Having already beaten Tennessee at the buzzer and Kentucky at Rupp Arena, the ‘Dores have scored some big wins this season. On Saturday, though, they have chance to do something they haven't in 14 years – defeat the #1 team in the nation – as Billy Donovan and the defending champion Florida Gators storm into Memorial.
The Gators enter Saturday's contest undefeated in the SEC (11-0) and riding a 17-game winning streak. In their last meeting with Vandy, Donovan's squad trailed the Commodores by 11 points at halftime before outscoring the visitors 44-23 in the second half to grab the victory.
Though they've gone unblemished in conference play to this point, the boys from Gainesville haven't looked invincible by any means. Since defeating Vanderbilt, Florida has dismantled Tennessee, but they've also experienced a couple of scares at the hands of Kentucky and Alabama. On Wednesday, the Gators had to overcome a deficit as big as 18 points to ward off the Crimson Tide. The Commodores will look to do what they (and ‘Bama) couldn't in Gainesville and hold a lead against the top-ranked Gators.
Florida's cornerstone through the past three games has been 6-9 swingman Corey Brewer. He's averaged almost 17 points and four rebounds over that span, including a team-best 16 points and seven boards to lead the Gators past a pesky Kentucky team last weekend. Brewer was the only Florida starter who failed to reach double-figure scoring against Vanderbilt in Gainesville. Last year in Memorial, however, the Tennessee native torched the Commodores to the tune of a career-high 26 points. In the five point win over the ‘Dores, the junior scored from all over the court, but his 5-of-6 from behind the arc really caught the home team off guard. Brewer will be a focal point of Saturday's game not only because of his offensive ability, but also because he'll likely defend the red-hot Byars.
Point guard Taurean Green has also stepped up his play lately. Leaving the locker room down 11 to Alabama, Green put up 20 second-half points and brought the Gators back to defeat the Tide. The key to Florida's offense, the six-foot guard leads his team in scoring and assists this season, and he's the Gators' key to imposing their tempo. An accurate outside shooter, Green also gives opposing guards fits with his penetration. His ability to get into the lane and either draw a foul or find an open shooter is of most concern to the Commodores, who have struggled to contain scoring guards. In Gainesville, though, Vandy did a good job of pressuring Green into mistakes. The Gator point guard committed five turnovers to just four assists against the ‘Dores. Vanderbilt will need to replicate that pressure on Saturday.
While Brewer and Green are the Gator catalysts, the frontcourt is the centerpiece of the team. Both Joakim Noah and Al Horford are likely to be NBA lottery picks, and they pose match-up problems for nearly every team in the nation. Noah, Florida's emotional leader, led his team in scoring with 19 points in the Gators' win over the Commodores. However, the 6-11 dynamo has struggled in the team's last three games. Shooting 62.7 percent on the year, Noah has gone a pedestrian 9-of-32 from the floor in his past three outings, and his rebounding and defensive numbers have declined, too. Vanderbilt will have to improve upon their rebounding effort against South Carolina if they hope to contain Noah. The Gamecocks grabbed 16 offensive rebounds on Wednesday – Noah will have a field day if they play that porously again.
Sharing the post with Noah is 6-10 behemoth Al Horford. His 12-point, 12-rebound effort against Vanderbilt started a string of three straight double-doubles for Horford, who leads the Gators in rebounding at 8.7 per game. The Commodores, like most teams, had trouble with his immense size and strength on the block, as Horford abused the Vandy front line in the second half. If he repeats that performance in Memorial, the boys in black and gold will be in a world of trouble on the inside.
Senior sharpshooter Lee Humphrey rounds out the starting lineup for the Gators. Heading into the first match-up with Vanderbilt, Humphrey was shooting an unbelievable 72 percent from three-point distance. Lately, though, he's shown signs of mortality, as a combined 3-for-12 in his past two games has lowered his three-point percentage to 60 percent. The Commodores held him relatively quiet in Gainesville until the second half, when he unleashed a barrage of long-range bombs to help the Gators build a lead. Humphrey's outside shooting should prevent Vanderbilt from going to a zone in Memorial and forces his defender to stay in his face for 40 minutes, at times even at the expense of good help defense.
Sophomore guard Walter Hodge is Billy Donovan's most valuable backcourt reserve. His scoring ability and ballhandling make him a competent backup to Green and Humphrey. Though he went scoreless on 0-for-4 shooting against Vandy, Hodge displayed his scoring punch in the Gators' next game, tossing in 3-of-4 from beyond the arc en route to 12 points against the Volunteers. Shooting almost 55 percent, the sophomore is Florida's most efficient shooter in the backcourt.
Chris Richard, a 6-9 senior, provides the Gators with some depth in the frontcourt. While Noah and Horford were saddled with foul trouble, Richard gave some quality minutes off the bench against Kentucky, scoring 11 points and grabbing five boards against the Wildcats. Should either of Florida's starting forwards pick up early fouls in Memorial, their offense will suffer, but Richard offers strong defense and good rebounding ability along with an ability to finish at the rim.
Leading the nation in field goal percentage, Florida showed their incredible efficiency in the second half against Vanderbilt. Storming out of the locker room to take the lead in just minutes, the Gators picked Vandy apart, shooting over 70 percent in the second 20 minutes to get the win. When the Commodores went to a zone to try to neutralize Florida's advantage in the post, Humphrey went off from downtown. When they went back to man-to-man, Noah and Horford continued their dominance.
Last weekend at Rupp Arena, Kentucky showed one way to compete with Florida, as they attacked the post and got Noah and Horford into foul trouble in the second half. When their forwards are forced to sit, the Gators' offensive balance really suffers. Because Vanderbilt doesn't have a post presence like Kentucky's Randolph Morris, they'll rely on Byars, Shan Foster, and Alex Gordon to drive at the Florida big men. If foul trouble diminishes the effectiveness of the Gator post game, the Commodores' perimeter attack can out-duel Florida's.
The other area where Vanderbilt can claim an advantage is the turnover battle. The Gators don't play at a frantic pace, but they do commit a fair number of turnovers when pressured. Humphrey and Brewer are not outstanding ballhandlers, and the Commodores were able to force mistakes in the first half in Gainesville. Those turnovers combined with an ineffective Florida press allowed Vandy to score a bunch of transition points.
Saturday's game is the biggest, if not the most important, of Vanderbilt's season. A win over the top-ranked Gators would seal up an NCAA bid for the Commodores and likely propel them back into the national rankings. To score the upset, here are the keys for Vandy:
- Backup for Byars: In the first game against Florida, Derrick Byars was the only Commodore shouldering the scoring load. Shan Foster and Dan Cage, in particular, struggled to chip in offensively. However, Vanderbilt has shot 50 percent or better in four out of their five SEC home games this season. If Foster, Cage, and Alex Gordon can find that hometown touch from the perimeter to take some of the burden off Byars, the ‘Dores can hold their own against the Gators.
- Limit Gator Runs: The balance of Florida's offense allows them to pile up points in a hurry. They used double digit runs to erase second-half deficits against Vanderbilt and Alabama and to build huge leads against South Carolina and Tennessee. In Gainesville, the Commodores helped facilitate Gator runs by taking bad shots. If and when Florida starts to make their run in Memorial, the home team needs to slow down and find good looks, not just any look, from the perimeter. Stopping runs will keep the crowd in the game and keep the Gators from getting comfortable.
- Post Play: In the first half in Gainesville, Alan Metcalfe and Ted Skuchas gave good minutes off the bench, scoring in the paint and drawing fouls on the Gators. After halftime, that Commodore post presence was nowhere to be found. The Vandy big men had a lackluster game against South Carolina; they'll need to bounce back on the boards and on the offensive end to compete with Florida.
Prediction: Back in 1993, Vanderbilt routed top-ranked Kentucky in front of a raucous Memorial crowd. Now, 14 years later, they get their next chance to down a number one team at home. The ‘Dores gave the Gators more than they could handle for 20 minutes; if they can put two halves together, they've got a shot to upset Florida. If Byars can continue to roll, Foster builds on his encouraging second half against the Gamecocks, and the Vandy big men do a decent job on the boards, look for the Commodores to keep it close all the way. If they're in it at the end, a little Memorial Magic will turn the tide. Final score: Vanderbilt 80, Florida 79.