The Defense Rests, Gators Pay Price

The Florida Gators are 20-and-0 when they hold opponents below 70 points, showing the impact quality defense has had on Gator opponents. Heading into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt, no Gator opponent had scored 80 points in regulation time since both Alabama and Arkansas pulled it off during Florida’s three-game losing streak late last season.

It’s not a coincidence that the Gators were 35-and-2 in the games since the Crimson Tide posted an 82-77 win on February 26th.

Saturday, the Florida defense was nowhere to be found as Vanderbilt knocked down almost half their three pointers and just under 60 percent from the field. The Commodores got great play from their two outstanding wing players Derrick Byars and Shan Foster who each scored 24. Only Al Thornton of FSU had scored that many on the Gators all season.

I thought the key point of the game came at around the 14-minute mark of the second half. Al Horford made two free throws to get Florida within six (40-46) but Vandy answered with a three-point play. Taurean Green hit a three and Foster responded right away. After Corey Brewer knocked down another long range shot to make it 46-52) Vanderbilt got a three-point play from Ted Skuchas. That’s three consecutive possessions in which the Commodores scored three points to thwart potential Gator runs. The Gators never got within six again.

Is 17 the new 13?

With apologies to all the triskaidekaphobiacs out there, the number 13 is no concern for the Gators. Florida has cruised through its last several 13-game streaks be they overall, SEC or O’Connell Center based. Shoot, Joakim Noah wears the number 13. The number “17” however is starting to gain a reputation. The loss in Nashville ended Florida’s third 17-game win streak in the past three years. The first ended in Knoxville when the Vols scored 80 in a four-point victory. The second streak came to a close in Las Vegas where Kansas led most of the way before posting an 82-80 overtime win. Now the third run of 17 straight wins is also over with. And again, it involved a team lighting up the scoreboard. Oh yeah, Charley Ward wore # 17.

Turnovers Almost as Responsible

The second biggest area of trouble had to be in taking care of the basketball. Florida turned it over a ridiculous 22 times, which is a season high (or low depending on your perspective). That’s against no pressure at all. Brewer led the way with six and Green added five as Florida played giveaway throughout the afternoon. Turnovers are inevitable when you play as fast as the Gators do, but giving it up 22 times on the road is a recipe for disaster.

Moving on Will be Easy

In the grand scheme of things the loss to Vanderbilt is not going to have any long term affect on this team. Florida still leads the SEC race by three games with four to play and can clinch at least a share of the league title with a win against South Carolina Wednesday night. Florida will likely remain atop the polls, though even a drop of a place or two would be unimportant. Florida is still on target to be a # 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, provided they bounce back quickly and decisively.

I don’t buy into the notion that it’s good to lose, especially for a veteran team that went through a similar learning process last year. However, one thing this game will do is deliver a message to the Gators about their defensive intensity. Florida has won just one game when an opponent has scored more than 80 points since defeating Miami in double overtime 94-93 on December 21st, 2002. Since then eleven Gator opponents have scored more than 80 and only Northeastern came up short.

The Gators also found out that they can’t continue to come back again and again. Rallies past Vandy, Georgia and Alabama in recent weeks may have created a false sense of inevitability when it comes to pulling out games.

Those lessons will be drummed home big time over the next few days. If those lessons are learned, the Gators will be back on track and hoisting another SEC Trophy in a matter of days.