Florida Versus Vanderbilt Preview

With eyes on SEC and NCAA Tournament runs in the near future the Florida Gators (21-9, 11-6 SEC) will have one more regular season game to close things out against the Vanderbilt Commodores (8-21, 3-13 SEC) in Nashville on March 9th. 


As things currently stand the Gators are 26th in the NET rankings after taking a 7-spot leap after the blowout win over Alabama, which also bumped them up a seed line according to Bracket Matrix (a composite of top bracketologists) where they are now a 6-seed. With Vanderbilt coming in at 221st in the NET this isn’t a game that could help the Gators from an NCAA Tournament resume but one that could hurt them greatly with a loss.

In terms of SEC standings this game also won’t have huge implications. As of the morning of Wednesday, March 6th the Gators are in 6th place in the SEC, a half game back of Kentucky who plays, you guessed it, Vanderbilt on the night of March 6–and given that the Wildcats are 20-point favorites to win in the eyes of analytics tool KenPom, a win can probably be assumed. Kentucky will then close out their season against a Tennessee team playing tremendous basketball, but even if they did end up with a record identical to Florida the Wildcats own most of the tiebreaks. Also, with the win against Alabama, the Gators ensured that they couldn’t be caught by Mississippi State or LSU who were behind them–meaning they could finish no lower than 6th. 


This will be Florida and Vanderbilt’s second meeting of the season with the Gators taking game one of the series at home 77-64. Following that game the Commodores got a win over Arkansas before then falling 75-61 to an LSU team who has been improving throughout the season. 


Leading the way for the Gators in this one was Will Richard who had 21 points on 5-9 shooting from three, something he’d love to replicate once again. The normally extremely consistent shooting Richard has turned into somewhat more of a boom-bust threat from deep and while the nights he’s hot are extremely fun, he’d certainly trade them for a run last like season where he might not have had explosive nights, but he was steadily a high-percentage marksman from range.

The Gators also made it a focus to hammer the ball inside, particularly to Tyrese Samuel who had a physical advantage over the smaller Vanderbilt frontline. He had 15 points, but more impressively he did it on 7-9 shooting which speaks to how efficiently he was able to score the ball. Florida just utilized a similar game plan to great success against Alabama and Missouri, so look for Samuel to be featured once again. 


In terms of how Vanderbilt might play, you can look no further than a postgame comment from head coach Jerry Stackhouse:


“We’ve got this team again in a couple of weeks and I think we found out something about them and their lack of handling pressure. So maybe we can incorporate that a little bit more next time.”


Here’s some added context to the situation. With 7:34 remaining in the second half the Gators were up by 22, and in a moment of desperation the Commodores started to press and trap. They were able to generate multiple steals which cut down the deficit making the final score 77-64, a score much closer than the 20+ point blowout it was looking like it was going to be for much of the game. 


On one hand, the Gators have some well-documented turnover issues with a number of their key players, coming in at 281st in the country in opponent steal percentage. However, in the situation against Vanderbilt the game was functionally over and the Gators might not have been particularly focused. Additionally they got some extra minutes for two young guards in Denzel Aberdeen and Kajus Kublickas who combined for 3 of those turnovers. So, if you want to argue that the Gators are vulnerable to pressure and turnovers you’d have a case–but in this particular situation referenced by Coach Stackhouse it could have also been a time, score, and personnel related result. However it came about, you can look for the Commodores to crank up the pressure on the Gators particularly because they don’t have a lot to lose in this situation at the bottom of the SEC standings where they’re essentially locked in as the 13th placed team entering the tournament. 


It also wouldn’t be surprising to see the Commodores throw out some zone. Stackhouse has always been comfortable mixing in zone defenses and the Gators have had a lot of issues recently in that area. In some ways the Gators might even be happy to see the Commodores play a zone as they could use the opportunity to practice it, and following this contest every game matters so it would be the last opportunity to really see improvement before they could run into a frustrating zone in a single elimination tournament. 


Right now the Gators are playing with a ton of confidence as shown against Alabama where the Gators played arguably their best game of the season. It can be difficult to bring the energy in a low leverage game against a team at the bottom of the standings but time and time again we’ve seen the Gators play hard in any situation so it would be a bit surprising to see them play flat. Florida will have a rest advantage having played on Tuesday as opposed to the regular Wednesday slot, but still they could look to try and not ride their starters too hard as they try to make sure everyone is 100% for postseason play. 


Florida and Alabama will tip off at 4:30 ET on March 9th and it will be televised on SEC Network.

Eric Fawcett
Eric is a basketball coach and writer from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His work has been found at NBA international properties, ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @ericfawcett_.