Tuesday, coach Kevin Stallings will bring his team to Gainesville, Fla., to take on a Florida Gator group that will be playing for its NCAA life. The Gators – once on the good side of the bubble – are now sitting squarely on the fence after slipping on the banana peel at Georgia on Saturday. Florida needs this game so much more than Vandy does, but that's precisely why the Dores need to dig in their heels. This season has ceased to be meaningful within the provincial confines of the SEC. Each and every league game is still important, but only because of its national implications.
The long SEC conference schedule is down to its final week. The light at the end of that tunnel is certainly brighter for all who have a stake in the success of the Vanderbilt men's basketball team. Hopes were not high when the conference season rolled around – not after a non-conference stretch that featured neutral-court losses against Cincinnati and Western Kentucky plus a road loss at Illinois. Aside from the November win at Saint Mary's and the December triumph over tourney-bound Missouri, VU did little to impress the NCAA selection committee.
Conference games have authored a decidedly different narrative. Two months of SEC action have elevated Vanderbilt's stature close to the level of the nation's elite. A sweep of Tennessee; quality wins over Florida, Mississippi State, and Mississippi; and a down-to-the-wire thriller against Kentucky have all put the Dores in position for a quality March Madness seed.
If only Vanderbilt could replay the second half of the first Georgia game (on Feb. 6), it would be sitting in a tie for first place with Kentucky (with the Cats obviously holding the tiebreaker). However, there's no point in looking back and engaging in wishful thinking when there is so much to look forward to.
Barring a collapse and a subsequent Florida win at Kentucky, VU should claim second place outright in the SEC, which would be accompanied by the No. 2 spot in the SEC East and a first-round bye in the SEC Tournament. While a conference tournament can never truly be labeled "easy," it is much more convenient to play only three games as opposed to four, especially if your nemesis in Big Blue is on the other side of the bracket.
While tying for the conference championship would be nice for Stallings and his squad, hanging a banner cannot be the prime focus in the two remaining games (though few in Nashville would complain if Florida were to lose to Vandy and then upset Kentucky).
At this point, VU needs to realize that while its SEC seeding is virtually assured, the national picture matters a lot more. If VU can run the table until the SEC Tournament final, the Dores would make a solid case for a 3 seed as long as they lost to Kentucky – and maybe Tennessee – in a competitive championship game. If VU were to lose to anyone other than the Cats or the Vols, the students of Stallings would have to settle for a 4 seed on Selection Sunday evening. If VU were to win the SEC Tourney and finish its SEC season with 10 wins in 11 games, a 3 seed would be – if not a lock – a very likely result.
Coach Billy Donovan's squad looked as though it had moved beyond its inconsistency, off the proverbial bubble, and back into the realm of being considered NCAA-worthy. While most in Gator Nation had turned their eyes away from their basketball team to argue whether Tim Tebow's throwing motion could cut it in the NFL, Florida's hoops team ripped off three victories in a row, including a tough road game at Ole Miss and a 13-point defeat of Tennessee.
Then came the trip to Athens, Georgia.
As Commodore fans are well aware, playing the Bulldogs in their arena is not an easy task this season, and it was not for the Gators, who lost 78-76. Chandler Parsons scored 29 points and Kenny Boynton added 22 points, but Florida could not get over the (two-point) hump in the final five minutes of the game.
Florida finds itself in an interesting position. The Gators have a 20-9 overall record and currently sit in a third-place SEC East tie with Tennessee, at 9-5 in the conference (two games back of Vandy for second). The Gators also have the most difficult final week of the regular season, facing Vanderbilt and then traveling to Kentucky.
Should the Gators win at least one game this week, it stands to reason the NCAA Tournament Committee will come calling. A sweep of the Dores and the Cats and a berth is assured. Two losses, however, would create a three-game losing streak and necessitate a deep run in the SEC Tournament (semis at a minimum) to earn a spot in the field of 65.
Forward/Center – Vernon Macklin – Junior, 6'10", 240; 2009-10: 10.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg
The Georgetown transfer, while not the focal point of the Gators' outside-in offense, has made a definite impact as the main inside presence for Florida. Macklin makes the most of his relatively limited touches at the offensive end of the court. He shoots 61 % from the field and his rebounding has become more consistent as the SEC season has moved into its final week. Macklin was particularly impressive in the Gators' tough road win at Ole Miss. He scored 22 points and hauled in seven rebounds against the Rebels in Florida's three-point win. Vanderbilt fans would like to see Macklin repeat his performance from the SEC opener when the Dores held him to two points and fouled him out with more than five minutes to play.
Forward – Alex Tyus – Junior, 6'8", 220; 2009-10: 11.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg
While Macklin has added to his impact on the Gators, Tyus' contribution has decreased in the past couple of weeks, "low-lighted" by a scoring goose egg against Georgia last Saturday. He was non-existent defensively as well, posting only two rebounds and no blocked shots. When Tyus last faced Vanderbilt, he was in the sixth game of a 13-game string of double-digit scoring outings. He has now failed to hit double figures in his past three games. Tyus finds himself in a tough position: He cannot play on the block since Macklin is anchored there, and he does not have the perimeter skills to be effective outside.
Forward – Chandler Parsons – Junior, 6'9", 215; 2009-10: 12.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, .375 3 PT %
Parsons wasn't in the starting lineup the last time these two programs faced off. Many Vanderbilt fans probably asked why after his 10-of-11 (7 of 8 on 3-pointers) performance against the Commodores last season. Parsons found his way into the starting lineup against LSU when Dan Werner was out with the flu. Considering the way he is playing, Donovan does not have plans to take Parsons out of the starting rotation, and with good reason. Parsons may be heating up at just the wrong time for Vanderbilt. After a 19-point showing on 8-of-12 shooting in the win over the Vols on Feb. 23, Parsons lit up Georgia's zone for 29 points. He made 10 of 16 shots against the Bulldogs, including a stellar 3 of 5 beyond the arc. His length makes him particularly difficult to deal with – it's easy to tell defenders to "get a hand in his face" but not so easy to put into practice when the shooter is 6'9". The aspect of Parsons' game that many are missing is his improved physical play. He's not as much of a finesse guy as you might initially think.
Guard – Kenny Boynton – Freshman, 6'2", 183; 2009-10: 13.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.7 apg
Boynton is typical of highly-rated freshman guards. At times he can be phenomenal as witnessed in the first matchup between the Gators and the Commodores. In that game Boynton scored 28 points, nailed six 3-pointers, and produced a 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. On other occasions he can awful - take the Ole Miss game for instance. The Rebels held him to six points and a woeful 2-of-12 shooting performance that was even worse beyond the arc (0 of 5). To compound matters, Boynton did not even add an assist. It will be interesting to see if Brad Tinsley finds himself matched up Boynton again. While Boynton was having one of his better games back in January, Tinsley's lack of effectiveness on the defensive end affected his own offense and rendered him scoreless.
Guard – Erving Walker – Sophomore, 5'8", 171; 2009-10: 13.0 ppg, 5.0 apg, 3.1 rpg
The point guard battle between Walker and Jermaine Beal was a highlight for fans of both schools during the first go-around in Nashville. Each guard scored 22 points while Walker dropped six assists compared to Beal's five. (Walker also had four turnovers.)
Walker is very similar to his backcourt mate (Boynton) in terms of his inconsistency. His nights of filling up the box score (as he did against Vandy and Tennessee) are matched by the number of games in which he cannot find a rhythm (such as 0 of 6 against Auburn and 2 of 9 at Georgia). Walker struggles in an area not uncommon among young basketball players – settling for a mediocre shot instead of working for the best shot. As a point guard, the responsibility for getting the best shot falls on his shoulders and it is an area in which he has profoundly struggled.
Dan Werner has been getting the bulk of the bench minutes since being replaced by Parsons, but his impact on each of UF's games has greatly diminished. While still playing anywhere from 25-30 minutes a game, his scoring has dropped by over half to just over two points a game. Once thought of as an effective outside shooter, Werner is only 4 of 28 on 3-pointers in SEC play. Clearly his confidence is shaken.
Ray Shipman is a 6'5" swingman who is only getting 10-15 minutes a game but cannot find a role to fill other than taking minutes for guys in foul trouble. He's just not quick enough for the backcourt, too small for the post, and the Parsons/Werner combo fills the "tall-shooter niche" better than he can.
Keys to the Game
1) Do not let the Gator guards get hot. Vandy saw what happened with Parsons last year and it was not a fun game for the Dores or their fans. Florida lost this year but remained competitive at Memorial Gym because Walker and Boynton combined for 50 points. If these three Gator shooters find a good early rhythm on Tuesday night in Gainesville, Vandy could find itself having to battle back on the road, never an easy thing to accomplish. How does Vanderbilt prevent these backcourt bombers from dropping their payload of basketballs on the VU defense? Since Beal and Tinsley possess similar height and Taylor can often guard shorter players, expect to see a lot of switching from the Commodore defense. Do not be surprised either if coach Stallings gets a lead and throws out a zone to that will tempt the Gators to stand and shoot instead of getting better shots.
2) Pound the post. Back on Jan. 9, Ogilvy, Taylor and Andre Walker combined for 46 points as they fouled two Florida post players, including Macklin, out of the game with over five minutes to go. This development virtually eliminated the Gators' post presence. Expect Vanderbilt to not abandon that successful strategy and to go right at Macklin again from the opening tip.