Vanderbilt goes for season sweep of Florida

The Vanderbilt basketball team is creating an increasingly brighter horizon. The outlook isn't defined by blue skies above, but if you look to the east, you can see the sun already rising on the 2015-2016 season. Hope is flooding into the picture if you look at the future of Commodore hoops. It's up to this team to continue to learn about itself when it faces Florida on Wednesday.


The Vanderbilt men’s basketball team is finally building something for the future. There had been doubts along the way, but those doubts are receding as this current season moves along.

Coach Kevin Stallings knows that his team has been competitive more often than not in this particular sojourn through the SEC. Cast aside Kentucky, always in a different league from everyone else. Let’s look at the other teams VU just wasn’t ready to match: Stallings knows that this team was always going to have a hard time standing up to Bobby Portis and Arkansas. He knows that Georgia played far better against Vanderbilt than it has against South Carolina and other members of the SEC’s bottom tier. He knows that LSU and Texas A&M have been good enough to put themselves in the middle of the bubble conversation, something Vanderbilt is and has been unprepared to do over the past few seasons. It has always been the case that the Commodores lagged behind the top tier of the SEC. After all, they were just beginning to learn how to play together after a miserable 2013-2014 season in which injuries and other unwanted roster adjustments prevented VU from being able to see what all of its resources could do when put together on the same floor at the same time.

As the losses predictably mounted, it was hoped inside the program that the roster was learning the right lessons from those scoreboard defeats, but it’s hard to know for sure that a team is learning unless it can show – at least for a little while, and more than once – that it can pull through in tight situations. We’re at a point in the 2014-2015 season where we can say, with some degree of affirmed and entrenched confidence, that yes, the Dores are on their way toward a brighter future.

If it might have felt premature to say that VU was on the right track following the twin wins over Florida and South Carolina, it feels a lot more legitimate to claim that a long-term resurgence is truly in progress after Saturday’s win in Tuscaloosa against Alabama’s Crimson Tide. Vanderbilt won an SEC road game, for one thing. That was a first in 2015. Second – and probably more important in the grand scheme of things – Vanderbilt shrugged off a brutal loss to Tennessee, one in which the team had the Vols dead to rights in the final 10 seconds but continued to miss foul shots on a night when that facet of the sport proved to be the Dores’ foremost source of frustration. It would have been so easy to lose heart, to simply lament a sickening home-court loss to a foremost rival, and allow the awful taste from that loss to spill into the trip to Coleman Coliseum. By overcoming that moment and rebounding against the Crimson Tide, these Dores showed a level of resilience unmatched at prior points during the season… yes, even during their win over the Florida Gators on Feb. 3.

It’s true that Vanderbilt broke a seven-game losing streak with a win over Florida two weeks ago, but that game was more a case of the odds finally evening out a bit in a largely luckless season. VU was going to win at some point, and Florida happened to be the team. Moreover, it’s not as though VU played that game at a particularly high level. The Dores hit only 40 percent of their field goals; Florida managed to be worse. VU, on the other hand, hit 48 percent of its field goals in this road win over Alabama. The Dores were better for a longer stretch of time. That they began to show promise, only to then return to the loss column in a gut-punch-inducing way, represented a unique kind of psychological hurdle to overcome, something which had not existed in the home win over Florida. Vanderbilt really did access a deeper level of determination against Alabama, a sign that this young team is going to be ready to put the pieces together when next November comes along. The Alabama game, more than the first Florida game, showed that this team is beginning to understand what it takes to succeed in the SEC.

It was almost there – twice – against Georgia. It was almost there against Kentucky and LSU. It was almost there against Tennessee. Now, however, merely being competitive has given way to better competitive instincts… and results. Hope doesn’t seem like a forced mindset or something one is taught to think about anymore. Hope now seems like the rational and organic product of real achievements.

Let’s see if Vanderbilt can continue to offer more reason to hope as this season concludes.

FLORIDA AT-A-GLANCE

There’s a very interesting pattern to Vanderbilt’s remaining series of opponents. Four of the six opponents are teams VU has already played this season, but of those four, three of them are being played roughly two weeks after the first meeting. Mississippi State will be faced a month and a half after the first meeting, but Florida (tonight), Tennessee and Alabama will reunite with the Dores no more than 15 days after an initial encounter this season. Scouting reports will therefore feel very familiar. Changes in rosters will be less profound compared to the Mississippi State game.

What’s therefore worth knowing about Florida, only two weeks after the first clash between these teams, is rooted in the Gators’ patterns of play since the Feb. 3 visit to Memorial Gym. What have we seen from Florida in those two weeks? The Gators have played hard – sometimes really well, but never well enough, in what has become even more of a bad-luck season. The main question for Vanderbilt and its fans is if that bad luck will continue, or if Florida is going to bust loose from that pattern and even up the odds a little bit… ironically, what Vanderbilt did when it snapped a long run of bad luck against the Gators those two weeks ago.

This has been a miserable season for Florida, and the past two weeks have affirmed as much. The Gators played their best game of the season against Kentucky on Feb. 7, but multiple 0-for-2 trips to the foul line down the stretch crushed them against the unbeaten Wildcats. Against Ole Miss, Florida outplayed the Rebels most of the way but failed to close down the shooting hand of Mississippi guard Stefan Moody, who hit an off-balance three-pointer with under three seconds left to stun the Gators in Gainesville by a point. Florida lost its second one-point game to Ole Miss this season. The Gators then lost another game by a point, falling to Texas A&M when a final offensive possession resulted in a shot that was released after the horn… and missed, just for good measure. It’s been a Murphy’s Law season, something about as bad as what Vanderbilt faced a year ago.

Florida is trying to find out if its players have the capacity to push through these failures and post some good scoreboard results. This is the situation Vanderbilt faced when the Gators came to Nashville at the beginning of February. My, how things change.

Starting Lineup

Center – Jon Horford –
Senior, 6-10, 245; 2014-15: 6.2 points per game, 4.6 rebounds per game

What happens in a season that consistently acquires an “almost but not quite” trajectory? A center such has Horford becomes prone to foul trouble, shoots more jumpers than he frankly should, and simply fails to become a reliable every-game force in the painted area. Horford shows glimpses of being a highly valuable player, but those glimpses never turn into prolonged stretches.

Forward – Dorian Finney-Smith – Junior, 6-8, 218; 2014-15: 12.9 ppg, 5.8 rpg

Finney-Smith is the most enigmatic player on this team. He is capable of so much, and he displays his capabilities from time to time. Then, however, he’ll make perplexing decisions and baffling responses to pressure, such as what we saw at the end of the loss to Texas A&M this past Saturday: Given the ball on a pass with around three seconds left, he had the chance to shoot a game-winning jump shot, but he hesitated and then passed the ball to the corner, to Alex Murphy, a teammate who is a far less proven shooter. Murphy’s shot did not beat the shot clock, and the Gators were left wondering why a superior perimeter marksman was afraid to shoot with the game on the line. The play marked the crisis of confidence that has continuously visited the Gators in endgame situations. Florida has been unlucky to lose on a few occasions – teams have hit very difficult jumpers to finish off wins against this team – but in other instances, the Gators have been paralyzed with fear in the final seconds of close contests. That A&M game was one such example.

Forward – Devin Robinson – Freshman, 6-8, 178; 2014-15: 5.8 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 0.8 assists per game

This is the one roster adjustment in Florida’s lineup. Michael Frazier II, the team’s best perimeter shooter, is out with an injury, and has been out for the Ole Miss and A&M losses. That loss magnifies the absence of good luck in this Florida season. Robinson is explosively athletic, but just a freshman, he’s at the beginning stage of learning how to use his body and channel his talents into the feel and flow of a game.

Guard – Eli Carter – Junior, 6-2, 200; 2014-15: 8.8 ppg, 2 rpg, 1.7 apg

Carter’s scoring average has increased by 1.2 points per game since the last time these teams met. If any single Florida player has made a noticeable leap forward over the past two weeks, it’s Carter. This offers a key insight into Vanderbilt’s plan tonight.

Guard – Kasey Hill – Sophomore, 6-1, 182; 2014-15: 7.3 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 4.4 apg

Nothing about Hill has changed. He still hasn’t found a jumper, which is why Florida’s offense continues to be stuck in the low 60s, unable to generate more points per game with any consistency. Hill needs to lock himself in a gym this summer, finding a 15-footer that can get something done. If he doesn’t achieve that, Florida basketball will not know for sure that it can be a tournament team in 2016. If Hill can make that one fundamental improvement, the Gators can begin to breathe easily.

Bench

Donovan, with the loss of Frazier in the starting five, now has four reserves instead of the pre-existing total of five: forward-center Chris Walker, forwards Jacob Kurtz and Alex Murphy, and guard Chris Chiozza. Walker averages 5.3 points and 3.7 boards per game. Kurtz averages 4.2 points and 3.8 boards per game. Murphy averages 4.7 points per game. Chiozza averages 3.8 points per game. If one player has stepped up his game over the past two weeks, Chiozza would be the best choice. He has shown an ability to create problems for defenses with his speed and a generally aggressive mindset that tries to break down opponents with the dribble.

Keys to the Game

1) Clamp down on Carter and Finney-Smith.
Carter’s improvement over the past two weeks means VU has to focus on him and Finney-Smith. If VU can pry the ball out of their hands and force the likes of Murphy, Chiozza and Hill to take perimeter shots, the Dores – knowing Michael Frazier is out of the Gators’ lineup – can exploit a true weakness in their opponent.

2) Repeating the Alabama experience in terms of turnovers. Let’s see if Vanderbilt can once again go on the road and commit only six turnovers, as it did against Alabama. You saw how well this team fared in Tuscaloosa with a very clean offensive performance. Let’s see the Dores commit only six turnovers tonight. They’ll give themselves a great chance to win if they can repeat this particular feat.

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