The Commodores have already proven that they can win on the road, surprising Kentucky and LSU on their home courts. Wednesday night, though, offers a much more difficult test, as Byars and company head to Gainesville for a clash with the top-ranked Florida Gators.
Billy Donovan's squad sits atop the SEC with a 6-0 conference record (19-2 overall). Since losing on Florida State's floor in early December, the Gators have reeled off 12 straight wins, including a 26-point thrashing of Ohio State.
Though they are clearly the class of the league, Florida hasn't exactly breezed through SEC play. The blowouts have been there – just look at the 34-point rout of South Carolina, or more recently, a 25-point win over Auburn. However, Mississippi State played the Gators to within three points in Starkville, and Ole Miss outscored them by ten in the second half before losing by nine.
Florida's balanced attack starts with its frontcourt. Juniors Joakim Noah and Al Horford, both likely to be NBA lottery picks, make up the best forward combination in the country. Noah was named Most Outstanding Player of last year's NCAA Tournament, and though he hasn't dominated the way he did at times last season, the 6-11 Wooden Award candidate has shown that last year was no fluke. His scoring average (12.6 ppg) is down from a year ago, but his rebounds (8.4 rpg), assists (2.7 apg), and shooting percentage (65.3 percent) have all increased. Noah's 65.3 percent from the floor leads the SEC and is good for eighth in the nation. He is perhaps the quickest, most skilled ballhandler among college big men, and his constant hustle makes him a monster on the defensive end. Much of Noah's scoring comes from dunks and put-backs, as he's excellent on the offensive glass. The area of his game that sets him apart from other big men, though, is his court vision; Noah is a terrific passer, making him a perfect cog in the high-low game Florida runs so well. Vanderbilt must force Joakim to shoot jumpers from eight feet and beyond and body him out on every Gator shot attempt.
If Noah doesn't hurt you, chances are his frontcourt mate will. Al Horford's quiet demeanor and incredible strength in the post make him a great complement to Noah. Standing 6-10, his 8.5 rebounds per game lead the team, as his size and strength allow him to get great rebounding position. Aggressive on both ends, Horford is a powerful finisher and very good at bodying opposing forwards out of offensive position. He doesn't have Noah's vision, but he is a deft passer out of the double team and can put the ball on the floor to get to the rim. Add his soft touch from 12 to 15 feet and Horford can really hurt teams from the high post.
The bridge between Florida's tremendous frontcourt and deadly perimeter attack is 6-8 swingman Corey Brewer. Out of Portland, Tennessee, Brewer is widely considered to be the best perimeter defender in the nation. His height, quickness, and anticipation allow him to lock down the opponent's best player night after night, while still contributing offensively. Brewer is neither a great ballhandler nor a great shooter, but he is Florida's best finisher and gets a ton of points in transition. His 12.7 points and 3.4 assists per game are good for second on the team, while his 4.4 boards per game rank him third. Vandy's Derrick Byars will have to work extra hard to get his points on Wednesday, as Brewer will likely be assigned to the second leading scorer in SEC games.
Stretching defenses for the Gators on a nightly basis is 6-2 senior Lee Humphrey. In SEC games, Humphrey is shooting an incredible 72 percent from beyond the three-point line. Averaging just over 15 points on almost four three-pointers per game in SEC play, the senior has the potential to explode from distance. Against South Carolina, he racked up 27 points on 7-of-8 three-point shooting, and he's added 17 and 16 point efforts against Auburn and Georgia, respectively. Almost 75 percent of Humphrey's points have come from beyond the arc, so to limit his damage, his defender cannot over-commit to helping on penetration or double teams in the post. Otherwise, Humphrey will be open on the kick-out all night long.
Tying it all together is junior point guard Taurean Green. The Gators' leading scorer (13.7 ppg) and assist man (3.9 apg), Green is a dangerous shooter and skilled distributor. His shooting percentage of 49.7 percent (43 percent on threes) is outstanding for a point guard and a testament to his ability to penetrate as well as knock down the open jump shot. Green excels at staying on an even keel throughout a game. He's a heady floor general, especially in transition, and he provides the Gators with another three-point threat to make teams pay for doubling down on Noah or Horford. The point guard can be pressured into making mistakes, however. His 1.7-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is lower than it should be. If the Commodores can increase the defensive pressure without over-committing, they can cause Green to cough it up a few times.
Billy Donovan's team usually runs seven deep, with one important reserve in the backcourt, and one in the frontcourt. The guard is sophomore Walter Hodge, who often enters the game to give Taurean Green a breather. Hodge is a capable pass-first point guard; his above average quickness allows him to get into the lane and find open shooters. Shooting an economical 56.5 percent from the field, the sophomore can also knock down the perimeter jumper if called on.
Adding some depth to the frontcourt is 6-9 senior Chris Richard. Averaging 5.3 points and three rebounds in 17 minutes per game, Richard rivals Horford in strength, if not in talent. His offensive game is limited, though his 60 percent from the field indicates his efficiency. Richard's size and strength make him a very good post defender and rebounder, something most teams lack off the bench. He'll play important minutes if Noah or Horford get into foul trouble.
Florida leads the nation in field goal percentage, shooting just over 54 percent from the field. Just as impressive, however, are the 18 assists per game the Gators log, tops in the SEC. The combination of talent and unselfishness in Gainesville is hard to come by, and that unselfishness propelled the team to a national championship just a season ago. Each player in Florida's starting lineup is capable of putting up 20 points on any given night, and the fact that each is so willing to defer to a teammate makes them as balanced a team as you'll find in the country.
To compete with the Gators, Vanderbilt cannot allow Florida to get significant scoring from the perimeter. The Commodores have been successful against very good post players by constantly applying different double teams. Against a Florida team with great shooters, though, those double teams can lead to a barrage of threes in a hurry. Lee Humphrey's defender should be used in double downs as little as possible, and all doubling defenders have to be keenly aware of their man's position on the floor at all times, because Horford and Noah will find the open shooter just about every time.
Perhaps the Gators' primary weakness is their depth. With just seven major rotation players (6-7 freshman Dan Werner gets 12 minutes per game), Florida can be derailed by foul trouble, injury, or fatigue. This team is well-conditioned and disciplined, though, so getting deeper into their bench is a tough task for any opponent.
Wednesday's game will be Vanderbilt's biggest test to date. At a time when the Commodores are beginning to garner some serious national attention, a good showing against Florida would do wonders for the team's reputation. More importantly, though, a win would send the Commodores' confidence through the roof and bolster their postseason résumé in a big way. To hang with the Gators and to have a shot to win at the end, here are the keys to the game for the ‘Dores:
- Contain Green: One of Vanderbilt's biggest shortcomings has been its ability to defend a penetrating point guard. Mississippi's Todd Abernethy was able to get past Alex Gordon at will at times on Saturday, and if not for some poor outside shooting, he could have sparked a comeback victory. If Green is allowed to drive the lane like Abernethy was, it will be a long night for the Commodores. With Humphrey and Brewer on the wings, Green's kick-outs are deadly, and he can finish around the basket. Gordon must do a better job defending the perimeter. Otherwise, Kevin Stallings will be forced to give Jermaine Beal significantly more minutes or move Byars or Shan Foster over to guard the Gator point.
- Like Clockwork: As mentioned above, Florida leads the SEC in assists per game with 18. Second with 17.6 helpers per contest are the Commodores. In the first half against Ole Miss, the ‘Dores blended an excellent transition game with a half-court set that gave them scads of easy looks. That kind of ball movement must be present for 40 minutes in Gainesville for Vandy to spring the upset. If Foster can get hot early, all the better, as he can stretch a defense just as well as Humphrey.
- Need Neltner: Ross Neltner is the only true post player in Vandy's starting five. As such, he'll face a daunting task on defense: Contain Horford or Noah with less help than in previous games. The Commodores' best bet is to assign Neltner to Horford. He'll be more comfortable banging with Al than trying to keep up with Joakim. Ross's work on the boards will be crucial as well, so he must stay out of foul trouble. As important as his defensive contributions will be, Neltner is just as important on the offensive end. Against Alabama's impressive front line, the LSU transfer got lay-up after lay-up as the Tide overplayed Vandy's perimeter players. The Gator defense is known for its aggressiveness. If they over-commit to the wings, Ross must make them pay, whether it's with a 12-foot jumper or a nifty reverse.
Prediction: Vanderbilt has clearly been the surprise team in the SEC. Game after game, the ‘Dores defied expectations, even picking up a couple of road wins when no one else could. No one except Florida, that is. The Gators have defended their championship in impressive fashion so far, but they have shown weaknesses. Depth, turnovers, and a lack of intensity have allowed teams like Ole Miss and Mississippi State to hang with the Gators. Vandy is better than the Rebs and Bulldogs, but expect Florida to come out eager to silence talk of the upstart Commodores. The ‘Dores will be fired up, too, though, and another hot shooting night will keep them in it until the final buzzer. Final score: Florida 78, Vanderbilt 74.