Basketball Scouting Report: Florida

The No. 1 team in the United States comes to Memorial Gym. That's the headline attached to tonight's Florida-Vanderbilt collision. However, the details that lie beyond the headlines are what make this contest important for the Commodores.


Getting a crack at No. 1 is what will motivate coach Kevin Stallings's team tonight in Nashville, and well it should. Coaches and athletes want to test themselves against the best in their field – the chance to play an elite team is what gets the blood pumping near the end of a long and arduous season filled with injuries, a thin bench, and little margin for error. The Commodores, to a man, won't need a rah-rah speech for a game such as this one. The mental challenge will be to harness their energies into the flow of the game. More precisely, VU will need to make sure that it can pace itself. Given the lack of a bench, the Dores can't get sucked into a fast tempo or use up all their energy in the first 30 minutes of play. They'll need to have something in reserve for the final 10 minutes of regulation.

What about the true significance of this game, though? Being able to play No. 1 is an "opportunity of the moment" for every Vanderbilt player, but beyond a night and its enthusiasms, the Dores have some genuine stakes to play for.

Football is commonly thought of as a sport in which sevens acquire a great deal of centrality, but sevens are all the rage in the SEC right now. Seven teams are tied for fourth place in the conference at 7-7. Vanderbilt is one of them. The Commodores would obviously love to finish fourth in the league, which would give them a double-bye in the SEC Tournament and – don't laugh – a realistic chance at making the semifinals. If, under that scenario, top-seeded Florida lost to a bubble-hugging eighth seed in the quarterfinals… well… you fill in the blank.

Let's be a little more realistic: Fourth place seems unlikely, given the Dores' closing schedule. However, if Vanderbilt could get the sixth seed in the SEC tourney, this team would play an opponent that had to deal with a first-round game (the No. 11 or 14 seed). It would then avoid playing Kentucky (the second seed) in the quarterfinals and Florida in the semifinals. That's a realistic yet opportunity-laden scenario for VU. A sixth seed would probably require a 3-1 record in these next four games. A win over Florida would put the Dores in position to do just that.

FLORIDA AT-A-GLANCE

This might not be the best team in college basketball, but it has certainly separated itself from most of the crowd, to the point that it is highly likely to get a No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday. Florida might play in a weak conference, but year after year, the Gators prove their worth on a national level, reaching the Elite Eight and avoiding the early-round losses that plagued Billy Donovan roughly a decade ago. (The names "Creighton" and "Manhattan" recede ever more deeply into the past.)

This is not an airtight team. Florida frequently struggles to shoot the three-point shot at a high level in the first half. Three-point field goal defense has been a problem in recent games against Auburn and Ole Miss. Reserve big man Chris Walker is not yet ready to play extended minutes, which will cut into the amount of depth this team has. Free throw shooting had been a problem through the middle of February.

However, the greatness of this team lies precisely in the fact that when a problem emerges, the Gators solve it. Florida might struggle to shoot the three in first halves, but the Gators typically shoot the three better in second halves. Florida allowed Marshall Henderson to run wild in the first half of this past Saturday's game in Oxford, Miss., but the Gators silenced their tormentor after halftime. Big man Patric Young has become a noticeably better player in recent weeks, minimizing the need for Walker to come off the pine. Florida's foul shooting has been almost 80 percent in its past three games; the Gators would not have won at Kentucky if point guard Scottie Wilbekin hadn't pumped in one free throw after another. Young hit two clutch foul shots to beat Auburn a week ago.

This team adjusts. It responds almost flawlessly to moments of adversity. If it can maintain that one shining quality in the final two weeks of March, it will probably play one basketball game – maybe two – in the month of April.

Starting Lineup

Center – Patric Young –
Senior, 6-9, 249; 2013-14: 10.8 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game

Young was brilliant in Florida's conquest of Rupp Arena a week and a half ago. Showing off a more polished array of low-post moves, Young finished more plays within six feet of the basket. He has gained a higher level of confidence. He's hitting pressure-cooker free throws. If this is the version of Young that will show up in late March, Florida will very likely make the Final Four.

Forward – Will Yeguete – Senior, 6-8, 230; 2013-14: 5.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg

He defends, he rebounds, and he doesn't care about getting the glory. Yeguete's unselfish approach – embodied in his willingness to be the grunt worker on this team – enables everyone else to get more (and better) opportunities to score. Don't allow numbers to define Yeguete; his very identity is found precisely in his intangible qualities, the characteristics that can never appear in a box score.

Guard – Michael Frazier II – Sophomore, 6-4, 199; 2013-14: 12.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg

Frazier hits 42 percent of his threes as part of a backcourt in which all three Gator starters hit at least 39 percent of their triples. Florida runs structured halfcourt sets, and since the Gators have both dribble-penetration and post-up scoring options, they can make kickouts to open shooters when defenses collapse in the paint. What's difficult about defending Frazier is that after struggling in first halves, he often comes alive in second halves. If his first half fizzles tonight, Frazier will try to find a spark early in the second half. Vanderbilt would need to make sure that Frazier doesn't get a free shooting hand, and that if he does attempt long-distance shots, he has to make them in front of a defender.

Guard – Scottie Wilbekin – Senior, 6-2, 176; 2013-14: 13.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.9 assists per game, 1.5 steals per game

This is one of the two best players in the SEC for 2014, the other one being Julius Randle of Kentucky. Wilbekin sometimes freelances too much, shooting stepback jumpers after pounding the dribble for several seconds. Usually, though, the senior exhibits a high basketball IQ. He gets teammates involved. He insists on getting to the rim. He makes the timely pass. He also hits a lot of shots in high-leverage situations and plays above-average perimeter defense. Sounds like an SEC Player of the Year, doesn't it?

Guard – Casey Prather – Senior, 6-6, 212; 2013-14: 15.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.6 apg

Prather averaged 6.2 points last season. Now, he's the main meal ticket scorer for the Gators. Prather's transformation at the offensive end of the floor has been a key source of Florida's staying power. What's impressive about Prather is not just that he finishes plays near the rim; it's that he makes plays in traffic, absorbing contact and putting the ball softly in the basket at an odd body angle.

Bench

With multiple starters being injured for small periods of time during the regular season, some of the Gators' reserves have been able to sharpen their skills, which makes Florida deeper. The main key for the team is to keep its starters from suffering more significant injuries the rest of the way. The two main reserves are forward Dorian Finney-Smith and guard Kasey Hill. Finney-Smith has endured a prolonged shooting slump in recent weeks, while Hill has given the Gators a competent defensive presence. He is quick off the dribble, but his offensive game is just not there yet. Guard DeVon Walker and forward Jacob Kurtz could see a reasonable amount of minutes in this game, but they are bit players in the larger scheme of things.

Keys to the Game

1) Make Wilbekin uncomfortable.
If you can unsettle Wilbekin, you can throw Florida's offense off balance. It's simply very hard to do so, but VU has to try.

2) Shoot – and make – threes. This could be a game key for any occasion, right? Why is it a game key against Florida? The Gators have allowed opponents to hit three-point shots at a reasonable rate this season. Auburn hit 17-of-32 threes in two games against Florida. Alabama and Ole Miss shot the three at a high level for a full half against the Gators, but not over the course of two halves. If Vanderbilt can take and make a lot of threes and play at a slow pace, it could win a game played in the mid-60s even if its defense isn't at its very best.

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