Vandy's Last Game
The Commodores put themselves in an early hole with a first half in which they made just five field goals and shot 18.5 percent. Despite a career night from George Drake, who scored 16 points on 8-of-15 shooting, Vanderbilt couldn't get enough offense to recover from a 10-1 deficit. A.J. Ogilvy mustered just seven points as the Vols made it difficult for the ‘Dores to feed their big man all night. To make matters worse, Vanderbilt's perimeter woes continued; the Commodores shot 26.1 percent from three-point range.
Defensively, the ‘Dores couldn't stop the tandem of Wayne Chism and Tyler Smith. The Tennessee forwards combined for 38 points to lead a Volunteer offense that shot 50.0 percent from the floor. Vanderbilt boasted one of the top two-point field goal percentage defenses in the country, yet Tennessee was able to score 40 points in the paint on several poorly contested lay-ups.
The Gators (16-3, 3-1) return almost everyone from a talented squad that wasn't quite ready for success a year ago, flaming out in the first round of the SEC Tournament and failing to reach the NCAAs. This season, Billy Donovan's team looks poised to live up to its talent and get Florida back to the Big Dance. The Gators have lost three games by a combined nine points, including a one-point heartbreaker at South Carolina on Wednesday.
Despite the loss of center Marreese Speights, Florida is among the nation's leaders in two-point field goal percentage. The emergence of Alex Tyus and the addition of highly touted Kenny Kadji have fortified the Gators' inside game, but the primary reason for Florida's efficiency is the team's passing ability. Five Gators average two assists or better, and the team has recorded an assist on 61.5 percent of its baskets. Vanderbilt's interior defense will be tested, and quick rotation will be crucial in defending the Gator attack.
Nick Calathes – Sophomore, 6-6, 194 lbs. – Last year's co-Freshman of the Year in the SEC, Calathes is Florida's do-it-all lead guard in the body of a swingman. He leads his team in scoring with 17.8 points per game on 51.8 shooting from the floor. A versatile scorer, Calathes can beat defenders off the dribble or knock down the perimeter jumper. His 39 three-pointers lead the Gators, and he converts them at a team-best 40.6 percent clip. Not only is Calathes Florida's best scorer, but he also sets up the Gator offense. The sophomore leads the SEC with 6.6 assists per game and ranks third with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2-to-1. An excellent rebounder and perimeter defender, Calathes averages 5.5 boards and 2.1 steals per contest. He'll try to exorcise his Memorial demons on Sunday; his late backcourt violation in last year's game at Vanderbilt propelled the ‘Dores to a close victory.
Alex Tyus – Sophomore, 6-8, 220 lbs. – Tyus has emerged as Florida's best post scorer. His 12.2 points per game are good for second on the team, and he's shooting a team-best 61.9 percent from the floor. The sophomore has been playing as an undersized center, but that hasn't stopped him from controlling the paint at times. Tyus has logged four games of 20 points or more, including a 24-point outburst that kept Florida close in a loss to Syracuse. Florida's most athletic post player, Tyus leads the Gators with 6.6 rebounds per game.
Walter Hodge – Senior, 6-0, 170 lbs. – Hodge is the Gators' lone senior and one of two players on the team with NCAA Tournament experience. After scoring 10.7 points per game last season, Hodge has taken on a smaller role in the Florida offense this year. The senior guard is averaging only 7.7 points on almost three fewer shots per game, and his assists are down from 2.9 per game a year ago to 2.3 per game this season. Hodge remains a threat from beyond the arc, though, as his 30 three-pointers rank second on the team, and he's knocking down trifectas at a 39.0 percent clip.
Chandler Parsons – Sophomore, 6-9, 213 lbs. – Parsons, a five-star prospect out of high school, has struggled to find a defined role at Florida. He has the height but not the size to bang on the inside, and he has the shooting ability but lacks the quickness to play full-time on the perimeter. When Parsons is shooting well from the perimeter, he makes the Florida offense a very dangerous one. He's found his range only occasionally this season, however, shooting 26.8 percent from long distance. The sophomore has increased his productivity elsewhere, grabbing 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game.
Dan Werner – Junior, 6-8, 230 lbs. – Werner was the exception on a Florida squad that lacked toughness last season, doing the dirty work that few Gators were willing to do. This season, though his defensive and rebounding stats are down, his offense has improved as he's fit into the balanced Florida attack. Werner is averaging 9.3 points per game, and his shooting percentage (47.0 percent) and three-point percentage (34.3 percent) have both increased since last season. His production has slipped to 6.0 points per game in SEC play, but he remains a threat from behind the arc and on the offensive glass.
Four talented freshmen round out Billy Donovan's playing rotation. Erving Walker, a 5-8 point guard, is one of the fastest players in the conference and has great court vision as well. His scoring has been a bit of a surprise, as he's averaging 8.8 points per game and is tied with Walter Hodge for second on the team with 30 three-pointers. Ray Shipman, a 6-4 off-guard, joins Walker in the backcourt. Shipman is a good slasher and strong defender.
In the frontcourt, Kenny Kadji and Alan Chaney give the Gators a pair of true low post players who can score from the block and clean the glass. Kadji, a 6-10 Cameroon native, is averaging 5.4 points and 2.7 boards per game, while Chaney, a 6-8 Baltimorean, averages 3.7 points and 2.4 rebounds.
Keys to the Game
Keep Attacking – The Commodores were aggressive early against Tennessee, but they were unable to convert the good shots they earned with that aggression. The Vols' athletic defenders partially contributed to Vanderbilt's lack of success inside, but the ‘Dores shot themselves in the foot by missing lay-ups and put-backs. The Gators' defense is better than Tennessee's on the perimeter, but the Commodores should be able to score on the interior against Florida. Ogilvy must play much better, but Vanderbilt also needs Jermaine Beal, Jeff Taylor, and Lance Goulbourne to attack the basket more often. If George Drake can maintain his aggressive play without losing control, he'll help the ‘Dores in this regard, too. If Vanderbilt cannot consistently score from the perimeter, then penetration must become a more regular aspect of the offense.
Pressure Calathes – The Florida offense is at its best when Nick Calathes has the ball in his hands. While Hodge and Walker are talented guards, they don't have the playmaking abilities of the Gators' best player. Vanderbilt has the athletes to defend Calathes, but the best way to defend him is to make him give up the ball. The dangerous part about hawking Calathes on the perimeter is his ability to penetrate, forcing defensive rotation and allowing kick-outs to shooters on the perimeter. Whoever guards the sophomore, likely Taylor, Goulbourne, or Drake, must be able to apply pressure without gambling, and the ‘Dores have to rotate quickly to cover Florida's shooters.
Grow Up – It's nearing make-or-break time for this young Commodore squad. To reach the NCAA Tournament, the ‘Dores not only need wins, they need wins over good teams, and Florida certainly qualifies. In the loss to Tennessee, both A.J. Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal were invisible. A team stocked with freshmen needs its leaders to set the tone, so expect the point guard and center to be aggressive early.
Prediction: With the way the Commodores are shooting the ball lately, they could lose to any team in the SEC. If they can knock down a few extra perimeter shots, however, the ‘Dores should have the inside punch to knock off one of the SEC's best. Vanderbilt defends well enough to neutralize the Gators' post game; if they can contain Calathes, look for this game to come down to the wire. Final Score: Florida 68, Vanderbilt 64.