Revenge might not be the first thing on the minds of returning Gators on Saturday when they welcome Vanderbilt to the O’Dome, but it’s hard to forget how much trouble the Commodores caused Florida last season. Despite being only a 19-16 team that lost it’s first game in the NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt handed the Gators a third of the team’s 9 losses with wins at home, on the road, and on a neutral site at the SEC Tournament, beating down the Gators in every possible venue. Revenge for some of those losses would be fun, but the real stakes here are the chance for two teams who both feel they underperformed in the non-conference schedule to open SEC play with a win. Considering Florida’s issues with the Commodores last season, I think it’s really important to take a look at what to expect from a roster that returned multiple key pieces. Here is the scouting report.
Season to Date
Okay Gators fans, if you thought Florida had a disappointing non-conference schedule then take a look at Vanderbilt’s record. Sitting at 5-7, Vanderbilt is yet to have a quality win with their best victory coming over UNC Asheville in a game they only squeaked out 79-76. Though they’ve played a tough schedule with plenty of opportunities for good wins, they’ve fallen short against every quality opponent. Belmont, USC, Virginia, Seton Hall, Kansas State, Middle Tennessee, and Arizona State were all victorious over the Commodores, and though that is a hefty number of teams none of them are that bad of losses, the worst of them being Belmont who is currently 91st in KenPom (Loyola-Chicago is 97th, for reference). That makes the Commodores a tough team to predict as they have definitely been battle tested against good competition, but the sting of never closing against a good team haunts them. KenPom has Vanderbilt as the highest rated team with a losing record at 68th, indicating that this is still a really good team that could be in the mix for the NCAA Tournament. Watch for this being a bit of a trap game for the Gators as the Commodores are certainly better then their putrid record suggests.
Embarking on his 7th season as a head coach and 3rd season with Vanderbilt, Bryce Drew has always been consistent with the way he coaches his teams offensively. Playing extremely slow he limits the total number of possessions in the game, doesn’t turn the ball over, and loves to get the ball into the hands of his big men to orchestrate. This style lead to some incredible upset victories while he was at Valparaiso and has allowed his teams to go 5-0 against Mike White’s Florida squads, seriously frustrating the Gator’s coaching staff. Exactly how slow does Vanderbilt play? At 18.8 seconds per possession they are the 320th slowest offensive team in the country and altogether they are 272nd in adjusted tempo. What exactly are they trying to do with this slow-burn offense? Mostly get the ball into the hands of senior forward Jeff Roberson who is currently leading his team in points and rebounds with 14.4 and 8.3. Not particularly imposing at 6’6” and 220, he relies on a seasoned post game and a smooth release to take good shots when they’re available and kick the ball out to the perimeter when they’re not. Time and space down low has become less available recently for Roberson as teams have discovered the Commodores have struggled to shoot from the perimeter, a stark difference from the team that torched the Gators from deep last season. At 31.9% on long balls Vanderbilt is 281st in the country in 3-point percentage and they only have 3 players (Jeff Roberson, Matthew Fisher-Davis, and Riley LaChance) with double-digit 3-point makes. Roberson (41.7%) and LaChance (44.1%) have been efficient from beyond the arc while Fisher-Davis has been more reliant on sheer volume (only 31.6% but with 25 3-point makes), but the senior guard has proven in the past he is more then capable of filling it up from deep so he’ll still be a player to watch. The slow-it-down style of play from Vanderbilt means that they are extremely reliant on jump shots (31.9% of their possessions end in a spot up jumper, much higher then the average team) and their struggles with those shots has made them prone to getting zoned up by opposing teams. The Gators have played just enough zone defense to keep it in the minds of opposing teams and Vanderbilt is definitely one of the teams I think they’ll try some different defensive looks against. If Florida can stay strong in their zone formation while still keying in shooters like LaChance and Fisher-Davis (though his percentages are lackluster I still respect his flammability), this could be an excellent defensive look. Whatever the Gators decide to do they need to keep their feet moving and not play with their hands as Vanderbilt gets nearly of a quarter of their points (24.4%) at the free throw line, making them the 7th most reliant team on free throws in the country. Often times teams bail out Vanderbilt with a foul late in the shot clock since many teams can’t play focused defense for a full 30-second shot clock, and the Gators certainly don’t want to do that. If the clock does run down and the Gators can force the Commodores to put up a shot instead of fouling them then Florida should have great success as Vanderbilt shoots 20.4% in short clock situations, situations that happen often due to the slow pace they play at.
Bryce Drew has been a model of consistency through the years which gives you a level of familiarity with his defensive schemes. Vanderbilt is an all-around solid defensive team without any glaring holes, playing very safe defense that revolves around protecting the hoop and allowing some ball movement around the perimeter in order to not get back cut or allow anything easy at the rim. That was made easier last year with an elite rim protector in Luke Kornet, so they have adjusted slightly while still keeping many of the same principles. One thing that is immediately apparent about the Commodores defense is that they don’t gamble. Their guards don’t let a ball handler get a step so they can reach around and try to poke the ball out, the wings don’t shoot passing lanes trying to get a pick-6 layup, and the bigs don’t try to trap in the corner to try and force an ill-advised pass. This style means that they don’t get many steals and deflections, making them 315th in the country in turnover percentage at 16.1% and 249th in steal percentage at 7.8%. Teams don’t need to force turnovers to be good defensively but not pressuring for steals can make the offense comfortable on that end of the floor and hopefully the Gators’ perimeter players can get into a groove knowing that their won’t be as much pressure on the outside. Though they give up some space on the outside in order to lock down the paint Vanderbilt has actually been excellent at defending the 3-point line only allowed 30.4% from their opposition. Jeff Roberson and Matthew Fisher-Davis have both been particularly good at defending the 3-point line using intelligent anticipation to read the offense and predict when a player is loading up to shoot, only then fully committing to closing out with a high hand. The 3-point shot has been the number one topic of discussion for Gators fans as the effectiveness of this shot has massive effects on the team’s success, so seeing whether they can knock down shots at home against a good 3-point defense will be a major storyline. Another standard of Bryce Drew teams is how they defend pick-and-rolls. Often times when defending an on-ball screen, Drew has the player defending the ball handler chase him overtop of the screen as to not allow a pull up jumper. At the same time, he has his post player who was defending the screen setter fall back towards the paint, getting his hands up high and walling off the paint. As the defender of the ball hander runs overtop of the screen and recovers and the post defender falls back to take away the paint, it leaves a midrange jumper open for a split second. Many players don’t want to take this midrange jumper off of dribble penetration, but it is the only good shot available. If the ball handler hesitates for a moment then it allows his defender to recover, and the defense is successful. Expect Florida to be prepared for this and watch to see what they do with screen-and-roll offense.
Someone is going to have to knock down shots to break down this Vanderbilt defense and I’m looking at Egor Koulechov to come back from the Christmas break refreshed and ready to get back to the shooting form he had at the start of the season. I think his shot selection has been poor, and hopefully a look at film will help him see what shots are good for him to take and which he should pass up. Rhythm is so important to shooters, and taking a bad shot that bricks off the backboard can be detrimental to confidence while a good shot with feet set perfectly can give a player the believe that the next shot is going in.
With conference play starting every game is now an extremely important matchup for the Gators. Make sure to keep it locked to Gator Country before every game where you can be sure I’ll have a scouting report posted to set you up for each of these amazing games.
What are you expecting when the Gators match up with the Commodores? Leave a comment here or post on the Gator Country forums.