Plenty On The Line Tonight In Nashville

One team is already in the Big Dance and simply needing to keep up the winning pace to ensure a high seeding for the NCAA Tournament. The other team is very close to desperation, needing a couple of wins but especially one over a highly-ranked opponent to spruce up its resume so the selection committee will find them worthy when the invitations are passed out.

That's the setting tonight in Nashville when the seventh-ranked Florida Gators (21-3, 7-3 SEC East) face a Vanderbilt (13-8, 4-6 SEC East) team that needs some critical wins to avoid a post-season spent in the NIT (8 p.m., Gator Radio Network/pay per view TV). Florida's spot in the NCAA Tournament is already guaranteed. Seven straight NCAA appearances and an eighth straight year of at least 20 wins mean the Gators dance in March for the eighth consecutive year under Coach Billy Donovan. The situation for Vandy is a bit dicey.

The Commodores broke a four-game free-fall last Saturday when they nailed slumping Kentucky, 84-81, in Nashville. That critical win has revived Vandy's hopes at getting an 8-8 or perhaps 9-7 record in the SEC. A .500 mark in the conference probably wouldn't be enough to get the Commodores in the NCAA dance without a couple of wins in the SEC Tournament but a 9-7 mark coupled with one win in the SEC Tournament probably would do the trick.

For Vandy Coach Kevin Stallings, the goal is to keep his team from looking too far ahead or paying too much attention to what else is going on in the SEC. He needs the Commodores to play it one game at a time and forget about everything else that's going on.

"The only thing that we can do is try to help ourselves," said Stallings. "On Saturday it was to beat Kentucky and Wednesday it is to beat Florida. If you spend too much time wondering or worrying about what happens if they beat who and how many will that team win and how many do we win you'll drive yourself crazy. The only thing we can control is how we play."

Florida's situation is much different. The Gators have their spot in the Big Dance secured thanks to a 21-3 start but they are definitely playing for a higher seed that would allow them to open NCAA play 60 miles away in Jacksonville where the crowd would certainly be pro-Florida and quite conducive to advancing to the Sweet 16. For the Gators to earn that spot in Jacksonville, figure it will take 25 wins in the regular season which means winning four of the next six games. Ironically four of the next six games are played on the road. Following Wednesday evening's game, Florida will head to Arkansas for a Saturday SEC contest.

"Four of the next six games are on the road and every one is going to be a tremendous challenge," said Florida Coach Billy Donovan who knows his team needs to finish the regular season strong. Following the Arkansas game, the Gators have two home games (Tennessee and Georgia) and two road games (Alabama and Kentucky). It's the most difficult stretch of basketball this year for Donovan's team.

Vanderbilt presents a real challenge for the Gators because the Commodores are a much different team at home than on the road. The Commodores are 10-3 at home and 3-5 on the road. Florida is 15-1 at home, 4-2 on the road and 2-0 at neutral sites. Much is made of the setup at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium where the teams sit under the baskets at opposite ends of the court instead of on the sideline like every other venue in the SEC. That unique setup and the way the stands rise up from below floor level helps to make this a very difficult place to play for opponents.

"They shoot the ball extremely well, they're very gifted offensively, very hard to guard offensively and certainly in the confines of their gymnasium a very good team," said Donovan. "There is something about their gym that their basketball team has a great comfort level there. They have always shot the ball well at home."

Vandy didn't shoot the ball very well a couple of weeks ago in Gainesville when Florida handled the Commodores, 81-58. The Commodores led that game at halftime but Florida played its most impressive half of basketball after the intermission to win easily. Florida outscored the Commodores 46-20 in the second half and held Vandy to 0-10 shooting from the three-point line.

In that first contest, Al Horford played like a warrior, controlling the backboards and dominating play on the inside with a season-high 16 rebound performance to go with his 16 points. Florida also got 14 points from Lee Humphrey, 12 from Taurean Green and 10 from Joakim Noah. Florida's ability to balance out its scoring and the size of Horford (6-9, 11.8 pts/7.5 rebs) and Noah (6-11, 13 pts/6 rebs) inside is a matchup problem for the Commodores even though Vandy has its tallest team of the seven years of the Stallings era at the school.

"I think Florida is as good as any basketball team in our league and they may be the most difficult from the standpoint of sheer matchups for us that we've seen," said Stallings who will start a lineup that goes 6-9, 6-7, 6-7, 6-6, 5-11.

Vanderbilt's best player is 6-6 Shan Foster, a very athletic 6-6 small forward who will draw 6-9 Corey Brewer as his defender. Foster is averaging 16.1 points per game. In the first game, he was held to 11 points and 1-7 shooting from the three-point line.

The toughest matchup for the Gators will be the shooting guard where Vandy lines up with 6-7 Derrick Byars, who averages 11.9 points per game. With Lee Humphrey still nursing an injured shoulder, it's likely that he will come off the bench once again, leaving the defensive matchup of Byars to 6-0 Walter Hodge. Hodge certainly can outquick Byars on the outside but if Vandy can successfully post him up, there is a huge size advantage.

In game one, Florida physically dominated Vanderbilt and Stallings says that just can't happen again if the Commodores entertain thoughts of springing the much-needed upset.

"We got kicked at Florida last time and got kicked physically as much as anything else so we'll have to do a better job of that part of the game this time around," he said.

Stallings figures Florida, Tennessee and LSU are locks for the SEC Tournament leaving Kentucky, Georgia, Vanderbilt, Alabama and Ole Miss in position to grab two and possibly three other slots in the NCAA Tournament.

"I think our league will get five or six teams in so obviously there are some spots that are still up for grabs so we have to continue to work towards that," he said.

Donovan doesn't look at Vandy's record to determine that the Commodores are capable of making the NCAA field. He knows that this is a team that has endured some tough losses along the way and that 13-8 is not indicative of the caliber team the Gators will be facing.

"People look at when a team drops a couple of games that 'oh they're not playing well' or 'oh they're not executing very well ' or 'they're not very good' and nothing could be further from the truth with Vanderbilt," said Donovan. "There are teams in this league that have had some heartbreaking difficult losses that their league record doesn't reflect how good a team that they are. It has taken some miraculous plays by some teams to beat them but I think they're playing --- and I would have said that if they had lost to Kentucky --- well as any team in our league right now but sometimes when you don't have wins to show for it immediately you're not playing well and I don't think that is the case with Vandy."

And so the Gators will tip it off tonight in Nashville. A win and they are one step closer to that magic number of 25 that they will probably need to play in Jacksonville. For Vanderbilt, a loss puts the Commodores one step closer to a date in the NIT but a win keeps hope alive for at least one more game.

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