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The SEC's Worst Losses: Florida (Vanderbilt Edition)

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Vanderbilt needs a season sweep of Florida to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive. But that's no easy task when you're playing in Gainesville.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

This is it. Vanderbilt's shot at an NCAA Tournament at-large bid starts in Gainesville on Tuesday night.

The Commodores will face one of their toughest stretches of the year when they round out their 2015-16. A disappointing campaign has Kevin Stallings's team on the wrong side of the tourney bubble, but the final two weeks of the regular season includes games against Florida, Kentucky, and Texas A&M. Those major SEC showdowns could be the catalyst that carries this team to the big dance for the first time since 2012.

Of course, a series of disappointing losses could wind up burying this team under its own crapulence. Vanderbilt had a tremendous opportunity to build momentum after beating then-No. 8 Texas A&M on February 5th. The 'Dores faced five straight teams in the bottom eight of the SEC's standings - the team's easiest slate in league play - and escaped with just a 3-2 record. Defeats at Ole Miss and Mississippi State prevented the team from planting its flag on the sunny side of at-large consideration.

Beating Florida in Gainesville would help the 'Dores get back on track. Vandy defeated the Gators at home earlier this season, but hasn't won at the O'Connell Center since 2010. Another loss would push this team another step closer to the NIT and increase the heat under head coach Kevin Stallings's seat by a few more degrees. So how can the Commodores avoid that and repeat their win from January?

Florida (17-10, 8-6 SEC, ranked No. 36 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings)

Worst Loss: at Tennessee (13-14. 6-8 SEC, No. 91 KenPomNo. 120 CBS RPI), 69-83
Most Relevant Loss: At Vanderbilt, 59-60.

Vanderbilt finally got a quality win when it held on to defeat the Gators in Nashville. Florida took an early 3-2 lead and then trailed for the rest of the game as the Commodores pushed their advantage to as many as 14 points in the second half. The 'Dores held a seven-point lead with 40 seconds to play, but UF still managed to rally within a point at the final buzzer. The game wasn't as close as it looks on paper, but that home victory still found a way to make the Commodores uncomfortable despite the final score.

Point of emphasis: Get the most out of your future draft picks. Vanderbilt beat Florida behind a pair of monster performances from Damian Jones and Wade Baldwin IV. The duo combined for 44 of Vandy's 60 points and shot 48 percent from the field while their teammates struggled to a 5-17 mark. Florida is going to dedicate all its resources towards stopping the Commodores' headliners, and while that should open up some scoring opportunities for Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jeff Roberson, and Luke Kornet, Vanderbilt's clearest path to victory comes through its two biggest stars.

Keys to the Game:

  • Get the ball inside. Vanderbilt beat Florida despite taking only nine three-pointers - a figure less than half of their 21.8 attempts per game this season. Instead, the Commodores' shot chart was clustered with made shots near the rim - a product of Jones' strong performance and Baldwin's ability to drive to the hoop. The Gators displayed a key weakness up front, and Vandy will have to exploit that again Tuesday night to score a road victory.
  • Make your free throws. Vanderbilt excelled at getting to the line against Florida, earning 33 free throws compared to the Gators' 10. However, the Commodores made only 21 of those shots despite a strong 8-11 showing from Damian Jones. Luke Kornet (2-5) struggled, and Wade Baldwin's tired arms gave UF the latitude to mount a just-short rally at the end of the game. Vandy can't afford to leave similar scoring opportunities behind in Gainesville.
  • Unleash the wings. With Florida likely to key in on Jones and Baldwin, there will be plenty of room for Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jeff Roberson, and Joe Toye to operate on the perimeter. Fisher-Davis could be especially deadly; the sophomore is averaging 15.5 points per game on 47% three-point shooting over his last four games. Roberson is a steady do-it-all presence at small forward. Toye is an X-factor - a slashing, athletic wing who may not be ready for the O-Dome - but he could be gearing up for a breakout performance off the bench on Tuesday.