From MVP to DNP: Florida believes guard Riley Kugel 'will respond the right way' after benching

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GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Florida’s Riley Kugel went from MVP to DNP in less than a year.

The 6-foot-5 guard was so sensational down the stretch last season that he considered turning pro. Now, he’s the Gators’ biggest X-factor heading into the NCAA Tournament — assuming he even plays.

Kugel was a DNP (did not play) in Florida’s final two games of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, with his usual minutes going to fellow sophomore Denzel Aberdeen. Aberdeen delivered, scoring a career-high 20 points in a victory against Texas A&M in the semifinals.

It’s unclear how much Kugel will play, if at all, when the seventh-seeded Gators (24-11) face Colorado or Boise State in the opening round of the South Region in Indianapolis on Friday.

“I have faith that he will respond the right way,” coach Todd Golden said Tuesday. “Obviously, he was disappointed. I would have been if I was him, too. But, again, there’s a new opportunity this week, is the best way I can say it. Nothing that’s happened in the past will prevent him from getting on the court if he deserves to be there this week.

“I expect and anticipate him having a great week and understanding that this is another great opportunity to play in the best event in college spots, in my opinion. March Madness is amazing, and I think he’ll be geared up and ready to go.”

Kugel was a preseason all-SEC selection last fall after averaging 17.3 points over Florida’s final 10 games of the 2022-23 season. He proved he could handle the ball, get to the rim, shoot from long range and brought unmatched athleticism to the court.

He was widely viewed as Golden’s most important player, a returning starter who would be the focal point of the offense and a lock-down defender.

But little went right for Kugel early — or since. He failed to score in double figures five times in Florida’s first 11 games, looking lost on the court and disengaged on the bench. TV cameras caught him brushing off teammates and coaches, and Golden clearly didn’t like what he saw.

Kugel was coming off the bench by the end of December and playing fewer and fewer minutes the deeper the Gators got into the season.

“I just call it learning lessons," Kugel said last month. “Just got to get better off it. I know I let it slip. I can say that.”

Now, he’s completely out of the mix and clearly out of favor.

“I’m proud of him with the way he’s handled everything,” said teammate Will Richard, who shares an apartment with Kugel. “There’s definitely been some highs and lows, but he’s been with the team. He’s been encouraging and been positive around the guys. He’s still coming in here and working hard.”

No one would be surprised to see Kugel contribute — or maybe even make an impact — in the tournament. After all, he scored 22 points in a win against Auburn last month and knocked down all six free throws in the final 15 seconds to close out Georgia in the SEC Tournament.

And the Gators might need him after center Micah Handlogten broke his left leg in the SEC finale. But Kugel needs to show more consistency on both ends to regain Golden’s trust. He’s missed 12 of his last 15 3-pointers and has more turnovers (10) than assists (7) in his last five games.

Golden declined to divulge much about what’s happening behind the scenes, but he seemed to infer a lot about Kugel while praising Aberdeen.

“You look at what Denzel has been able to do for us over the last couple of weeks and he’s a guy that’s super consistent and has a great attitude and, regardless of his playing time, brings the same approach on a day-to-day basis,” Golden said.

“I hope Riley will give us a big lift in this tournament,” he added. “We are down one, obviously, and could really use him in a lot of different ways.”


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