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Following impressive week, Gators look to maintain form vs. Commodores

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
Florida's Colin Castleton shoots over Vanderbilt forward Dylan Disu during the first half of the Dec. 30, 2020, game in Nashville, Tenn.

The consecutive victories over Tennessee and Georgia brushed aside the notion, temporarily at least, that Florida was a grateful participant rather than competitor, and it looks to avoid a letdown against Vanderbilt after an impressive stretch.

Today

Who: Vanderbilt (4-7, 0-5 SEC) at Florida (8-4, 5-3)

When: 6:30 p.m.

TV: SEC Network

Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850

In the conference opener, Florida picked up a 91-72 win in Nashville on Dec. 30 in the first meeting of the season against Vanderbilt, thanks in part to a career-high 23 points from junior Colin Castleton. That game marked Florida’s first without Keyontae Johnson, and in the time since the Gators have transitioned the offense to better suit the frontcourt personnel available. 

“We just dumped dribble-drive, which we have done for five months, just working on it, filming it, player-developing it, talking it, repping it, five-on-zeroing it, five-on-fiving it,” UF coach Mike White said. “It was hard to just dump it because we spent so much time and we had gotten to where we thought it really fit our personnel and we were getting better at it.”

Meanwhile, the Commodores have yet to win an SEC game and have lost the last two games by more than 20 points, although White praised coach Jerry Stackhouse’s team, particularly their defense and the play of guard Scotty Pippen Jr., who is averaging 20.6 points a game as a sophomore.

“Their defense, without getting into full detail, is unique to the rest of our league,” White said. “Vanderbilt will be prepared. And then, offensively, they run some actions that just put you in tough spots. They get you defensively on the weak side at the rim. 

“Scotty Pippen is a handful. He just gets better and better. I think he’s one of the toughest guys in our league. I think he’s one of the smartest guys in our league. He understands how to draw fouls. Feet, shot fakes, pass fakes. And when he’s in pick and roll and they’ve got three or four shooters around him with a cutter, they’re just difficult to defend.”

Castleton, averaging 16.3 points per game in conference play, is one of several Gators who have stepped up in Johnson’s absence, although he missed the 26-point win over the Vols due to an ankle injury he suffered Jan. 16 against Mississippi State. Castleton returned Saturday against the Dawgs and was effective in 18 minutes off the bench, scoring 14 points on 7-for-9 shooting, while point guard Tre Mann led the way, scoring a career-high 24 points in a career-high 39 minutes. 

“I obviously went back in the game at Mississippi State. I just wanted to play, like I had adrenaline, it wasn't really hurting. Then after the game we took the tape off and it was really hurting pretty bad. It was really swollen, so I kind of realized maybe I need to take a little step back and just be cautious about what I'm doing,” Castleton said. “So, I was involved in practice, like just helping the team out, but I didn't really go until the two days before we played Georgia.

“I just was cautious about it because it's still swollen, but it's definitely getting better.”

While Castleton recovered, it was Omar Payne’s turn to step up, and he did to the tune of 19 points and 18 rebounds combined in his first two starts of the season. 

He wasn’t the only Gators big man ready for the moment, as junior college signee Osayi Osifo went 3 for 3 — another miss-free night after hitting both of his shot attempts against Tennessee — from the field against Georgia and hauled in five rebounds.

“Osifo had his best day as a Gator," White said. "Jason (Jitoboh) continues to get better at practice. He’s trying to earn an opportunity there as well. Our frontcourt is deep and it’s versatile. It’s hard to play all these guys at once, and it’s hard to start all these guys. Colin is a starter, whether he starts tomorrow or not, we’ll figure that out. Omar was really, really good. Colin is closer to a 100 percent than he was with his ankle.

"But it’s not like these guys got it all figured out, either. Our frontcourt, in terms of ball-screen defense and transition defense, did a poor job at times walling off (Georgia guard Sahvir) Wheeler in transition. We missed some blockouts. We have to sharpen up in that area and maintain focus for a full 40 (minutes). They are showing signs of a potentially very good frontcourt if we keep working.” 

Without Johnson and Scottie Lewis, who hasn’t played since Jan. 9 due to “health and safety protocol”, the Gators have slowly altered the offense. As the SEC stretch continues — save for Saturday’s SEC/Big 12 Challenge at No. 11 West Virginia — the Gators look to maintain an edge by playing to their strengths.

Even if it means abandoning the preseason preparation, a high-risk, high-reward move. 

“We’re doing a lot more ball-screening now. It’s a little bit less read and react. It’s a little bit more based on spacing and screening. There’s more of a point of emphasis — I’m not giving anything away to our opponents — but we’re throwing that thing inside more. Guys are sharing it. Those are the biggest bullets. That’s how we’re playing differently,” White said. “Just a completely different philosophy, and we’ll get better at it — and we’ll have games, of course, where I’ll be eating my words from what I’m saying right now. We’ve got some big-time defenses that we’re going to be playing. But we’re definitely better offensively today than we were two weeks ago.”

PROJECTED STARTERS

Florida

04 Anthony Duruji F  6-7 220 Jr. 6.1 ppg 4.1 rpg

22 Tyree Appleby G 6-1 170 Jr. 10.3 ppg  2.9 rpg

10 Noah Locke G 6-3 203 Jr. 10.6 ppg 2.2 rpg

01 Tre Mann G 6-5 190 So. 14.7 ppg 5.3 rpg

05 Omar Payne F 6-10 230 So. 4.4 ppg  3.8 rpg

Vanderbilt

10 Myles Stute F 6-7 215 Fr. 8.0 ppg 2.9 rpg

15 Clevon Brown F 6-8 232 R-Sr. 2.9 ppg  2.3 rpg

02 Scotty Pippen Jr. G 6-3 170 So. 20.6 ppg 2.9 rpg

05 D.J. Harvey G 6-6 235 Sr. 8.3 ppg 3.1 rpg

04 Jordan Wright G 6-6 235 Sr. 8.0 ppg 4.3 rpg

Notes: The Gators are averaging 6 blocked shots a game, led by Colin Castleton (2.2) and Omar Payne (1.7). That pace is ahead of the team record of 5.3, set in the 2005-06 season and the only time UF has averaged more than five blocks per game ... Tre Mann has averaged 16.8 points per game over the last four. Mann has shot 17 for 20 (.850) from the free-throw line and added 16 assists and nine steals during this stretch ... Florida’s win at Georgia was the team’s fifth in six trips to Athens under Mike White, and UF’s 92 points were the team’s most at Georgia in regulation since 1994 when the Gators scored 100.

— Graham Hall