For a stretch, last night's Florida game looked a lot like last week's Kentucky game.
Every time the Commodores strung together points, the Gators had an answer, attacking the rim in transition and scoring in the paint to sweep away Vanderbilt's momentum. The 'Dores had several chances to open up a double-digit lead and cruise through the second half, but Florida always had a response. Billy Donovan's team used their full-court press to force turnovers and kept plays alive on the other end with key rebounds.
It was exactly the kind of situation where Vandy had found a way to lose in other games this season. Fans had seen this team squander big leads before. It's even happened at Memorial Gym this season, where Xavier and Mississippi State rallied from double-digit deficits to earn wins. The 'Dores were playing their hearts out on senior night, but Florida refused to go away, and as the game sunk into its final minutes, the Gators weren't only outscoring Vandy in the paint - their three-point shooting was starting to click as well.
With six minutes left in the game, Vanderbilt finally found that extra gear. Erving Walker hit a potentially momentum-killing three to drag the Gators within a point. Jeffery Taylor immediately responded with a three of his own to bring the crowd back into it. With that four-point lead, Vandy dropped anchor.
Florida was supposed to be able to out-shoot VU's zone defense, but the Commodore guards gave no quarter behind the perimeter. Vanderbilt held their opponent to just 1-9 shooting in the final five minutes while finding a way to out-pass the full-court defense that the Gators used to spark a comeback minutes earlier. The team learned from their mistakes, made the adjustments to deal with them, and came out stronger as a result. Last night's win was the most dynamic 40 minutes of basketball this team has played all season, and it ended with a resume-building win.
As important as that win was, it was the method behind it that will spark optimism in an increasingly grizzled fanbase. Coach Kevin Stallings managed his rotations well and found ways to adjust when it became clear that Vandy's traditional lineup couldn't handle Florida's defensive pressure. He rolled the dice with Festus Ezeli and Brad Tinsley despite their foul trouble and was rewarded with solid play in clutch from both. The defense, which got shredded early, bowed up exactly when they needed to and did just enough to affect Florida's shooting in the biggest moments.
And this team's seniors? Well, they didn't just want this game; they needed it. One look at Taylor or Tinsley as the seconds slid away from their final game at Memorial Gym showed just how much this victory meant to them. Vanderbilt got the defining win they needed to prove that their blowout over Marquette wasn't a fluke. They demonstrated that they can win a close game. Now, they have to head to Knoxville this Saturday and show that they can win an emotional game in a hostile environment.
The win pushed Vandy into the top 20 in the RPI and Pomeroy rankings. With Tennessee and the SEC Tournament on the horizon, they'll have a pair of guaranteed games against top 100 squads and potential matchups with a pair of top 25 teams. While there's plenty of room for Kevin Stallings's team to slide, there's also an opportunity for growth. A strong showing could bump them all the way up the S-curve to a three seed in the NCAA Tournament. Right now, they're probably hovering around a five or six slot.
Can Vanderbilt improve their stock? They showed the world what they're capable of last night. Unfortunately, it's going to take more than one signature win to wash away the bad taste that many people have after this team's postseason struggles in the past. This Florida win is a great starting point, but Vandy can't rest yet. If they're going to prove their worth, they'll have to play like they did last night throughout March.
What else did we learn from last night's game? Let's check it out:
The winning lineup? Johnson-Tinsley-Jenkins-Taylor-Ezeli. Vanderbilt pulled away behind a lineup the Commodores have rarely used in 2011-2012, a modified small ball look that featured a pair of point guards. Kedren Johnson and Brad Tinsley gave the team two ballhandlers who could get past the Florida press and into the halfcourt. It also shifted pressure away from Lance Goulbourne (who split time with Ezeli at center in this lineup) and gave Jenkins a chance to display his ball control skills. The three guard set helped limit Vandy's mistakes against a defense that had given them fits. The 'Dores had just one official turnover over the final 10 minutes of play - but Florida was unable to turn that into points.
Johnson's emergence was a promising undercurrent on senior night. He played 26 big minutes due to Tinsley's foul trouble and showed that he's able to keep this team running at a high level from the point. After a shaky start (see his ignorance of the shot clock and bank-shot prayer in the first half), he recovered well and provided a steady hand in the backcourt.
He and Dai-Jon Parker put together another performance that suggested that things won't be so bleak next season. Vanderbilt may have to replace seven players in 2013, but Johnson and Parker are getting stronger every game. The pair are looking more and more like a solid foundation for this team to build on.
John Jenkins: Should he stay or should he go? Jenkins may not be a senior, but he certainly played last night's game as though it was the last time he'd set foot in Memorial Gym. The junior started off 6-6 from three-point range and didn't miss a shot until late in the game against the Gators. He did an exceptional job of finding holes against Florida's zone and showed just how effective he can be when he's not forced to create his own shot off the dribble.
Was last night the last we'll see of Jenkins in a Commodore uniform? He's a definite risk to jump to the NBA, but while he has an elite skill, the rest of his game hasn't filled out as expected. Jenkins showed some solid ballhandling against the press last night, but it's clear that he's a shooting guard and nothing else. He's a bit undersized at the position in the pros at 6'4", and his defense - without size or high-level athleticism - will likely be the thing that holds him back.
Jenkins's dilemna is clear. Declaring for the draft this spring would throw him right in the middle of one of the deepest classes the NBA has ever seen. Odds are good that he could slip into the second round of the picks - and out of any guaranteed contract. Shan Foster and Derrick Byars are both recent Commodores who ended up selected in the second round, and neither has suited up for a regular season NBA game yet.
However, returning to school could be equally detrimental to his draft stock. While the junior would have another year to fill out his game and show off his defensive chops, his offensive output would likely take a hit. Without Taylor or Ezeli for other teams to focus on, Jenkins would be primary target for every opposing defense. His efficiency and scoring would both very likely take a hit. While he'd have softer competition for a top pick, it's tough to see how his value would rise much more than where it currently is.
Jenkins will have a tough decision to make after the season. If he comes back, it will take a superhuman effort to bring a rebuilding Commodore squad back to these prominent heights. Fortunately for Vanderbilt, Jenkins has always been one to challenge himself. Will the flamethrower be back for a senior year? I imagine he'll declare for the draft without hiring an agent - and then the decision will come down to how scouts grade him in his postseason workouts.