Scouting Report: Florida
Managing to split the Alabama-Mississippi State double in 48 hours? Fair – not great. Shrugging off Middle Tennessee and going 3-0 in the SEC East while losing at Arkansas? Fair – not great. Now, though, the time for being merely decent, tolerable and passable – those middling kinds of qualities – is over. It's time for Vanderbilt men's basketball to make ringing statements and ace the equivalent of final exams. Cleveland State, Indiana State, Xavier, Louisville, Mississippi State, Arkansas – all those teams posed questions the Dores couldn't answer, but that was during the midterm portion of this 2011-2012 campaign. We now turn the page and move to February, that time of year when teams either make a big push or get pushed around; when they hit a wall or punch back; when they grow or shrivel.
Has Vanderbilt learned how to finish games that are played on the razor's edge? Have the Dores understood that any slight lapse in concentration leads to a missed game-winning layup or another unfinished play, the kind of misstep that will spell certain doom in the NCAA Tournament? Has coach Kevin Stallings's club arrived at the realization that they can't get sucked into another team's pace – as was the case in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the other night – and thereby lose hold of that intentionality which is so central to good in-game decision making? It hasn't been a smooth ride for VU to this point in the season, but plenty of teams put the lessons of November through January to good use in February and March. That's what Vanderbilt has to do beginning this Saturday in Gainesville, Florida. If VU can draw blood against the Gators and the Kentucky Wildcats in the coming months while snapping up every contest against the inferior clubs against the SEC East (the roadie at Tennessee looms large as a barometer of this team's intestinal fortitude), it will be able to enter the SEC Tournament with a No. 2 seed in the East and a precious bye in the first round of that event. If Vanderbilt wants to win its second SEC tourney of all time – a goal which might not matter for some programs, but which should for the Dores – the push to that first-round bye has to begin now, and it can't involve that familiarly frustrating dynamic in which this team flips the switch on and off. The fire has to burn for the next four weeks, so it can then be renewed when tourney time comes calling.
On to Gainesville, then, and the first in a series of decisive duels that will shape another season of Commodore court competition.
We'll have to wait until March – the third weekend of it – to see if Florida is a success or failure, because it's hard to render a clear verdict on this team in the present moment. Coach Billy Donovan's team gave away horrible losses to Rutgers and Tennessee, but not much else. It competed hard and well at Ohio State and Syracuse, only to lose by single-digit margins. This is a team that is rightly expected to return to the Sweet 16 and make a hard charge at the Final Four, but the readiness of the Gators remains in doubt for reasons that will become clear in an analysis of their starting five.
There's one statistic you need to know about this Florida team: Heading into its Thursday night game at South Carolina, it had attempted at least 21 threes in every SEC game this season. Yes, this team likes to have a three-for-all every time it steps on the court.
Starting Lineup: Statistical Averages For Florida Are Before The Gators' Thursday Night Game Against South Carolina (Averages Unable To Be Tabulated Before Press Time)
Forward-Center – Patric Young – Sophomore, 6-9, 247 2011-12: 11.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg
He's been slowed by ankle tendinitis in recent weeks, but Young was nevertheless relegated to the bench in Florida's win over Mississippi State on Jan. 28. Donovan wants to make sure that his foremost interior bruiser and low-post scorer gives maximum effort whenever he's on the floor, and based on his 24-minute performance off the bench against MSU, Donovan got through to him. Young scored 12 points and snagged six rebounds in an effective, focused display of muscular prowess. He's a supreme specimen who – at his very best – gives Florida the ruggedness any team needs in order to compete within six feet of the basket. It's Young's inconsistency, though, which has led to Florida's relative weakness as a rebounding team. The Gators do not get a lot of offensive rebounds or the second-chance points that come with them. Young has to be more of a beast of the offensive glass if Florida wants to reach the Final Four.
Forward– Erik Murphy – Junior, 6-10, 230; 2011-12: 10.6 ppg, 4.2 rpg, .485 3-PT %
Murphy has evoked comparisons with another former Florida power forward who could step beyond the 3-point arc and let ‘er fly – Matt Bonner. Murphy doesn't take a lot of threes, but when he does, he prefers to take quality shots. Entering Thursday's game against South Carolina, Murphy checked in with a sterling .485 shooting percentage from long distance. This helps clear the paint for Young while giving the Gators the kind of spacing that enables any halfcourt offense to thrive.
Guard – Bradley Beal – Freshman, 6-3, 207; 2011-12: 14.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg
Let's not deny it – any player who steps into the SEC as a freshman and averages 14 and 6 is an immensely talented performer who is delivering the goods on a consistent basis. Beal's arrival in Gainesville was met with considerable hype, and through January, that hype has been justified. However, much as Vanderbilt is now dispensing with prelims and moving into the teeth of its schedule, the same is true for Beal and the rest of the Gators, who must also face Vanderbilt and Kentucky twice over the next four weeks. Beal is shouldering more than 30 minutes of work on a regular basis, and while he's not breaking down at all – his 6-of-9 shooting performance against Mississippi State on Jan. 28 was his best of the season with that many attempts – he has not yet faced his biggest challenges. Vanderbilt has to let Beal know that it will not be very easy to score on Saturday afternoon. Period.
Guard – Kenny Boynton – Junior, 6-2, 189; 2011-12: 17.2 ppg, 3 apg, .435 3-PT%
Boynton is Florida's big-time bomber. He's not shooting the rock at the lofty percentage posted by Murphy, but he takes a lot more shots and can get on a hot streak that leaves opposing defenses reeling. Boynton hit 46.7 percent of his threes in the non-conference portion of Florida's season before regressing to 33 percent in SEC competition in the month of January. (These stats were tabulated before – and removed from – Thursday night's game against South Carolina.) Vanderbilt can't be the team that allows Boynton to rediscover his shooting stroke.
Guard – Erving Walker – Senior, 5-8, 177; 2011-12: 12.6 ppg, 5 apg, 2.8 rpg
This is the reason Florida will either go to New Orleans for the Final Four or get knocked out in the second round. Walker is a walking collection of different personalities. His ability to manifest the right identity will guide the Gators in a given direction – to the penthouse or the pits. Walker can be the street-tough point guard from Brooklyn who fearlessly makes plays amidst the cauldron of crunch time. He can be the confident floor leader and break-down dribble penetrator who pries open opportunities for his teammates. He can also be one lousy decision maker, an overeager point guard who hoists bad, long, quick threes and hijacks his team's halfcourt sets. Which Erving Walker will show up the next six weeks? The answer to that question will determine if the Gators get to play a seventh (in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight) and eighth (Final Four) week.
On the bench, Donovan looks to forward Will Yeguete, who is pulling down six rebounds a game and giving the Gators a strong dose of blue-collar muscle near the tin. Guards Mike Rosario and Scottie Wilbekin round out Florida's eight-man rotation. Rosario is an eight-point-per-game scorer who can't be ignored by Vanderbilt defenders. Wilbekin is in for defense, and he's also a good passer who helps facilitate the Gators offense when he gives Walker a break.
Keys to the Game
1) Stay in front of Walker on defense. Walker doesn't play in the pivot, but he is the pivotal figure on this Florida team; deal with him, and you deal with the Gators for the most part. Walker's quickness and experience are both problems for Brad Tinsley in a matchup that favors Florida. Tinsley can score zero points in this game yet be the MVP if he can deliver a first-rate defensive effort against Walker. Keeping the Gator point guard out of the paint will make it harder for Walker to find the likes of Boynton and Beal on kick-outs for clean and uncontested 3-point tries. Defending Walker is so crucial because it determines whether Florida gets good 3-point looks or bad ones. When the Gators take bad threes, they usually wind up with a 7-of-21 shooting total, and when one realizes how poor a rebounding team they are, such a scoreline translates to 14 empty trips, maybe "only" 13.
2) Trust Ezeli to hold up against Young. Part of the effort to contain Florida's perimeter shooters is based on the presence of a quality defensive big man. Vanderbilt has that man in the middle in the person of Festus Ezeli. If he can be trusted to neutralize Young and clean up other messes near the rim, Ezeli can allow VU's perimeter players to guard the 3-point arc with confidence and aggressiveness. The Gators' offense could grind to a halt, and Vanderbilt could limit Florida to something in the neighborhood of 60 points, which should be enough to walk out of the "O-Dome" with a win.
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