Florida basketball hopes to accept NIT bid as star Riley Kugel brushes off talk of transfer portal

By OnlyGators.com Staff
March 12, 2023
Florida basketball hopes to accept NIT bid as star Riley Kugel brushes off talk of transfer portal

Image Credit: UAA

With Florida Gators basketball’s 2022-23 season effectively over with the program missing the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season and fourth time in the last eight years, two pressing issues remain facing the team: whether it will accept a bid to play in the NIT and whether it can retain freshman guard Riley Kugel this offseason. While the first is a common occurrence at the conclusion of a season, the second is a consequence of how collegiate athletics has been altered over the last few years.

Answering the first quandary, head coach Todd Golden made his stance clear: The Gators will play in the NIT if offered an opportunity. “Absolutely,” he said earlier this week at the SEC Tournament. “Any time you get an opportunity to compete, you better step up and grab it. As long as I’m the head coach at Florida, we’ll compete.”

Playing in the NIT, while indeed an opportunity to compete, comes with a consequence: The coaching staff will not get a jump on pursuing transfers, which it could use given many of the teams it will be battling for some of the top prospects in the nation will be playing in the NCAA Tournament.

And that brings us back to Kugel, who had an exemplary conclusion to his first collegiate season. he averaged 17.8 points and 3.9 rebounds over his last nine games, scoring 19+ points in four of his last five while playing 32.3 minutes per game (one overtime).

It was a steady rise to prominence for Kugel this season as he found his footing, moved into a starting role and eventually became Florida’s go-to player once redshirt senior forward Colin Castleton went down with a hand injury. In the past, that would focus the offseason conversation on what players could be placed around Kugel to send the Gators back to the NCAA Tournament next season.

In this era of NIL, the one-time exemption through the transfer portal and a total lack of NCAA oversight across both facets of the recruitment process, other prominent national programs will be going after Kugel attempting to pluck him from Florida. And the pitch is easy: Why play for a team that used to be dominant when you can compete with one that has a chance of winning a national championship?

That speaks to the legitimate state of Gators basketball at this time, though that is a conversation for another day. Golden has flashed this season helping lead Florida to a couple prominent victories, but the campaign was largely a disappointment due to a variety of circumstances, including Castleton’s injury, sophomore G Kowacie Reeves not blossoming as expected and a couple missed transfer evaluations by Golden.

That would seem to put Kugel in a situation where he has a tough choice ahead: remain with the Gators, transfer to another program or perhaps even leave for the NBA. If one is to believe his comments immediately following the regular season, he has already come to a decision — at least as it pertains to college basketball.

“Being a part of the program is just a blessing,” he said after Florida beat LSU to end the regular season. “I definitely love this team with every inch of me. I really don’t have any ideas of leaving this team soon [through the] transfer portal or anything like that. So, any talk about that, it’s just a lie.”

Kugel was not the only backcourt player to spark late in the season. Reeves and sophomore G Will Richard also had their moments, and if the Gators can retain all three with the latter two finding a level of consistency, Florida may perhaps be able to focus on reloading its frontcourt through the transfer portal, which Golden has said is his preferred method of recruiting at this juncture.

Golden similarly seems confident that Kugel, an Orlando, Florida, product who was originally committed to Mississippi State but Faced eligibility issues he conquered to get on the court, will stick with the Gators despite the coach realizing he will need to rerecruit the star shooter.

“He’s grateful for the opportunity that we presented to him last spring when we got here, and he’s loyal, and he’s a really good guy, good family, and he likes to be here. He wants to be a Gator,” Golden said. “It’s the day and age of college basketball where we got to fight things off and do certain things like that, but Riley’s a loyal guy. He’s not necessarily one I worry about that way in terms of changing his allegiances. I’ll say I think he’s grateful for the opportunity we presented him, and we’re grateful for the way he grabbed it, and it’s a really good relationship that way.”

Florida will have at least five players depart due to a combination of graduation and expired eligibility, meaning it will turn over at least one-third of its roster for the second straight offseason. In this era of the transfer portal, though, that is hardly abnormal — and plenty of teams nationally have hauled in a handful of transfers only to make significant NCAA Tournament runs the following season.

While the Gators’ opening-round SEC Tournament loss to Mississippi State in overtime was not the way they wanted to begin the postseason, Florida’s play over the last couple of games without Castleton — Golden completed sweeps of Mike White’s Georgia and Matt Mahon’s LSU to end the season — has raised the belief level within the program. If it gets the chance to continue playing in the NIT, it will be interesting to see what Kugel and the rest of the program are able to accomplish.

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