Vanderbilt fought strongly, built a second half lead, and then fell to timely three-point shooting and bad turnovers late in the game. If that sounds like a familiar narrative, that's because it is.
The Commodores' third SEC loss followed the script set by their previous two, when hot shooting and skittish play sunk this team late in their game. Vandy fought hard to take the lead in the O-Dome, but couldn't recover from a scoreless streak that stretched over nearly four minutes midway through the period. Bradley Beal propelled the Gators from a three-point deficit to a nine-point lead with eight points, two steals, and an offensive rebound during that run.
Solid free throw shooting and clutch threes quelled any chance of a Vanderbilt rally afterwards. The loss dropped Kevin Stallings to 2-11 all-time in Gainesville. While Vandy did a solid job of limiting the Gators inside the arc - they shot just 33 percent on their two-pointers - but Florida did what they do best, playing disruptive defense and making threes.
Billy Donovan's team was also able to effectively shut down Vanderbilt's bench, holding what had been an ever-improving unit to just two points and five turnovers. Steve Tchiengang, the team's first big man off the bench, was a steal away from putting together an impressively rare 12-trillion. Youngsters Rod Odom, Dai-Jon Parker, and Kedren Johnson were non-factors against the Gators.
Florida's win brought up another recurring weakness for the 'Dores - weak play at the point. Brad Tinsley is playing well as a combo guard, but he has struggled to be the set-up guy this team needs to drive the offense. Saturday was no exception. The Gators' defensive pressure forced him out of his rhythm all day, forcing Tinsley into bad decisions and stunting the organic growth that propelled the team's offense in big wins earlier in the season. Kedren Johnson and Kyle Fuller weren't much help behind him, combining for seven minutes and two turnovers in relief.
Johnson is probably the team's best pure point guard, but it's clear that this team lacks a true distributor in its current state. Tinsley is a solid passer and decent ballhandler, but he struggles to create through improvisation. If set plays disintegrate or Tinsley is forced to change plans due to pressure defense, the entire offense struggles. It's a problem that reared its head against Florida, but it's also been a recurring theme in this team's losses over the past two seasons.
Fuller can help, but it's clear that his offensive game is too raw and unpredictable to rely on. Johnson is coming along as well, though his lack of impact recently (past three games: 40 minutes, four points, two assists, 1-7 shooting) suggests that he might not be the game changer fans hoped he could be earlier in the season. John Jenkins and Dai-Jon Parker are both exclusively shooting guards who struggle to find open players in the half court set.
That leaves Brad Tinsley as the agent of change. He's the guy Vanderbilt needs to get going in order to return the spark to their offense. He's got offensive weapons alongside him that Vandy frankly hasn't had in the past. There's little excuse for this team to shoot 41 percent from the field with Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins, and Jeffery Taylor all on the same side.
For this team to come together and rise up to their expectations, they'll need Tinsley to lead them there. That means no more sloppy turnovers in the half court set. It means that there can't be any excuse for the team's inability to break the full court press. It means that Tinsley is going to have to pass up threes in order get the ball into the paint.
It's February, and we're starting to understand where this team is now. In March, they'll go as far as Tinsley takes them. It all starts at the point.
The loss was Vandy's third in their past five games. While two of those defeats came at the hands of ranked teams, they're still telling depictions of this team's disappointing season. Vanderbilt has likely watched any shot at a protected seed in the NCAA Tournament slip away. Another bad loss, and they'll transition to the bubble and a potential nightmare matchup in the first round - or worse, a loathsome NIT bid.
The Commodores will have to take advantage of a brief homestand to push themselves back up the ranks. They'll host a solid LSU team (wins over Marquette and Arkansas this season) before College Gameday hits Nashville for their showdown with #1 Kentucky. When ESPN scheduled that trip, they expected a brawl between two top 10 schools. Instead, they'll get a Vandy team that will be a significant underdog at Memorial Gym and who will need to pull off the upset to get anywhere near the national rankings.