Vanderbilt just barely snuck back into the national rankings before absorbing a predictable loss at Arkansas earlier this week. If they want to keep their spot in the top 25, they'll have to win at the O-Dome.
Vandy will face arguably their toughest test of the season on Saturday, facing #12 Florida on the road in a game that will determine who the second-best team in the SEC is. The Commodores are just 2-10 at the O'Connell Center under Kevin Stallings, mirroring the .167 winning percentage that the team brought to Fayetteville earlier in the week. Like the Razorbacks, Florida is also undefeated at home this season. While history fails to smile on the 'Dores in this sense, it's worth noting that the team's last two trips to Gainesville ended with a win and a controversial overtime loss (John Jenkins was FOULED, dammit).
The Gators are in the midst of a hot streak, winning five in a row with quality wins over Mississippi and Mississippi State. Like the Commodores, Florida has two players currently slated to be picked in the first round of the NBA Draft by draftexpress.com. Bradley Beal and Patric Young, a freshman and sophomore, respectively, have led the Gators back to prominence despite losing SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons to graduation this season.
Florida has used efficient scoring and a strong three-point attack to score in bunches on their way to a 17-4 record. However, they've shown vulnerability in losses to Rutgers and Tennessee this season. The Gators are a young team who match up well with the Commodores talent-wise, but are overmatched in terms of experience. Whether or not Vandy can exploit that mismatch is a major question.
Florida (17-4, #12 in the AP rankings, #11 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Tennessee's upset win back in January looked like it would be a statement for the Volunteers. UT's defense came together to hold Florida to just 56 points and the team didn't even have freshman big man Jarnell Stokes in the game. Defensive pressure kept Florida from putting up a fight as the Vols maintained a double-digit lead throughout the second half. Unfortunately for Tennesse, they've gone 2-5 since that win. The Gators are 5-0 over the same span.
Key to Destruction: Closing out on Florida's shots. Tennessee was liberal with their help defense, committing hard to make sure that the Gators got off as few open shots as possible. While this opened up the glass and allowed Florida to pull down 14 offensive rebounds, it was also instrumental in holding UF to just 35.7 percent shooting. Florida got the extra possessions they were playing for (56 shots compared to UT's 49), but were unable to do much with them thanks to Cuonzo Martin's high-pressure system.
Keys to the Game:
Force Florida's bench to beat you. The Gator bench is loaded with talented but unproven players - including one-time Vandy target Casey Prather. Against Tennessee they only attempted eight of the team's 56 shots. They didn't connect on a single one.The Gators have a very strong starting five with Bradley Beal, Patric Young, Kenny Boynton, Erving Walker, and Erik Murphy. However, the drop off to their bench is significant outside of Mike Rosario. Coach Kevin Stallings will have to measure his substitutions to take advantage of Vanderbilt's bench. If the Gators have to turn to the pine for reinforcements often, the Commodores will have an advantage in Gainesville.
- Secure your damn rebounds. If you drank every time a defensive rebound caromed off a Vanderbilt player's hands and back into Arkansas's possession on Tuesday, you would either be dead or Andre the Giant. The Razorbacks created a slew of second chances off of the tips and bobbles of Vandy's big men. Florida, who has the size to match up well with the 'Dores behind Young and Murphy, showed that they can exploit this against Tennessee. The Gators pulled down 14 offensive boards against a UT squad that was often out of position thanks to their defense. If Vanderbilt can't defend effectively AND fail to box out and grab rebounds off of Florida misses it will be a long day for Commodore fans.
Ignore statistics, history - and play focused. You can't help but wonder if history and superstition played a role in Tuesday's loss to Arkansas, where Vandy seemed to panic when the 'Hogs made a run and seemed content to take on the crowd rather than the Razorbacks. This is going to play a role in Saturday's game as well. The closest any team has gotten to beating Florida in the O-Dome is an eight-point loss from Arizona back in December. Yes, that is discouraging as all hell.Vanderbilt will have to ignore history and the crowd to play their own game in Gainesville. That means no rushed threes to show up Kenny Boynton. It means no stupid turnovers from stepping on the baseline. Basically, it means playing like the more experienced team. Vanderbilt's core is made up of five seniors and a junior. If they make mental mistakes normally reserved for a freshman-laden team, then they won't have a chance in Gator Country.