, what he was going to do for me, spots he was going to put me in on the court, showing me things I was capable of doing. I had to weigh my options regardless of who my coach was.” 

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Florida basketball coach Todd Golden, speaking at his introductory press conference, exercised patience and a deliberate selling process in convincing the Gators' best player, Colin Castleton, to return for one more season.

Under the circumstances, Golden winning over Castleton had to be quicker than the normal courtship timeline for a recruit coming out of high school. That was fine with Castleton since he was older and had been through the recruiting game twice, the latter when he transferred from Michigan to UF.  

As things turned out, the three-week process between the time Florida hired Golden on March 16 until Castleton announced Monday he’d be returning for one more season is a strong indicator of two things: the coach’s patience and the player’s thoroughness in making his choice. 

“Colin took a mature approach to a really big decision that he needs to feel great about,” Golden said. “He understands the value of being at a place like Florida, and I’ve been impressed with and grateful for that.” 

“I wanted to look at it from all angles,” added Castleton. “I wasn’t trying to rush any decision.” 

As Golden begins his journey of trying to elevate Gator basketball to a more prominent place in the national landscape, convincing Castleton to come back might be the most pivotal component to getting off to a good start. 

Multiple factors to consider 

Golden reached out to Castleton on the day he was hired. But rather than begin a full-court press, especially with Florida still playing in the NIT, he decided to let whatever relationship developed between them marinate over daily phone calls and then proceed to a face-to-face meeting. 

Two days after the Gators were eliminated by Xavier to end the season, Golden and Castleton had their first sit-down at a Panera Bread restaurant in Orlando. The coach was there on a recruiting trip and UF’s 6-foot-11 center was attending an NBA Magic home game against the Golden State Warriors to watch some of his former Michigan teammates — Franz Wagner (Magic), Ignas Brazdeikis (Magic) and Jordan Poole (Warriors). 

It was the first of a series of significant get-togethers that helped Castleton make up his mind on whether to return to Gainesville or turn pro, something he explored last year before coming back to school. 

There would be a meet-the-parents dinner at Shula’s Steak House in Gainesville with Colin’s mother, Karen Bapp, and stepdad Steven Bapp, plus another one-on-one lunch and more phone conversations. 

Another factor pushing him in the direction of a UF return was dealing with a torn labrum in his left shoulder. It bothered him most of the season and required surgery, which Castleton had done Wednesday at Shands in Gainesville. Before last season, Castleton was considered a borderline second-round NBA prospect. The uncertainty of how the shoulder issue would impact his draft status this year clearly factored into his thinking. 

“My injury, just taking care of that, was a big part in my decision as well,” he said. 

From an advisory standpoint, he relied on a small, tight circle of people. It was mostly his parents, three or four friends and his former AAU coach, Boobie Francis. He let them provide input, but that circle also knew not to try and sway his choice. 

“It’s always been Colin’s decision,” said Steven. “He comes to us to frame the problem. Colin is always analyzing the risks of every course of action. We’re a military family. Karen worked for the department of defense as a supervisor and I’m a retired Army colonel. A lot of this is risk-mitigation, especially with his injury and shoulder recovery. 

“Colin doesn’t need a lot of flowery approach. He just wants you to lay it out in detail. That accelerated the trust with him and Coach Golden.” 

Castleton also spoke with one of Golden’s former players, USF point guard and potential second-round NBA pick Jamaree Bouyea, who opted to return to school for a fifth season. He had “long talks” with former NBA player and ex-Gator Chandler Parsons, who has been friends with Golden for years. 

There was no shortage of information made available to Castleton in his desire to make the right call. 

Gaining trust with Golden

Even before Castleton made his return official, he knew of players Golden was either bringing into the UF fold or close to signing. Among them were LSU transfer Alex Fudge from Riverside (Lee) High, Belmont transfer Will Richard and former Mississippi State commit Riley Kugel from Dr. Phillips High in Orlando. 

“If I didn’t think we were going to be good [next season], that wouldn’t have been a choice [to come back],” said Castleton. “He told me guys he wants to bring in. That was definitely very intriguing.”  

But nothing, including a lucrative NIL deal Castleton has with Gator Collective, was going to influence his final decision quite like seeing how he and Golden connected. That went a long way toward cinching his return to Gainesville. 

“I’ve been in college for a long enough time to understand,” said Castleton. “I know some people say certain things just to say them, and some people say things and they’re genuine. I can tell. I have to put my trust in [Golden] no matter what if I was coming back. I feel like I’m doing that. 

“Just gain that trust and we’ll get to know him more and more. He told me he wants me to meet with his family, which I really haven’t done with a lot of coaches I’ve had. There’s just something different about the way he carries himself. I’m really excited about that. He just seemed like a genuine guy.” 

And that NIL deal for an undetermined windfall, how much a part did that play? 

“It was definitely something I was intrigued by, so relevant in college basketball now,” Castleton said. “We’re getting an opportunity to be financially all right. I personally appreciate it. It definitely helped, but I don’t think it swayed the decision either way.” 

Though Castleton’s return is only a one-year benefit for Florida, it’s an important bridge for Golden to help get his program up and running. 

Without the Daytona Beach Father Lopez High product on board, the Gators wouldn’t have a consistently productive returning player on the roster except for Penn State transfer Myreon Jones, who only averaged 8.5 points last season. Freshman shooting guard Kowacie Reeves came on late in the year, but Golden’s talented roster has mostly unproven players outside of Castleton. 

“Everything fell in the right place” 

The Gators will likely need time to coalesce into a team that can be .500 or above in the SEC. Having Castleton at least gives them a fighting chance. 

“Colin coming back and buying in with myself, our program and our staff gives us some good momentum,” Golden said. “It’s helped our recruiting and gives us a great centerpiece to build around.” 

In too many games last season, Castleton was the only consistent scorer and rebounder Florida had on the floor. Seniors Phlandrous Fleming, Tyree Appleby and Anthony Duruji provided a spark at different times, but none of them are coming back. 

That’s why Golden’s most important recruit may well be Castleton. It gives off an early impression with prospects that this West coast guy — a Phoenix native, Golden played college basketball at St. Mary’s (Ca.) — may have the salesmanship and personality to get UF basketball ascending again. 

“Personally, I’m just really excited to play for coach Golden,” said Castleton. “He’s got a different swagger about him. He’s younger, more energetic. I’m really excited about the future. 

“It kept coming back to me that I’m going to use this extra year I have to get healthy and get going. Everything fell in the right place.” 

Beyond Castleton’s obvious production — 16.2 points per game, 9.0 rebounds last season — Golden knew the psychological boost of him returning to the program, though hard to quantify, was equally important.

Castleton’s low-key demeanor off the court runs contrary to his boisterous nature during games. When UF has momentum going its way at home games, Castleton can often be seen revving up the crowd, especially the Rowdy Reptiles student section, with his screams of approval after a good play. 

“Some people take it the wrong way, but I feel like if you’re on the court, you got to believe in yourself, be confident,” said Castleton. “I just feel like getting the crowd involved. As soon as I get in-between those lines, I’m just a different type of animal. That’s how I approach every game. 

“You got to be mentally tough. I don’t really care if people don’t like that. That’s not really my problem.”  

Florida would have a big problem without Colin Castleton to anchor its starting lineup next season. But coach Todd Golden took advantage of his one chance to make a good first impression. He sold Florida’s best player on coming back. 

It’ll be interesting to see what unfolds from the ripple effects of that Golden touch. 

Gfrenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540  

Gene Frenette Sports columnist at Florida Times-Union, follow him on Twitter @genefrenette

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