Commodores Face Young Gator Squad Sunday

After a brief stop in Nashville, Vanderbilt takes to the road once again on Sunday, traveling to Gainesville to take on the Florida Gators. The Commodores are 0-2 on the road in conference play, dropping a close contest in Lexington before getting blown out in Knoxville. At 2-2 in SEC games with a trip to Oxford on the horizon, a win would put the ‘Dores back in the thick of the early SEC race.

Last weekend's game against LSU was just what the Commodores needed after a couple of tough road contests.  Paced by 18 points each from Shan Foster and Alex Gordon, the home team put up its highest point total of the conference season, beating the overmatched Tigers by a score of 92-76.  After losing their collective shooting stroke on the road, the ‘Dores shot nearly 50 percent from the floor and 45 percent from beyond the arc.  All five starters scored in double figures, and Ross Neltner finally looked like the Neltner of old.  The senior forward scored 16 on 6-of-8 shooting, and most importantly, he didn't turn the ball over a single time.  As a team, the ‘Dores committed just seven turnovers, at least temporarily correcting a problem that plagued them against Kentucky and Tennessee.

Florida (17-3, 4-1 SEC) has been one of the surprises of the early conference season.  Despite losing their top six scorers to graduation and the NBA, the Gators have sprinted out to lead the East Division after five games.  Their lone loss came by two points at Ole Miss, and they've won on the road at Alabama and South Carolina.  A relatively unimpressive non-conference slate raised questions about the validity of Florida's record heading into SEC play, but Billy Donovan's young squad has shown that they will make a push for an NCAA Tournament bid.  Vanderbilt will be the second ranked opponent the Gators face – if they can beat the Commodores, they'll have their best win of the season.

The revamped Gators don't have a single senior on the roster, leaving junior Walter Hodge as Florida's elder statesman.  The 6-0 guard is the only Gator who saw any significant playing time for the teams that won back-to-back national championships.  This season, with his minutes almost doubled, Hodge has improved his averages across the board.  For a player with his scoring ability, his 9.7 points per game have been somewhat of a disappointment, but to his credit, the junior has appropriately deferred to the slew of talented underclassmen.  His 2.9 assists per game are good for second on the team, and as the lone upperclassman in Donovan's starting lineup, his teammates will continue to look to him to control the offense in increasingly difficult situations.  Hodge's efficiency numbers have slipped this season, partly due to the significant increase in minutes.  However, he's still shooting 48 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from beyond the arc.  Second to super-frosh Nick Calathes with 30 three-pointers, Hodge remains a dangerous scorer from the perimeter.

In his first year as a Gator, Calathes has emerged as a go-to scorer as well as one of the best all-around players on his team, if not in the entire conference.  His 16.0 points per game are good seventh in the SEC, and once he improves his efficiency as he gains seasoning, Calathes will consistently rank among the top scorers in the league.  As balanced a scorer as the Gators have, the freshman leads the team with 33 three-pointers and 85 free throws, illustrating his ability to score from the perimeter and in the lane.  The 6-6 forward has all the ball skills of a point guard, as shown by his SEC-best 5.9 assists per game.  He's consistently displayed the ability to beat bigger defenders to the lane, where he's adept at getting to the free throw line or finding a three-point shooter on the kick-out.  Calathes also gets it done on the defensive end, grabbing 4.9 rebounds and snatching a team-best 1.5 steals per game.

Despite logging just 5.7 minutes a game last season, center Marreese Speights entered his sophomore campaign with some lofty expectations.  He was named to the preseason watch list for the Wooden Award and voted to the preseason All-SEC second team by the league's coaches.  While he's not quite having a Wooden Award type season, Speights hasn't been a disappointment by any means.  At 6-10, the sophomore gives the Gators a strong post presence to help offset the loss of lottery picks Joakim Noah and Al Horford.  His 7.9 boards per contest rank first on his team and seventh in the conference, and his 14.2 points per game trail just Calathes among Gators.  Speights has shown recently that he can give Florida a second go-to scorer, notching four 20-point games in the last seven contests.  The sophomore scored 41 points and collected 21 rebounds in the past two games, wins over Kentucky and South Carolina.  His match-up with A.J. Ogilvy will be one to watch on Sunday.  Speights is the better physical specimen, but Ogilvy is more skilled.

Freshman guard Jai Lucas runs Billy Donovan's offense.  The son of former NBA player John Lucas, the McDonald's All-American has made the transition from Taurean Green an easy one.  He's averaging 9.7 points and 2.3 assists in his first season in Gainesville.  Armed with a quick first step and a sweet jump shot, the younger Lucas can score from all over the court.  He's shooting 47.9 percent from the floor and a team-high 48.1 percent from beyond the arc.  While Lucas is no Devan Downey, he could wreak havoc against a Vanderbilt team that has had well-documented difficulties containing quick scoring guards.  Between Lucas and Hodge, the Commodore guards will have their hands full on defense.

Rounding out Florida's starting lineup is 6-7 forward Dan Werner.  The sophomore is averaging 8.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.  Heralded as a deadly three-point shooter, Werner has struggled from distance since stepping on campus last season.  He connected on just 22.4 percent of his three-point attempts last season, and though he's up to 31.6 percent this season, he hasn't yet fulfilled expectations from long range.  A deft passer for a forward, Werner is more comfortable setting up teammates for open shots than looking for his own points.

Another freshman, 6-9 forward Chandler Parsons, is Florida's sixth man and one of five Gators to average at least 9.0 points per game.  Parsons has proven to be talented if inconsistent as a scorer in his first year at Florida – he recently followed a scoreless outing against Auburn with a 15-point effort at Ole Miss.  A high school teammate of Calathes, the 6-9 Parsons matches his fellow freshman's combination of size and perimeter skills.  He's knocked down 22 three-pointers, but he has also shown the ability to get to the rim.

Three forwards, including two more freshmen, add some depth to the young Gator squad.  A pair of 6-8 freshmen, Adam Allen and Alex Tyus, gives Florida some size and toughness in the paint, but each can also face the basket and play some small forward as well.  Each rebounds and defends his position well.  Tyus has the edge over Allen athletically; he's explosive around the rim and quick to the basket when facing up.  Meanwhile, Allen is a bit more skilled and can step out to the perimeter.  A solid three-point shooter, Allen put his scoring ability on display in a 19-point effort against Florida A&M.

Sophomore Jonathan Mitchell rounds out the Gators' regular rotation.  At 6-7 and 243 pounds, he gives the Gators a big body to spell Speights.  Unlike Speights, though, Mitchell has the ability to score consistently from 15 feet and beyond.  His post game needs refining, but he could eventually become a big-time scorer for the Gators.

Despite playing five freshmen in their rotation, the Gators have one of the most efficient offenses in the country.  They lead the SEC in field goal percentage, shooting at a 50.3 percent clip, and they rank fourth in the league in points, scoring 80.9 per game.  Even after losing two of the nation's best post men, the Gators are able to maintain a high level of efficiency.  They shoot over 56 percent on shots inside the three-point line, which puts them in the top five nationally in shooting percentage from inside the arc.  With several consistent shooters surrounding a talented post scorer in Speights, the Gators have all the weapons to wear a team down around the basket and in the mid-range as well as on the perimeter.  To help matters further, Florida commits just 12.7 turnovers per game, turning the ball over on just 18.7 percent of possessions.

Last season, the ‘Dores lost in Gainesville after taking a double-digit lead into the locker room at halftime.  Walter Hodge is the only Gator left who saw significant minutes in that game, however, so Sunday's game should look pretty different.  A win over the precocious Gators would give Vanderbilt some momentum heading into another tough road clash against Ole Miss.  For the Commodores to escape the O-Dome with a win, here are the keys to the game:

  • Battle of the Giants:  To this point in SEC play, A.J. Ogilvy hasn't been able to affect games consistently like he did over the course of the non-conference schedule.  He was outplayed by Patrick Patterson in Lexington, and was a non-factor for most of the game against Tennessee and LSU.  With four SEC games and a week's worth of preparation under his belt, Ogilvy should be ready for a physical match-up with Marreese Speights.  Florida's big man will try to out-muscle the Aussie, but A.J. can hang with him athletically and is more skilled with the ball.  If Ogilvy can knock down a couple of early baskets against Speights, he'll gain some much-needed confidence and could cause some serious damage against a Florida squad that doesn't have much in the way of size outside of Speights.  Defensively, Ogilvy must avoid cheap fouls on the stronger Speights; Marreese will not shy away from contact and will try to send the Commodore center to the bench.
  • Prevent Penetration:  Florida has not one, but two guards capable of slipping into the lane and racking up quick points or finding perimeter shooters.  In Memorial, Devan Downey had his way with the Vanderbilt defense for much of the game; Gordon, Jermaine Beal, and Keegan Bell cannot allow Lucas and Hodge to do the same.  If a Gator guard does get past his defender, the help defenders shouldn't over-commit – doing so will allow better looks for three-point shooters.  The ability of Vanderbilt's post players to alter shots in the lane will be key in stopping Florida's guards from beating the ‘Dores.
  • Execution:  Florida doesn't boast the same type of quick, relentless defense that Vanderbilt saw at Kentucky and Tennessee.  The Gators don't force many turnovers and don't force the issue defensively very often, so the Commodores should be able to take their time and make sure that they execute their offensive sets.  With less pressure on the perimeter, there is no excuse for lobbing passes or throwing post entries at the feet of the big man.  If the ‘Dores commit 20 turnovers like they did in Lexington and Knoxville, it will be of their own doing, and the Gators will win handily.

Prediction:  At the risk of over-simplifying things, Sunday's game comes down to the experience of Vanderbilt's seniors vs. Florida's talented but young core.  Gainesville will be a hostile environment, but the Commodores have seen plenty of those.  If play like the experienced bunch that they are, they should be able to force mistakes by a group of youngsters that could be a little too pumped up for a home game against a top 25 team.  Final score: Vanderbilt 81, Florida 77. Top Stories