I think we all learned a valuable lesson Saturday; skipping this column WILL result in disaster. Arkansas came to Nashville and beat up on the Commodores thanks to the lack of preparation provided by this twice-weekly feature. That was my fault. I apologize, Vanderbilt nation.
Now, let's forget that last Saturday ever happened. Vanderbilt still holds a precipitous grasp on a national ranking, but that will disappear without a quality win tonight against Florida. The Gators lead the SEC East with a 5-2 conference record, and a win in Gainesville would pull the Commodores within a half-game of Florida. Oddly enough, playing at the O-Dome may be an advantage for Vandy this year, as UF's marquee wins (against Tennessee, Xavier, Kansas State and Florida State) have all come on the road. Additionally, two of the team's losses to squads ranked outside the RPI Top 100 came in Gainesville.
Florida (16-5, AP #27, ESPN #23)
Florida (KenPom #37, CBS RPI #19) has shared several common opponents with Vanderbilt, defeating Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Georgia while losing to South Carolina and Mississippi State. Over this same slate, the Commodores are just 3-3. As a result, the Gators have firmly entrenched themselves as a threat in the SEC East. A loss tonight may put Vandy in a hole that they won't be able to dig out of in order secure a top-two seed in the SEC Tournament.
In December, the Dolphins out-gritted the Gators down the stretch to pull out a big win in a back and forth affair. Though Florida led by two points and held the ball with under 30 seconds to play, a Chandler Parsons turnover allowed Jacksonville to tie the game up. The Gators couldn't convert their final play, and eventually lost in overtime as JU's momentum carried them to the win in Gainesville. The loss knocked Florida out of the Top 25 rankings for over a month before the team righted itself in league play.
Key(s) to Destruction: Composure and Defense. Jacksonville should not have won this game. Florida's final two minutes of regulation went like this: missed free throw, free throw, missed layup, shooting foul, turnover, missed jumper. This window was enough for the Dolphins to claw back into the game and force overtime. Unfortunately, it seems eerily similar to some of the late game woes that have affected Vanderbilt this season.
Additionally, the Dolphins held Florida close through tenacious defense. The Gators connected on just 35.6% of their field goals (3-14 on threes) and were forced into 17 turnovers. While Jacksonville gave up a huge advantage on the glass, their quickness and pressure helped negate many of Florida's opportunities to open up a dominating lead. This might come into play for the Commodores tonight, as their entire frontcourt rotation is nursing different types of leg injuries and rebounds could be hard to come by.
Keys to the Game:
- Pressure the Gators in the backcourt. Most of Florida's 17 turnovers came from players who are the most effective around the perimeter. Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker, and Chandler Parsons (a rangy forward) combined for nine turnovers and just 3-12 shooting from behind the arc. While guard defense hasn't been one of the Commodores' strengths in 2011, John Jenkins's newfound commitment to all-around play and Brad Tinsley's adequate lateral quickness should be enough to contain Florida's backcourt of former high-profile recruits. Walker and Boynton are the engines that drive the Gators' offense, and Vanderbilt will have to shut them down to avoid a shootout in the O-Dome.
- Get in the passing lanes and disrupt Florida's flow. Florida had a problem against Jacksonville that has been pretty familiar to Vanderbilt fans this season - a lack of assists and an abundance of turnovers. The Gators assisted on only nine of their 21 field goals in 45 minutes. Thanks to the Dolphins' quickness and anticipation, the lanes to the frontcourt were shut down and Florida's big men scored mostly on put-backs and free throws rather than set plays. If Vanderbilt can stop UF's ball movement, they'll be settling for jumpers all night; and the presence of Festus Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne will help stem the flow of offensive rebounds that kept Florida in the game against JU. Also encouraging: Jacksonville won in Gainesville despite recording just nine assists themselves - a figure that falls in line with some of Vandy's worst games this season.
- Spread the ball around. Jacksonville won behind a balanced offensive attack: four scorers had 10 points or more, and five more recorded at least two points. In all, 13 players saw the court for the Dolphins, and while Vanderbilt shouldn't expect a bench showing of that magnitude, they should take note of Jacksonville's approach. Vandy has played their best when incorporating everyone in their rotation. The Commodores' four biggest wins of the season (UNC, Marquette, St. Mary's, and Georgia) all happened when five or more players scored at least eight points.