Vandy Starts Tough Stretch for the Gators

The first seven games on the SEC schedule looked like the easiest part of Florida's conference schedule. On Tuesday night in the O'Connell Center, the difficult stretch begins. The Gators (16-5, 5-2 SEC) host Vanderbilt (15-5, 3-3) at 9 p.m. in a game that both teams need to win to stay optimistic about their conference championship hopes.

"Clearly we're playing one of the better teams in the league here (tonight)," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "This is a very good and complete team."

The Vanderbilt starting lineup is one of the best in the SEC, but it all starts at the guard position. Sophomore guard John Jenkins is experiencing a breakout season, averaging 19.1 points per game. He made an impact as a freshman, averaging eleven points a game, but there's no doubt he has taken the next step this season.

Jenkins is shooting 41.5% from behind the three-point line and 90.6% from the free throw line. He is one of the best shooters from anywhere on the floor, and his 6-4 frame makes him even tougher to defend.

"Jenkins is as good of a three-point and pure shooter that's come through this league," Donovan said. "I put him in the same category as Lee Humphrey and Chris Lofton."

Jeffery Taylor has made similar progress. The length of his 6-7 frame makes him a tough defensive player, and he is also averaging 15.2 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. He was mostly a slasher early in his career, but the junior is shooting 34.3% from behind the three-point line as his jump shot has improved.

"Taylor is athletic and gifted as anyone out there," Donovan said.

"Jenkins and Taylor are two explosive offensive player."

With the improvement the two guards have experienced, it's center Festus Ezeli that is widely believed to be the most improved player in the conference. The redshirt junior is averaging 13 points and 6.2 rebounds per game this season.

Ezeli served as the backup center for A.J. Ogilvy last season, and he averaged 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds off the bench.

"Ogilvy was a great offensive player, but Ezeli is a big, physical player," Florida center Vernon Macklin said. "He plays great defense. Ezeli is in great shape and runs up and down all day. It's going to be a tough matchup."

The improvement from Ezeli has come because of increased minutes. He saw the court for only 12.7 minutes last year, as Ogilvy was an important part of the offense. This year, Ezeli averages 22.1 minutes, and his productive has increased because of it.

"I think one of the things as a coach that you enjoy seeing as a coach is that Ezeli has developed into one of the better big men in our league and in the country," Donovan said

The Florida frontcourt has already received the message. They've heard all about the toughness that Ezeli plays with, and the Gators know they must be ready to match the physicality or it could be a long night.

"I heard he's possibly the most underrated center in the SEC," Young said. "It's going to be one of the toughest battles. He's a physical guy and loves contact, just like I do."

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