Vanderbilt Looks for Revenge Against Florida

On January 31, the Vanderbilt Commodores had lost four of five to fall to 2-4 in the SEC. Fast forward three weeks, and the ‘Dores have reversed their fortunes. They capped a four-game winning streak with a historic win over Kentucky on Tuesday, and with three home games on the horizon, the team can make a push for a higher seed, starting with a bid for revenge against the Gators.

The ‘Dores took out their January frustrations on the visiting Wildcats in a big way, sprinting out to a 30 point halftime lead on the way to a 93-52 victory.  Vanderbilt held Kentucky to just 11 first-half points – the fewest the Cats have scored in a half since the implementation of the shot clock – and the 41-point loss was UK's worst ever in SEC play.  Shan Foster led the Commodores with 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting, and A.J. Ogilvy recorded his third career double-double, putting up 19 points and 12 rebounds against the Wildcats.  The ‘Dores shot a blistering 55.4 percent and logged 20 assists on 31 baskets.  They committed just six turnovers and even outrebounded the Wildcats. 

Vanderbilt's offense was spectacular, but the Commodores also put together their best defensive game of the season.  Kentucky managed just six points in the game's first 15 minutes, as the ‘Dores smothered the Wildcat scorers.  Freshman phenom Patrick Patterson couldn't get going against the constant double teams Vanderbilt threw at him, and the Commodore guards stifled Ramel Bradley's penetration.  Kentucky shot just 32.7 percent, including 1-of-10 from three-point range.  The Cats committed 15 turnovers and dished out a mere five assists, mostly thanks to a tenacious Vanderbilt defense that was quick to rotate and never gave Kentucky an open look.  Against a Florida team that got all kinds of open shots against Vanderbilt in Gainesville, the ‘Dores need to maintain that defensive intensity on Saturday. 

The Gators (19-6, 6-4) have stalled a bit after racing out to a 5-1 conference record.  Billy Donovan's young club has lost three out of its last four, most recently suffering a head-scratching home defeat to cellar-dweller LSU.  Back in January, though, the Gators were the hottest team in the league, a claim to which the Commodores can certainly attest.  In the teams' first match-up, Florida used a 23-0 first-half run to blow out visiting Vanderbilt.  All five Gator starters scored in double figures, and the defense held Shan Foster and A.J. Ogilvy to a combined 16 points.

Freshman standout Nick Calathes has proven to be the Gators' best player after just two-thirds of a season.  He leads his team in scoring and ranks second among SEC freshmen with 16.3 points per game in conference play.  Calathes has scored in double figures in nine out of ten league games, and he's done it in a variety of ways.  The freshman leads the team in three-pointers, knocking down two per game in SEC play, but he's far more than just a perimeter shooter.  He can score in the mid-range and has a knack for drawing contact around the basket.  His 147 free throw attempts are good for third in the conference, and he makes them at a 74.1 percent clip.  Though Calathes has been the Gators' most prolific scorer, he hasn't been the most efficient.  His 41.8 percent shooting is worst among Florida regulars, and he's shooting just 28.6 percent from beyond the arc over the last four games.  What he lacks in efficiency, he makes up for with his tremendous distribution skills.  The freshman leads the SEC in assists, handing out 6.7 a game in conference play.  Calathes picked apart the Commodores in the teams' first meeting, using countless ball screens to get into the lane or draw and kick to open perimeter shooters.  He finished with 15 points and 10 dimes against the hapless Vanderbilt defense.  Defending Calathes off that high ball screen will be crucial if the ‘Dores hope to avenge their loss in Gainesville. 

Sophomore behemoth Marreese Speights complements Calathes' perimeter game.  The 6-10, 250-pound center is averaging 13.0 points and a team-high 8.3 rebounds in SEC games.  While he can be an unstoppable force in the low post at times, Speights has been wildly inconsistent in his offensive output.  He's logged three 20-point games in conference play, but he's also been held to six points or fewer three times.  The big man is shooting 58.7 percent from the floor in league games – good for third in the SEC – indicating that his output depends less on his own efficiency and more on his teammates getting him the ball.  Speights scored just 12 points in 18 foul-plagued minutes against the Commodores, but his impact was greater on the defensive end, where he stifled A.J. Ogilvy on possession after possession.  Ogilvy had the flu when the two first clashed, but he's at full strength now, making for a more intriguing match-up in the paint.

Of all the assists the Gators dished out in their rout of the Commodores, many wound up in the hands of junior Walter Hodge.  The 6-0 combo guard poured in a career-high 19 points against Vanderbilt, knocking down jumpers and finishing off the fast break.  In SEC play, Hodge is scoring 11.5 points per game, adding another perimeter threat to go alongside Calathes.  His 37 three-pointers on the year are second only to Calathes' 40; he's averaging almost two trifectas per conference game.  As the Gators' lone upperclassman, Hodge has been a steadying influence on the Florida offense.  His 2.8 assists per game are second on the team, and the junior's leadership has been crucial to his team's success.  He's failed to record an assist in just two conference games, and the Gators lost both of them.  Perhaps Florida's best perimeter defender, Hodge grabbed three steals against the ‘Dores and was a key cog in the defense that shut down the Vanderbilt backcourt. 

Sophomore forward Dan Werner has taken his game to new heights since the start of SEC play.  After scoring in double figures in just three non-conference games, the 6-7 "glue guy" has scored at least ten points in seven out of ten league contests, averaging 11.5 points per game in conference play.  He still hasn't found his touch from beyond the arc, converting on just 9-of-43 from three-point range in the last ten games, but he's been able to contribute in several other ways.  Werner's 6.8 boards per game are good for second on the team, and his 22 offensive rebounds in SEC play rank ninth in the conference.  The sophomore has also been an integral part of Florida's favorite offensive set.  He is often the screener for Calathes and receives the pass off of the roll, at which point he can bury the mid-range jumper, take it to the basket for a lay-up, or pass it off for an open three-pointer or to a baseline cutter.  The latter hurt Vanderbilt time and again, as Werner dished out six assists against the Commodores.

Rounding out the Gators' starting five is point guard Jai Lucas.  The 5-11 freshman has been invaluable to Florida's attack.  He's lightning-quick off the dribble, judicious and selfless with the basketball, and deadly from three-point range.  Lucas is averaging 9.7 points and shooting a team-best 48.0 percent during SEC play.  He opened the conference season by scoring 19 and 16 against Alabama and Auburn, respectively, showing off his scoring abilities against a pair of quick backcourts.  Since chipping in 11 against Vanderbilt, his offense has tailed off, as the point guard has averaged just 6.8 points over his last four games, three of which Florida lost.  Lucas will look to bounce back against a Commodore team that struggled to contain the Gator guards in the teams' first match-up. 

Freshman sixth man Chandler Parsons has seen his production go south since league play started in January.  The lanky 6-9 forward has scored in double figures just twice in conference play after doing it in seven non-conference games.  In the Gators' last seven games, Parsons scored more than six points just once.  However, in that game he scored 18 points, including 3-of-6 from three-point range, to lead his team in a win over Georgia.  The freshman can make an impact on the boards, averaging 3.9 per game, but his best asset is his three-point shooting.  When he's in the game, the Vanderbilt forwards must keep a hand in his face at all times.

A trio of forwards adds some athleticism to the Florida frontcourt off the bench.  Sophomore Jonathan Mitchell played 15 minutes against Vanderbilt in relief of foul-addled Marreese Speights.  He scored five points and snatched four rebounds against the Commodores.  At 243 pounds, Mitchell is big enough to effectively spell Speights, and his outside shooting ability provides an added wrinkle. 

Freshmen Alex Tyus and Adam Allen are both 6-8, 205-pound combo forwards who can score from both inside and out.  Tyus, who is more athletic but less skilled than Allen, has seen more minutes than his classmate during conference play.  He's shooting 60.9 percent from the floor and grabbing 2.4 rebounds per game.  Allen, on the other hand, is more perimeter-oriented, shooting 44.8 percent from beyond the arc.

During the non-conference schedule, Florida established itself as one of the nation's most efficient offenses despite playing five freshmen.  In conference play, the tougher SEC defenses have made life more difficult for the Gators, but they still rank second in the league in field goal percentage, shooting 46.5 percent in SEC games.  Donovan's bunch is most effective in a half-court setting, where outside shooting, the post play of Speights, ball screens, and hard basket cuts make the Gators very difficult to contain.  Florida is shooting almost 57 percent from inside the arc, good for third in the nation. 

Where the Gators have struggled at times in conference play, especially recently, has been on the defensive end.  They're giving up 76.9 points per game to SEC foes after holding non-conference opponents to just 67.0 points per game.  Florida has allowed at least 80 points in six out of its last eight games, four of which resulted in losses.  Tennessee hung 104 points on the Gators, and LSU shot 60.0 percent from the field en route to an 85-73 upset.  Coming off an offensive explosion against Kentucky, the Commodores pose a big-time threat to Florida in Memorial.

Florida and Vanderbilt are heading in opposite directions heading into Saturday's game.  The Gators have dropped three of their last four, with all three losses coming by double digits, while the Commodores have won four straight, including a demolition of Kentucky on Tuesday.  For the ‘Dores to send Florida spiraling further downward and to maintain their own momentum, here are the keys to the game: 

  • One-Trick Gator:  Okay, so Donovan's team isn't actually that limited, but they didn't need to display much offensive versatility against Vanderbilt the first time around.  Florida ran high ball screens for Calathes all afternoon, resulting in multiple lay-ups and even more open perimeter looks.  The Gators had 26 assists on 29 field goals and shot 48.3 percent from the floor.  The Commodore big men often committed to the hedge too much, forcing other defenders to help and leaving shooters open.  The ‘Dores must make adjustments in the half court against this play in particular.  If they don't the Gators will pick apart the defense once again.
  • Contain Speights:  Marreese's foul trouble limited him in the first match-up, but had he been on the floor for 30 minutes, he could have scored 25 points against Vanderbilt's soft interior.  With a healthy Ogilvy and a rejuvenated Ross Neltner, that inside defense was much improved against Kentucky, constantly getting defenders both in front of and behind Patrick Patterson.  Overall, the Commodores did a terrific job of rotating to help in the post without leaving shooters open on the perimeter.  If they can give Speights the Patterson treatment, the ‘Dores could suffocate the Gator offense
  • Avoid the Letdown:  After a historic win over a big rival, the Commodores can't afford to lose any energy or focus against a Florida team that dismantled them in January.  With the abundance of senior leadership that Vanderbilt boasts, neither energy nor execution should be a problem on Saturday, but the hosts have to put the Kentucky game completely out of mind, save for the 40-minute energy they showed on Tuesday.  If the Memorial crowd is as rowdy as it was earlier in the week, the Florida freshmen could get rattled and conversely, the ‘Dores could repay the Gators for that 23-0 run in Gainesville.

Prediction:  The ‘Dores are rolling.  They played a near-perfect game on Tuesday after grabbing two elusive road wins and now have all the momentum with three home games coming up.  If they can maintain the focus and energy they showed against Kentucky, the Commodores should be able to defeat a young team filled with freshmen who have never experienced Memorial Magic.  Don't expect a 41-point repeat, though; these Gators are tougher and more talented than Kentucky.  Final score: Vanderbilt 87, Florida 77.


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