The Gators seemed to be turning things around. After an 0-3 start to SEC play in a brutal opening to the schedule, they entered Monday night's game winners of three-straight and looking to get back on the right side of .500 with a road matchup against a struggling Ole Miss team in Oxford.
But instead of a relatively easy win, UF delivered one of its worst offensive performances in recent memory as the Rebels shocked coach Mike White's team with a 70-54 win in a game that was originally meant to be these teams' SEC opener before COVID-19 cases forced the game to be rescheduled.
Florida (12-7, 3-4 SEC) jumped out to a fast start and led by seven points in the first half, but the offense fell apart as Mississippi (10-9, 2-5 SEC) quickly captured the momentum and never relinquished it. The game was tied at 22 heading into the locker room, but the Rebels couldn't miss in the second half and UF couldn't keep up.
As things currently stand, this one will go in the books as a Quadrant 2 loss for the Gators, who stand at 3-2 in such games this season. They were looking to enter a crucial matchup against Tennessee in Knoxville on Wednesday night with momentum on their side, but now they will limp into that one on a short turnaround with their NCAA Tournament hopes dwindling.
Here are the takeaways as Florida drops a conference game it really needed to win.
What is this team's offensive identity without Castleton?
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We've now seen three games without Castleton at the helm, and it's abundantly clear that this team doesn't have much of a philosophy on offense other than high-volume outside shooting without him on the floor. When the shots are falling, that's all well and good. But when the Gators play like they did on Monday night, it's a problem.
Things started out pretty well with the team hitting six of its first 12 shots as it jumped out to the early lead. But it ended the first half hitting just 1 of 10 shots, and though that mark improved slightly in the second half, it wasn't enough to make the difference. UF shot 19 of 50 for the game, yet another sub-40% outing.
But the real killer was the lack of efficacy from downtown. The three-point shot was really all Florida had in this one, with 29 of its attempts coming behind the arc. But of those, it made just four in a 14% shooting performance from long range. That's atrocious, but it's also not anything new.
Aside from big men Jason Jitoboh and Anthony Duruji, who scored 12 and 11 points, respectively, there wasn't much to talk about. Tyree Appleby also scored 11, but he was just 3 of 8 from the field (all threes), with one of the makes coming in garbage time. True freshman Kowacie Reeves, who had shown promising signs, missed all four of his shots (also all threes). He netted just five points, all of which came at the line.
Sometimes the shots just aren't going to fall, but it's clear that this team doesn't have much of a backup plan on offense when Castleton is off the court.
Ole Miss' blistering second half was insurmountable
AP Photo/Bruce Newman
As significant as the offensive issues mentioned above were, the Gators could have shot the ball considerably more effectively and the result likely wouldn't have changed. Not as long as Ole Miss was draining shots with ease the way it was in the second half.
The Rebels shot an impressive 52% from the game, but that mark is being weighed down by a bad first half. In the second, they hit 17 of their 23 shots (a nearly 75% rate). Two Mississippi players scored 20+ points in this one with guard Daeshun Ruffin leading the way with 21 (a career-high) followed by guard Matthew Murrell with 20. Center Nysier Brooks also took advantage of a shorthanded Florida frontcourt that was missing Castleton and forward C.J. Felder, scoring 11 points, while guard Luis Rodriguez scored 10 points coming off the bench.
You simply aren't going to win many games when your opponent shoots the ball like that, but this is a Gators team that began the year with what appeared to be one of the most ferocious defenses in the country. Strong defense is White's calling card, but the unit has allowed too many games like this one this season.
Florida also shot itself in the foot quite a bit, too. As if the Rebels needed any help on offense, UF turned it over 14 times in this one, leading to 23 points going the other way. That boost alone accounts for the point differential in this one, and it only further reinforces the fact that there was nothing flukey about this beatdown.
The lone bright spot
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It's hard to find many positive takeaways from a winnable game that was never particularly competitive after the opening minutes of the second half, but if there's one point of encouragement in this one, it's the play of Jitoboh. The junior big man hadn't had many extended opportunities in his career, but he's been thrust into the starting lineup in Castleton's absence, and he's done a solid job in replacement.
In addition to leading the team in scoring in this one, Jitoboh made all six of his shots from the field and also brought down five rebounds. He doesn't quite produce on the boards the way Castleton does, but he's improving in each start, and his play has been promising.
Defensively, however, he needs to play with more control. He spent a good portion of this game in foul trouble, totaling four for the game. His backup, Tuongthach Gatkek, also had four fouls while totaling just three points in 11 minutes. That's a scary foul situation for the team to find itself in without Felder available coming off the bench.
Luckily for UF, Felder's absence shouldn't be long-term as he was ruled out for this one with a non-COVID illness. But for a team already missing its top player in the frontcourt, the Gators really needed Felder when their top two big men got into foul trouble. Jitoboh needs to be more consistent if he's going to hold down the starting job for the foreseeable future, but his positive development over a short amount of time is one of the few reasons to hold out hope that this team can improve before March even if Castleton's future is murky.
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