After a long hiatus that followed Florida’s December 12th game against Florida State the Gators are finally slated to make their return to the court on Wednesday, December 30th against the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Playing after such a long layoff could definitely present some challenges for the Gators, as even though they have been off from games after cancelling a handful of contests against mid and low major competition, it wasn’t like they were practicing or preparing much for SEC play. The Gators only got back on the court to practice together last week, which could very well be enough time for them to shake the rust off, but there is definitely a chance they come out struggling given that there is no way to simulate game action until there is a real tip off in a sanctioned game.
Adding a level of difficulty is the fact the Gators will be on the road at famed Memorial Gymnasium, one of the most bizarre buildings in college basketball. The dimly lit theatre style atmosphere and benches on the end of the court make it a truly unique experience, and one that could make things even more difficult for the Gators to get their feet underneath them. In the past Memorial Gym has been a house of horrors for the Gators, though in recent seasons Florida has been able to change that reputation and gather a few wins there. However, much is that could be chalked up to the fact Vanderbilt only has three SEC wins in the last two years, a major departure from the teams featuring players like Luke Kornet and Matthew Fisher-Davis who gave them so much trouble.
Of course, the Gators will also be without Keyontae Johnson who continues to recover from the incident that happened against Florida State. On Monday Mike White spoke to the media and said Johnson was helping him coach on the sidelines at practice and he is walking and talking fine, so that is a cause for celebration.
There is no talk of him returning to the court, and White also added even if he did know any rough timeline he wouldn’t be able to share it due to privacy rules.
Even without their leader the Gators are a talented team that will be looking to get things on track against Vanderbilt. The Commodores are in year two of the Jerry Stackhouse era and while they look to be coming together more than teams of the past two seasons, those years saw them go 9-23 and 11-21, so there is plenty of rebuilding still to be done.
So far Vanderbilt has looked just like a rebuilding team going 4-2, a number that doesn’t look too bad but doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. Their four wins have come against Alcorn State, Mississippi Valley State, Radford, and Valparaiso, and while Valpairo is a decent mid-major team the other three wins are against teams all ranked in the 300s of most metrics that rank college basketball teams analytically. Their two losses have come against Davidson and Richmond which aren’t awful losses as both of them are stellar programs, but neither game was even close. Going into the season the Commodores were expected to be one of the worst high major basketball teams, and so far they have looked the part.
While there are problems on both sides of the ball their biggest issue is definitely their defense as they have struggled to get stops in most of their games, ultimately leading to both lopsided loses to Richmond and Davidson. Vanderbilt plays almost exclusively man to man defense which requires players to play responsible individual perimeter defense, though they lack the athletes and size to do that at a high level. Scotty Pippen (the son of Scottie Pippen, who inexplicably spells his name “Scotty” instead of “Scottie” like his dad) is a bright young player but it only 6’1”, and he’s often joined in the backcourt by 5’11” Trey Thomas and 6’2” Maxwell Evans. Their small forward position hasn’t been dominated by any one player and multiple guys seem to be auditioning for the role but most often so far has been 6’4” Tyrin Lawrence who isn’t massive and is just a freshman.
Making up for their lack of size on the perimeter, Stackhouse will often play two players that would be considered centers at once in 6’9” Dylan Disu and 6’11” Quentin Millora-Brown. While that size sometimes helps when going against post up players or in the contested rebounding department that much size on the floor at once can make Vanderbilt vulnerable to getting strung out and spaced out on the perimeter. Disu is a sophomore who is still learning the game and Millora-Brown is a transfer who only played a single season at Rice before coming over so he’s not awfully experienced either.
This is a game where the Gators should be able to put up some points and hopefully find their offensive rhythm with what will be a different looking lineup. Knowing that Vanderbilt plays almost exclusively man to man defense will allow them to prepare easily and know what to run going into the game which could certainly ease the pressure of coming back to basketball after a long layoff.
Offensively Vanderbilt has been adequate, and what jumps out immediately is the way that they share the basketball. 49% of their buckets are assisted, one of the highest numbers in the country (only 34% of Florida’s baskets have been assisted this year, as a point of reference). This type of unselfishness from a team so young is encouraging for them to see and it allows them to get the most out of their pieces. This year’s Vanderbilt team, like many of the Vanderbilt teams before them, doesn’t have loads of high-end talent. For them to be successful they need to move the basketball and find cracks in their opponent’s defense and they’re willing to be patient and move the ball waiting to find an opportunity to pounce on.
While they share the ball a great amount it’s no secret who their offensive leader is:
He’s been filling it up so far to start the season averaging 23.3 points and 4.3 assists while shooting 44% from the three-point line. Vanderbilt only has one other double digit scorer (Dylan Disu with 11 per game, mostly from dump off passes) which further contextualizes just how important Pippen is to their offense.
Pippen is an electric scorer who has great burst to get by defenders. His 44% three-point stroke has definitely helped open up his drives due to defenders wanting to crowd him but even if they step off to try to eliminate the drive he still has the ability to get by them. Despite standing only 6’1” he’s a great finisher on the inside who has the creativity to problem solve in the air when facing a shot blocker and the strength to take the contact and still make the play.
For Florida, the game could be as simple as stopping Pippen. Vanderbilt doesn’t have another perimeter threat they need to be particularly afraid of and loading up against Pippen and forcing other players to beat them could easily be the move. Next to Pippen, Vanderbilt’s best shooting guard is likely Trey Thomas and he’s only hit 33% of his threes (7-21) up until this point.
The Gators have had some good moments defensively this season as well as some rough ones and this game will be a decent chance at gauging where they’re at a little bit better. Vanderbilt isn’t particularly potent offensively but they run some good sets and know how to feature their best scorer in Scotty Pippen and how the Gators choose to guard him will be one of the stories of the game. Tre Mann will have a big length advantage on him, as would Scottie Lewis if the Gators choose to go Scottie-on-Scotty. Noah Locke might also want a chance to lock him down and he would provide a bit more bulk on Pippen’s physical drives.
One of the biggest questions from the Florida side will be who takes over the power forward spot vacated by Keyontae Johnson. Louisiana Tech transfer Anthony Duruji is probably the best bet to get the first chance to do so, though he has had a rough start to the season. He’s 2-12 from the floor and 1-4 from the free throw line, and many of his shot attempts have looked clunky and quite frankly, ugly. Duruji brings some of the athleticism that Johnson brought but with a bit more length and if he starts to settle down offensively he could have all the minutes he wants at that position.
Junior college transfer Osayi Osifo will also try to grab the position, and he’ll do it by playing a bit more of a traditional power forward role. He’s not someone who is going to shoot threes or due too much offensively but brings energy and physicality to the position, something the Gators might be looking for.
A layoff of over two weeks is bizarre, any way you look at it. Knowing how the Gators will play is impossible, and there will be a lot of questions to answer when they take the floor. Luckily for them, they get to start with Vanderbilt. Starting the SEC season against a team like Tennessee, or LSU, or even 1-6 Kentucky (had to include that) might have been a recipe for disaster after such a long break and they get a bit lucky with an opening game against the rebuilding Commodores.
This should be a fascinating contest and one you won’t want to miss.