The hard-fought 68-63 win over the LSU Tigers on Wednesday gives the Commodores a 4-5 record in SEC conference play. It had been expected that Tennessee would lose to the erratic Kentucky Wildcats, and also be 4-5, but the Vols pulled the upset and are in undisputed fourth place in the Eastern Division at 5-4.
A barrage of three pointers late in the game pulled out the Vanderbilt win over LSU. The Commodores also took good care of the ball (just 10 turnovers), but lost the rebounding battle rather badly (36-24). The interior defense allowed the two Tiger centers (Davis and Bridgewater) to score a lot of easy baskets. Good shooting can make up for a lot of deficiencies in other areas.
Vanderbilt now has to play two of the most difficult games on the schedule, back to back. The first one is with the Florida Gators in Gainesville, a team to which the Commodores lost 95-85 in Nashville on January 12. The Dores fell far behind in the first half, but rallied dramatically in the second half to make it a game. Glancing back at the statistics in that game, Florida won the boards by a gigantic margin (43-20), but turned the ball over 21 times to only 11 for Vanderbilt. The Gators had the better shooting percentage (55.8% to 44.1%), and made more free throws (28-22).
Florida comes into this game with a 6-3 conference record. After opening with four consecutive wins, the Gators then lost three in a row (to Georgia, Arkansas, and Kentucky at home), and bounced back to defeat Mississippi State and South Carolina (on the road) in their last two games. The Gators are ranked #7 nationally in the coaches poll (ESPN) and #8 in the writers poll (AP).
Forward Matt Bonner is now the leading scorer at 16.2 ppg and second in rebounds with 7.1. Center Udonis Haslem (16.0 ppg, 9.2 rebounds) was held to just ten points in the first game with Vanderbilt after getting into early foul trouble. All-conference guard Brett Nelson (15.6 ppg) has been shooting more consistently in recent games and is now hitting 37% of his three pointers.
Point guard Justin Hamilton went down with a sprained ankle in the Vanderbilt game but is now recovered. He and wing player Orien Greene are more significant as defensive players than as scorers.
The Gators continue to get great play from 6'9" freshman David Lee, probably the top newcomer in the SEC. Another freshman, James White, is also a solid contributor. Ladarius Halton and Bonell Colas also play significant minutes in each game, giving Florida a dependable nine-man rotation. Of late, 5'11" junior Ronnie King, a walk-on, has been playing a few minutes per game.
Last year the Commodores came up with their best win of the season at Gainesville, upsetting the Gators 63-61 on January 20 in a nationally televised game. The Gators played without two regulars, Hamilton and the now-departed Teddy Dupay. A barrage of last-minute clutch shots by Brendan Plavich pulled that game out of the fire for the Commodores, just when they seemed certain to lose.
Obviously the second Florida game is one that Vanderbilt is not likely to win. They cannot afford to fall far behind at the outset, as they did in the first game and against Tennessee. To have any chance at all, they must come out and play very aggressively from the start (as they did in their last road game at South Carolina), and keep it up throughout the game. And they must shoot well, and rebound as strongly as they did in their winning efforts against Georgia and South Carolina.
To defeat a top ten team on their home court, a lot of things must go right. That's the kind of challenge that the Commodores face on Saturday.