For a moment — almost 15 minutes, really — the look at life without Colin Castleton that Florida provided on Saturday in Arkansas looked surprisingly good.
Then the rest of the game happened, and Florida ended up buried under an Arkansas avalanche in an 84-65 rout.
Florida led 23-19 midway through the first half, but the Razorbacks responded to that deficit with an 11-0 run, then used a 5-2 burst just before halftime to build a 37-31 lead. It would get far worse for Florida almost immediately in the second half, with a 17-2 gallop putting the Gators in a 21-point hole six minutes into the period.
The lead would extend to as many as 25 points — and Arkansas would never let that lead shrink to fewer than 18 points, either, with a 7-0 salvo from the Gators being immediately met by a thunderous Ricky Council IV dunk.
Florida felt Castleton’s absence acutely, as its interior defense was carved up after an initially stingy stint. Jalen Graham had a career-high 26 points and finished over Jason Jitoboh’s vertically-challenged contests over and over, and the Hogs shot 32-for-49 on twos — a sweltering 65 percent — without Castleton inside to swat shots at the rim and make shooters think twice on midrange attempts.
Jitoboh and Aleks Szymczyk also didn’t quite replicate Castleton’s production offensively, with Jitoboh scoring four points on two-for-five shooting and Szymczyk frequently struggling to handle passes. The German freshman did connect on two threes late to get a career-high eight points and paired that with seven rebounds and four steals, but he appeared to be as raw as he is promising.
More promising than raw was Riley Kugel, who had 17 points and looked comfortable attacking off the bounce. Kugel made just one of six threes and did little outside of score, but Florida will need his scoring more than anything if it is to avoid a losing season.
And he’ll need more help than was provided on this day, as Will Richard was Florida’s only other double-figure scorer, needing a few clever finishes just to get 10 points.
But this was always likely to be a back stretch of struggles for Florida without Castleton, and if its strong start in this game can be replicated and built upon, its schedule does get lighter in the final few weeks of SEC play.
For a relatively young team that has been carried by Castleton, this loss ought to be a wake-up call and a challenge. It could also just be a sign of things to come.