Florida Gators basketball seeks fourth straight SEC win, faces busy schedule on the road

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
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Florida coach Mike White, who played his four years of collegiate basketball at Ole Miss, always anticipates the matchup with his alma mater. 

Alongside former teammates Jason Harrison, Jason Smith and Keith Carter, White helped lead the Rebels to their first NCAA Tournament victory in 1999 after two prior one-and-done trips — a moment the program still hasn’t forgotten nearly 23 years later.

In 2005, White returned to the Mississippi program, ultimately serving as an assistant in Oxford for seven seasons, further solidifying his legacy within the Ole Miss fanbase. 

The primary focus undoubtedly remains on Florida, but it’s no secret White has much to look forward to whenever the Gators visit Mississippi.

“It’s a great new arena, you know. They’ve got a lousy AD, my former roommate,” White said facetiously of Carter, his former teammate and the Rebels’ latest athletic director. 

This season, White had to wait a little bit longer than expected to make the much-anticipated trip north, as Florida’s initially scheduled matchup with Ole Miss was postponed more than three weeks from Dec. 29 due to COVID-19 issues within the UF program. 

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Florida Gators head coach Mike White reacts during an SEC basketball game against Mississippi State at the Exactech Arena in Gainesville.

Gators face more challenges on the road

As a result, Florida must now play a daunting stretch of three games in the span of just five days, which began Saturday with a 61-42 win at home over Vanderbilt and will continue at 7 p.m. against the Rebels (9-9, 1-5 SEC) in the Sandy and John Black Pavilion in Oxford.

UF will stay overnight Monday before practicing Tuesday at a nearby junior college. Prior to returning to Gainesville, the Gators will wrap up the brutal stretch Wednesday in Knoxville, Tennessee, against the No. 25-ranked Volunteers. 

There’s no dancing around it: the upcoming slate will be strenuous. 

“They play really hard. They’ve got some big wins. It’s SEC on the road,” White said. “You pick a name out of a hat and it’s going to be difficult. It’s no different with playing Ole Miss.”

The Rebels may have just one conference victory in six tries, but they took Tennessee to overtime to open SEC play Jan. 5 and picked up a victory Dec. 4 against a talented Memphis team. As White said, they’re no pushover, and the Gators realized it during the initial preparation period in late December. Many may not remember the game plan, considering the team has studied film and competed against six teams since that time. But if anyone does, the team’s new starting center, forward Jason Jitoboh, does. 

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

The junior from Abuja, Nigeria, had another productive outing against the Commodores since taking over the five-spot in UF’s primary rotation. With Colin Castleton still out with a shoulder injury, Jitoboh scored eight points and hauled in 10 rebounds in a career-high 27 minutes against Vanderbilt.

The production hasn’t always been there, but the team has noticed Jitoboh's aptitude on the court and in the film room since he stepped foot in Gainesville. 

“Scouting-report stuff — heck, we could start talking about Ole Miss and he’d remember a lot of what we talked about three weeks ago,” White said. “He’s intelligent first of all, and he’s got a great personality on the court.”

Now, Jitoboh is down 51 pounds and counting in the last year, and able to contribute for long periods of time on the court. He now feels like the player he’s capable of being. 

“All the conditioning I’m doing in practice is finally paying off,” Jitoboh said. “I felt like more of a different person before, because it was just extra weight on me. I couldn’t move how I wanted to move, I couldn’t do what I wanted to do.” 

That is, as long as Jitoboh remains out of foul trouble, like he did in the second half of UF’s recent wins over Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. 

Florida knows it will need Jitoboh once again if the Gators hope to further extend their win streak despite a brutal stretch of scheduling. 

Not that his teammates are concerned about a letdown. 

“I’m extremely proud. I know what he’s capable of all summer, all year, and finally he’s given an opportunity to show you guys, show the world, what he’s all capable of,” guard Brandon McKissic said of Jitoboh. “Because in the locker room, we all know what he’s capable of. He’s a very intellectual person on the court and off the court, so we really respect his game. He deserves this. He’s grinded really hard, you know, all this time that I’ve been with him. He deserves everything that’s coming to him.” 

Florida’s projected starters

Anthony Duruji F 6-7   220    R-Sr    9.5 ppg  4.2 rpg

Jason Jitoboh C 6-11 305    Jr.     3.4 ppg   1.8 rpg

Brandon McKissic G 6-3   185   Gr. 6.2 ppg   3.4 rpg

Kowacie Reeves G 6-6   182    Fr. 4.7 ppg 1.3 rpg

Phlandrous Fleming Jr. G 6-5   205   Gr.  10.8 ppg 3.5 rpg

Mississippi’s projected starters

Jaemyn Brakefield F 6-8    220  So 9.1 ppg 4.2 rpg

Nysier Brooks C 7-0    245 Gr. 9.5 ppg  8.1 rpg

Daeshun Ruffin G 5-9   160   Fr 11.0 ppg  0.9 rpg

Matthew Murrell G 6-4   200    So.   9.8 ppg  2.8 rpg

Tye Fagan G 6-3  198    Sr 7.4 ppg  3.7 rpg

Notes: Starting in place of sidelined senior Colin Castleton, Jitoboh posted his first career double-digit rebounding game in Saturday’s win vs. Vanderbilt. He grabbed five of UF’s 16 offensive rebounds. …The Gators have looked much better in the second half as of late, though that’s no surprise to the Rebels. In last season’s meeting with Mississippi, Florida ended the game on a 20-2 run over the final 6:28, turning a nine-point deficit into a nine-point win. …Vanderbilt’s 42 total points Saturday marked the second-fewest UF has allowed vs. an SEC opponent under Mike White. The Gators allowed South Carolina to score just 41 points on Feb. 10, 2018. 

MONDAY'S GAME

When: 7 p.m. 

TV: SEC Network Plus

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM

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