Lowery: Florida commentary

Vanderbilt's loss to Florida was not a pre-determined outcome. This was a game in which, though the Gators were heavy favorites, both teams had a chance at a win. The Commodores' performance in the first 18 minutes of the contest proved this fact. The story that most have taken from the game is about what happened in the final 22 minutes, but both stages of the game were important, and both stages should lead fans to interesting conclusions.

Vanderbilt's biggest players – Julian Terrell, Ted Skuchas, and Davis Nwankwo – struggled as a group. None of the three played more than 19 minutes, and they combined for as many fouls (10) as points. As a group, they collected 14 points (Skuchas 8, Terrell 6) and only six freethrow attempts (Skuchas 2-for-4, Terrell 2-for-2). On the other hand, Florida's starting post players thrived. Al Horford stole the show. While playing 32 minutes, he outscored the Terrell-Skuchas-Nwankwo combination by 2, outrebounded them by 6, committed 8 fewer fouls, and had 2 more assists.

DeMarre Carroll is often lumped together with the Vanderbilt post players, but his role was notably different in this game. Carroll thrived in the first half – scoring 15 points and collecting 7 rebounds. However, in the second half he collected 4 fouls, only contributing 3 points and 2 rebounds to the cause. Also, Carroll's play was a great litmus test for Vanderbilt's success throughout the game – when DeMarre's play started to suffer, Vanderbilt as a team failed to play well.

What was the key factor that changed the direction of the game for DeMarre Carroll and his Vanderbilt Commodore teammates? Florida's head coach Billy Donovan, while remaining cryptic in the post-game interview, came closer than anybody else to giving the real reason: "Vanderbilt is a very difficult team to play against. The biggest thing, is that our basketball team is still learning…Vanderbilt did some things to us at first where we had to settle in and adjust – we picked it up, certainly in the second half, but the first 10 minutes were tough."

Billy Donovan's Gators came out with a great deal of zone defense in the first stage of the game, and Vanderbilt fans have watched all season long as DeMarre Carroll in particular has done a great job of attacking the zone. Many of DeMarre's excellent shot attempts and "easy" baskets came in the first half while the Gators were playing zone. Many will recall the recent contest against Mississippi State, in which Carroll scored 18 points on 11 shots, largely taking advantage of MSU's decision to run a zone defense against the Commodores. DeMarre's stats look very similar in each of the two most recent games, and close observers will notice that in both games, much of DeMarre's contributions came against a zone style of defense.

Aside from DeMarre's personal contributions, it seems that the tempo and flow of Vanderbilt's zone offense is far better than that of the typical offensive set, which is run against man defenses. Throughout the pre-conference season, Vanderbilt saw a great deal of man defense and rarely broke away from the standard offensive set. The result was a collection of uninspiring wins. Vanderbilt's best offensive performances of the season have each taken advantage of an opponent's zone defense.

However disappointing it might be that Coach Stallings and company could not adjust to Florida's change in defensive schemes, some blame must be set upon the energy level of the Vanderbilt players in the second half. As the game was apparently officiated much more tightly in the second half than in the first, Julian Terrell and DeMarre Carroll acted as though they were handcuffed throughout the rest of the game. Coach Stallings singled out his two best forwards for harsh criticism after the game:

"[Florida] came out and dominated the second half. They out-physicalled us inside… they over-powered us inside. We got into foul trouble, because we took some bad fouls… it seemed like those two [Carroll and Terrell] were on the outside looking in. We'll have to watch film to see whether it was Florida's defense, or whether they were just playing too passively."

DeMarre Carroll explained his passivity in the second half: "I know for me, personally, it was the fact that I got into early foul trouble [in the second half]. I know for the next game, I am not going to worry about fouls and just play my game."

While Carroll isolated a problem in his own play that he intends to correct, Shan Foster's post game comments sound resigned and unproductive. "We just didn't have it in the second half," Foster said. "With the crowd and all, and them being a great team, we just got taken out of our offense... We take a lot of three pointers. Today, they just weren't falling for us." Coach Stallings and his staff will have a great deal of work to do before Wednesday's game in Knoxville – some of his players do not see how they can improve, and it will be the coaches' job to use constructive criticism to improve the team.

Florida's 53-20 "run" from the Commodores' high point demonstrated the many weaknesses in this much-heralded Vanderbilt team. While the Commodores still have plenty of opportunity to collect nine or more SEC victories and/or an NCAA tournament bid, the window of opportunity shrinks with each loss. At this point in the season, "we just didn't have it" falls short as an excuse for a team's pathetically bad second half performance in an important game. On the other hand, Vanderbilt's journey to their high point showed what the team is capable of. With the energy, athleticism, and skill that this squad has, they may well be able to avenge their losses to Florida and South Carolina later in the season, and no game on the schedule is likely to be as tough as playing the Gators in Florida.

Vanderbilt will need to demonstrate the "mental toughness" that they supposedly built up through hard work in the pre-season if they are to keep chasing their dreams. Another 1-3 stretch could be a crippling blow to this season's potential for Vanderbilt, but a 3-1 run will have Commodore boosters' heads in the clouds. A win in Knoxville would not just start a loud "just like football" cheer from the Vandy faithful – it could be a signature SEC road win. That kind of win does wonders for a team's confidence, faith in each other, and yes – mental toughness.


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