Back in my day, a #1 team coming to Nashville meant only one thing: a front-page worthy upset loss.
I had the good fortune to be at Vanderbilt from 2006-2008, encompassing two of the best seasons of basketball that Memorial Gym has ever seen. That meant defeating Joakim Noah and the #1 Gators behind Derrick Byars and a hyped-up Kevin Stallings 83-70 in 2007. One year later, it meant toppling the freshly-minted #1 Tennessee Volunteers in the midst of a white-out in Nashville, 72-69.
Now the Gators are back on the top of the NCAA for the first time since '07, and the Commodore faithful will be greeting them with a black-out. Can Vandy tap into the spirit of those late-00 teams and knock Florida off their place atop the national rankings? It will take a monumental effort, but nothing would mean more to this bare-boned team than to send its seniors out with a major upset at home.
UConn found a way to beat UF at home back in 2013 - let's look at how the Commodores can follow their lead.
Florida (25-2, 14-0 SEC, #1 in the Coaches' Poll, #4 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
If your worst loss came against a team that was ranked as recently as three days ago, it's same to say that you're having a solid season. The Gators have only two defeats on their record, and each came to programs that could have a lengthy stay in March's NCAA Tournament. Their most painful loss of the 2013-2014 season came back in December against NCAA titan UConn, who used a Shabazz Napier buzzer beater to turn defeat into victory at home.
The Gators led by three with 35 seconds left to play when Napier hit a monster three-pointer and drew a foul in the act. He hit the ensuing free throw to put UConn ahead 63-62, but Florida responded with an easy layup that left 19 seconds on the clock. The Huskies ran the clock down and gave the ball back to Napier, who missed an off-balance jumper. Fortunately for Connecticut, DeAndre Daniels kept the rebound alive by tipping it back out to Napier, who buried the final shot of the game as time expired.
Key to Destruction: Curbing Florida's Momentum. The Gators are a team that has the talent to run up big deficits that can swing a game in their favor. A 9-1 run late against Tennessee helped carry them over the Volunteers two weeks ago. A 13-3 spurt midway through the second half of their win over Kentucky erased a 45-38 Wildcat lead and broke UK's spirit.
Connecticut did a great job of managing those runs and responding with counterpunches of their own. UF used a 13-2 advantage early in the first half to cut open an eight-point lead, but UConn fired right back with 11 straight points of their own to bring their fans back into the contest. Later, when the Gators were primed to pull away with the lead, Napier rose up to hit some back-breaking three-pointers to drain Florida's momentum.
UF is going to score in bunches, and Vanderbilt will need someone to step up and answer when they do. If Rod Odom or Kyle Fuller can fight back with dagger threes on Tuesday, then Vandy will have more than a puncher's chance to pull off the home upset.
Keys to the Game:
Harass Florida's big wings. UConn forced Casey Prather and Dorian Finney-Smith into 11 turnovers by challenging them to make the extra pass once they got the ball in the frontcourt. Both Prather and Finney-Smith are decent enough with the ball, but they were unable to withstand the athletic defense that the Huskies threw down on them. James Siakam can be a pestering force up front to cause mistakes, but it will be the opportunistic play of guys like Odom, Fuller, and Dai-Jon Parker that do the most damage to UF's non-guard ballhandlers.
Pick your threes. Florida has held opponents to a 34.4 percent success rate from three-point range this season, but Wisconsin (45%) and UConn (45.8%) toasted that mark in the Gators' two losses this year. Vanderbilt is willing to live and die by the three. If the Commodores can take advantage of the opportunities a hot-and-cold defense gives them on Tuesday, then they can unlock the formula to finding an upset win.
Create an opportunity for a clutch performance. Vanderbilt didn't respond well to end-of-game situations earlier this season. Losses to teams like Providence, Butler, and Texas were heartbreakers that the Commodores could just as easily have won. However, there isn't a fan out there that doesn't think that this team has grown tremendously since then. Players like Odom and Fuller deserve the opportunity to make a game-winning and season-defining play in out of their final games in Nashville. If one of those two guys gets the ball in their hands with one shot to change the game, expect them to make the most of it.
Vanderbilt has a tall task ahead of them on Tuesday. They are facing a Florida team that hasn't lost since December 2nd of last year. Florida is a very good basketball team with few weaknesses - something that we've said often about Billy Donovan-led squads.
However, they now carry the burden of being the nation's top team, and every opponent will be coming at them with renewed vigor. That includes Vanderbilt, who will be looking to regain the glory of the 2007 team. While the Commodores are a pretty long shot from getting back to the Sweet Sixteen, they have a chance to follow in Byars and Foster's footsteps by upsetting a #1 Gator team at home once again. If they rise to the occasion and catch fire from long range, they can shock the SEC with a win.
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