The race for a spot in the NCAA Tournament – unlike, for instance, the BCS National Championship Game – is a pure meritocracy. If you win games, you'll reach the big stage. There's no sense in pretending that one's outlook is better than it actually is. Therefore, in assessing Vandy's body of work to this point in the season, the harsh truth is that the Dores have not done much to merit an at-large NCAA bid from a conference – the SEC – that was very weak last season and isn't a whole lot better this time around.
While it's true that South Carolina, LSU and Auburn won't compete quite as vigorously for tournament bids – thereby making the path a little clearer for VU – the relative lack of strength in the league means that a quality non-conference portfolio was really important for any prospective SEC contender.
Vanderbilt didn't make the impression it needed to make.
A road win at Saint Mary's represents this team's best accomplishment in the pre-SEC portion of its campaign. Arizona represented a nice win, but the Wildcats are likely to miss the NCAAs for the first time in 26 years. Losing at Illinois was not a crusher – the Illini are a good team in a loaded Big Ten – but that nagging setback against Western Kentucky on a neutral court is what really dragged down VU's overall profile.
Entering SEC play, then, here's a brief overview of what VU needs to achieve: It's not so much that the Dores must win a certain amount of games. What's more important in conference play is the specific combinations of wins and losses. If a team can beat the big boys and not lose to the bottom feeders while winning a reasonable amount of games on the road, it will look good on Selection Sunday.
What does this mean for Vanderbilt, then? 1) Beat Kentucky. No SEC win will carry more value than a win over John Calipari's peerless parade of prime-time players.
2) Don't lose to Georgia, Arkansas, LSU or Alabama. Those are four teams that don't measure up, and any stumble against them will send an RPI rating into the tank.
3) Grab 50-50 games on the road at South Carolina and Mississippi. That way, a home-court loss to a quality team like Tennessee won't sting so much.
All in all, a 10-6 record – with a win over Kentucky or Tennessee – plus one SEC Tournament win would seem to be an absolute necessity for VU in conference play. Anything less than that set of achievements would make Kevin Stallings sweat on Selection Sunday.
Now, on to a very big SEC opener against Florida…
Coach Billy Donovan has seen this movie before: His team – in the post-national championship era – started strong and inspired confidence, only to fade due to a lack of defensive intensity and overall toughness. Florida teams that have inherited the Joakim Noah-Al Horford-Corey Brewer-Taurean Green-Lee Humphrey legacy have assumed to a degree that success would greet their careers. Recent groups of Gators simply haven't paid the price the NCAA Tournament demands of its participants.
This 2009-10 campaign began with a bang for Florida. Donovan's lineup thumped a good Florida State team by 16 and then knocked off mighty Michigan State, 77-74, on Nov. 27. The Gators have the non-conference scalps that will look very good in mid-March, but that doesn't hide the fact that UF has begun to slide significantly in recent weeks.
The Gators – infatuated with the 3-point shot and unwilling to go hard to the basket – sometimes play offense the way the 2008-09 Atlanta Hawks did: with little patience or prudence. In mid-December, UF's bad habits caught up with Billy D's boys. Playing against physically unimposing teams from Richmond and South Alabama, the Gators averaged a fraction more than 59 points in those two agonizing losses.
Speaking of 59 points, that's the exact number Florida posted in the first 39 minutes and 59 seconds of its most recent game, on Sunday, Jan. 3 at North Carolina State. Fortunately, forward Chandler Parsons hit a 65-foot heave at the final horn to give UF a 62-61 win and a major reprieve on its resume. A loss to N.C. State would have damaged the Gators' RPI, but the Parsons prayer allowed a struggling team to post a "W" on the board.
Forward/Center – Vernon Macklin – Junior, 6'10", 240; 2009-10: 10.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg
Macklin – a transfer from Georgetown – has provided the Gators with a certain degree of ballast and, more specifically, brawn. The Portsmouth, Va., native – realizing he wasn't going to spend much time on the floor with Greg Monroe tearing things up for the Hoyas – sat out last year so he could finish his collegiate career in Gainesville.
What's interesting about Macklin is that while he's not what you'd call a meal-ticket scorer or anything close to a primary scoring option, he is something of a barometer for this team. In two December losses to Syracuse and Richmond, Macklin was held to a total of nine points. If Florida wants to shed its recent reputation as a soft team that isn't willing to work the way the Joakim Noah teams did, it's Macklin who is best-suited to lead the charge.
Forward – Alex Tyus – Junior, 6'8", 220; 2009-10: 11.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg
While Macklin has added some muscle to the Gators – and, even more instructively, brings none of the baggage recent Florida teams have thrown on Billy Donovan's shoulders – Tyus is a player who needs this SEC season to mark a career turning point. The St. Louis native was outworked for rebounds last March, as the likes of Tennessee (on March 1) and Auburn (SEC Tournament Quarterfinals) punished Florida on the glass while eviscerating the Gators' matador defense. If Tyus – who was clearly bothered by Syracuse's length in a Dec. 10 loss to the Orange – can't become a more dynamic defender and rebounder, Florida will struggle once again in the SEC.
Forward – Dan Werner – Senior, 6'8", 230; 2009-10: 6.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.1 assists per game
Werner is the one member of the starting lineup who played for the 2007 national championship team in Gainesville, so on one hand, he knows what the Gators must do in order to get back to the Big Dance. On the other hand, the lanky forward was not blessed with the body or the instincts that are compatible with elite-level basketball. Werner has consistently gravitated toward the perimeter. He has a silky stroke, and is not someone you want to leave open. However, Werner lacks the quickness and the power Florida needs from its post players.
Werner isn't terrifically adept at creating his own shot, and a man used to squaring up at the basket is accordingly uncomfortable as a post-up player on the low blocks. The contours of Werner's playing style don't fit with the Gators' most urgent demands. It will be interesting to see how Werner carries himself – in body and mind – on the court in this SEC season.
Guard – Kenny Boynton – Freshman, 6'2", 183; 2009-10: 13.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 3.4 apg
As a freshman, Boynton shares – with Macklin – a blessed freedom from UF's recent struggles. However, it does appear that the youngest member of the Gators' starting give is beginning to hit a freshman wall. Boynton started the season strong and threw down at least 20 points in three of his team's first nine games. (That's why Boynton's the leading scorer for Florida.) However, in the three recent games in which UF's offense has stalled, Boynton's shooting statistics have been consistently woeful.
Boynton went 3 of 12 from the field in a 56-53 loss to Richmond; he hit only 3 of 10 shots in a 67-66 loss to South Alabama; and he went 3 of 13 from the floor in that lucky win over N.C. State this past Sunday. Boynton will need to get to the rim and not rely on his jumper as SEC play approaches.
Guard – Erving Walker – Sophomore, 5'8", 171; 2009-10: 10.7 ppg, 4.9 apg, 3.1 rpg
Walker's season-long trajectory is even more alarming than Boynton's. The Brooklyn native was a steady source of production for Billy Donovan in a seven-game stretch from Nov. 20 through Dec. 10. In those games, Walker never scored more than 18 points or fewer than 10, and on most nights, he was able to shoot close to 50 percent from the field. However, in the past month, Walker's shooting percentage has plummeted.
Hitting just 14 of 54 shots in his last five contests, the slumping sophomore is barely exceeding 25 percent from the field. As is the case for everyone who will be wearing blue jerseys at Memorial Gym tomorrow, Walker needs a fresh tank of confidence… and a renewed shooting stroke… as SEC action begins.
Ray Shipman – a tweener wing player – gets about 15 minutes for a Florida team that distributes the bulk of its playing time to seven performers. However, Shipman's numbers (3.7 points and 2.3 rebounds per game) aren't terribly imposing. There's only one man whom VU really has to watch when a substitution steps onto the floor, and that's the aforementioned Mr. Parsons, the fortune-kissed hero of the Gators' great escape at N.C. State.
Parsons – as Vandy fans know all too well – needs to be a marked man, literally and figuratively, on Saturday. The 6-9, 215-pound junior forward is the man who shot down the Dores last January at Memorial Gym. By hitting 7 of 8 3-pointers and going 10 of 11 from the field, Parsons led a long-distance shooting barrage that led to a 94-69 Gator blowout of a bewildered VU defense.
Keys to the Game
1) Punch Florida in the mouth. The Gators are steadily trending downward, and avoided a loss in their most recent game only because they – and Chandler Parsons in particular – defied the odds. If A.J. Ogilvy brings his lunch pail to the gym, and the rest of the Dores – given confidence by their improving lock-down defense against impotent non-conference opposition – can fly across the court with a maximum of effort and elbow grease, the verdict here is that Florida will get worn down. Vandy needs to win this game within 10 feet of the basket, owning the glass and punishing UF in post-up situations. A strong, muscular effort from his post players should give Kevin Stallings a crucial victory in the SEC opener.
2) Communicate on defense. Last year, Chandler Parsons and the rest of the Gators continually evaded VU's clutches, as a younger and less intelligent Commodore crew did not talk on defense, something every basketball player must learn to do.
Florida likes to shoot the three, but Vandy gave the Gators too many open threes last season, the kinds of threes that actually make sense for an offense. Good threes come off dribble penetration and ball movement, and are shot after a catch. Bad threes generally emerge from a lack of passing, and are normally attempted by a player who holds or dribbles the ball, only to then launch a shot in the face of good defense.
Stallings has to emphasize the importance of communicating on defense. If VU executes its defensive rotations and gets back in transition, the Gators won't get the wide-open shots or the cheap baskets they received in abundance last season, when UF averaged 88 points in two wins over the Dores. Given the way Florida is playing, a lack of easy scores for the Gators should translate into a Vanderbilt victory.
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