3 takeaways from Florida Gators men's basketball team's victory over Vanderbilt

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer

No Colin Castleton, no problem once again for the Gators.

Senior guard Tyree Appleby provided 11 points off the bench, Brandon McKissic added nine points to go along with a team-high four assists, and Florida never trailed in Saturday’s 61-42 victory over Vanderbilt at the Exactech Arena, marking the team’s third consecutive SEC win. 

Florida has a quick turnaround as the Gators return to the floor Monday in Oxford, Mississippi, to take on the Rebels at 7 p.m. in a contest that was initially scheduled for Dec. 29 before being postponed due to COVID-19 issues within the UF program. 

Here are three takeaways from Saturday's victory. 

The last time:3 takeaways from Florida Gators men's basketball team's comeback win vs. Mississippi State

Analysis:Gators pass their first post-Colin Castleton test, but more are coming fast for Florida basketball

Florida football:Reports: Florida Gators hiring NFL assistant as co-defensive coordinator on Billy Napier staff

Florida Gators center Jason Jitoboh (33) looks to pass during the second half against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Exactech Arena.

Jitoboh impresses again

With Castleton sidelined for the foreseeable future with a shoulder injury, the Gators called on Jason Jitoboh to man the middle once again. 

The junior forward made the second start of his career in Florida’s eventual 61-42 victory and narrowly missed out on a double-double, finishing with eight points and 10 rebounds in a career-high 27 minutes against the Commodores. 

With Jitoboh’s 285-pound frame clearing out the paint, the Gators did significant damage in the low post, scoring 28 points in the paint to just 12 by Vanderbilt. Rather than focus on his personal achievements in the aftermath, Jitoboh was solely fixated on Florida’s continued progress. 

“I’m just happy I’m able to contribute and win. That’s all I’m happy for,” he said. “I’m happy I’m playing good, but I’m just happier to be winning now.”

But Florida coach Mike White had no trouble praising Jitoboh, saying his effort and improved conditioning at both ends is apparent after he devoted himself to getting in better shape prior to the season. As a result, the Gators have been able to insert Jitoboh in the lineup without experiencing a significant drop-off on the floor. 

“He’s got as high of a basketball IQ as anyone in our program, and I’ve been saying that for a couple years. A really good screener,” White said of Jitoboh. “He’s got really good touch. I mean, rarely do you see a 6-foot-11 guy with the ability to shoot a floater.”

Castleton’s injury could have been the nail in the coffin for a team that picked up three straight defeats to begin SEC play. Jitoboh’s play — and overall availability — have helped ensure that isn’t the case.

“Everyone in our program is trying to motivate one another, but Jason did it himself — ultimately, Jason did it,” White said. “He’s improved his discipline and his commitment. I’m really proud of him.”

Florida Gators guard Tyree Appleby (22) drives to the basket during the second half against the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Appleby provides spark off the pine

After starting 12 of UF’s first 15 games to start the season, Appleby has started games as a reserve in the Gators’ previous three contests, all of which have resulted in UF victories. White has repeatedly stressed the lack of importance placed on the starting lineup, saying it’s preferable to have depth rather than a consistent starting unit. 

“It’s something that we don’t spend a lot of time talking about,” White said of the starting group. “We got 13, 15 guys who want to start, as does Vanderbilt. But Tyree wants to win more than anything else.”

White praised Appleby’s recently improved ball security. In a contest that featured a future NBA point guard in Scotty Pippen Jr., Appleby stood out the most.

“He’s playing really well. He played as well as any guard on the court, as he did the other night,” White said of Appleby. “His decisions continue to improve, and he’s leading. He’s been terrific.”

Florida Gators guard Brandon McKissic (23) screams during the second half against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Exactech Arena.

McKissic’s defensive leap

Coming into the contest, graduate transfer guard McKissic relished the matchup with Vanderbilt star guard Pippen.

Considering the way the dynamic Pippen finished the game, McKissic came away with bragging rights, too. 

Pippen finished the game with a season-low six points on a paltry 1-of-10 shooting, including an 0-of-7 effort from the field in the second half, with much of the credit for his uncharacteristic performance going to UF’s defensive effort, particularly that of McKissic.

“I thought B-Mac made as big of a jump as anyone on our team in the second half with just his intensity level and leading by example,” White said. “Something clicked where he just turned it on defensively.”

The Gators built an early 20-10 lead, only for the ‘Dores to claw back before halftime and make it 31-28 on Jordan Wright’s buzzer-beating lay-in. Rather than fold in the second half, Florida came out with improved focus out of the break and proceeded to effectively put the game away with a 12-0 run. 

Vanderbilt didn’t connect on a field goal for the final 10:57 of play, and McKissic pointed to the team’s defense as the catalyst in the eventual 19-point victory. 

“Guarding, I feel like that was one thing we were really locked-in on. When we’re just locked in like that, we’re not even thinking about whether our shots are going in or out,” McKissic said. “We’re just getting back on defense.”