It's the game that fans across Nashville have anxiously waited for all season: Joe Duffy's Senior Night.
Oh, and I guess revenge and a shot at a bye in the SEC Tournament are at stake too.
Vanderbilt will have a chance to avenge a tightly contested February loss on Saturday when the SEC East Champion Florida Gators roll into Nashville. More importantly, they'll get a chance to earn the #2 seed in the conference tournament with the victory and either a Georgia win or a Kentucky loss. Given Vandy's recent history in the SEC Tournament (hint: it's terrible), the 'Dores could use all the help they can get to advance deep into the first stage of the postseason.
The Gators have been riding a wave of momentum since beating Vanderbilt in the O-Dome a month ago. They've lost only one game in that span - on the road at Kentucky - and have earned their stripes in close games through that stretch. Since the start of SEC play, Florida is 5-0 in games decided in overtime or by two points or less.
Another important subplot that will run through this game is the SEC Player of the Year race. Homegrown sharpshooter John Jenkins has earned lots of love from analysts across the country, but Florida's Chandler Parsons may be his biggest competition for the prize. If Jenkins can outplay the Gators' MVP, he'll put himself in great shape to follow in the footsteps of Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, and the immortal Dan Langhi as Vanderbilt ballers that have earned SEC POY.
Florida (23-6 (12-3 SEC) AP #14, ESPN #14)
It was just a little over a month ago that the Gators were 5-2 in the SEC, and that record seemed a bit disingenuous. A pair of overtime escapes versus Tennessee and Georgia along with a close, ugly win over Auburn had some people, including your faithful AoG writers, questioning Florida's credentials. They soon shut us up with an overtime win against Vanderbilt and a subsequent six game winning streak that put them in control of the SEC East.
The catalyst for that run may have been a humbling loss against Rick Stansbury's motley crew of lost basketball souls in Starksville, MS. Florida went ice cold in the final five minutes of play to cede a loss to Mississippi State - just their third to a team ranked outside the Top 100 for the season. Saturday, Vanderbilt will look to drop Florida to 12-4 in league play and build some confidence for a potential SEC Title game eight days down the road.
Key to Destruction: Erving Walker's itchy trigger finger. Walker is an explosive guard who can lead the Gators to victory with his scoring, but he's also terribly inefficient from the floor. He went 6-17 from the field against Mississippi State, including six straight misses to end the game and a 2-8 mark from long range. In three SEC losses, he's averaging just 1.125 points per shot, and is just as likely to shoot his team out of a game than to shoot them back in it.
Keys to the Game:
- Don't let Chandler Parsons beat you. Up 63-62 with five minutes to play, the Gators were a few good possessions away from beating the Bulldogs on the road. At that point, they failed to record a field goal for the rest of the game, allowing an offensively-challenged Mississippi State team to beat them with free throws. Over this stretch, Erving Walker attempted six shots from the field. Chandler Parsons had only one - with 10 seconds left and Florida down by seven. Parsons was key in stopping Vanderbilt's comeback in the two team's first meeting, and MSU has shown how important denying him shots in the game's final minutes can be. If the Commodores can stop Parsons from fueling Florida's offense in the final two minutes, they'll put a lot of pressure on some of UF's less qualified players.
- Don't let Alex Tyus score - Florida is 9-0 in games where Tyus scores 12 of more points. Thanks to the team's recent influx of talent the Gators haven't needed the former "balding predator" (now, sadly, just "balding") to be more than a complimentary player on Billy Donovan's squad. However, he's still capable of having a significant impact on both ends of the floor. Tyus is an inefficient offensive player who isn't a great shooter and doesn't get to the line much, but if he heats up he can sink opposing teams. Vandy had little problem with him in the first matchup (2 points, 5 rebounds) but the senior forward will be out for one last win at Memorial in his final SEC regular season game.
- Make your damn free throws. Trailing by one against Kentucky with 1:19 left, Jeffery Taylor bricked the first of two free throws before hitting the second. Terrence Jones would make one of two on the other end to give Kentucky the lead back, and that one point would prove to be the difference down the stretch. A week earlier, Lance Goulbourne missed a pair of free throws that would have given Vandy life in the final minute against Tennessee. Mississippi State didn't have this problem against Florida. The Bulldogs hit all six of their free throws over the final two minutes to create an insurmountable lead in Starksville. In this case, the Commodores stand to learn a lesson in composure from Rick Stansbury's team.