Vanderbilt Game An Opportunity For Gators To Show Improvement

If there is a team you want to be facing to right the ship after a tough stretch, it’s Vanderbilt. When Florida rolls into Nashville they’re going to see a Commodores team that is riding a 27-game SEC losing streak, a slide that dates all the way back to 2018. In their first season under Jerry Stackhouse the team has shown improvement but it’s a team that’s one of the youngest in the country and one that doesn’t have a lot of high level recruits to make up for their lack of experience.

Considering Vanderbilt’s struggles it’s not like a win over them would completely turn around the season for the Gators or give them some of the confidence they’ve been lacking but it’s a starting point and more than that, it would be a heartbreaking loss they simply have to avoid.

Memorial Gym has been a house of horrors for the Gators in the last decade but they’ll try to get through it unscathed this time around. Here is everything you need to know before Saturday’s game.

Bad Luck

Putting together some good performances in the non-conference portion of the season it was looking like things were looking up for the Commodores and with every game it seemed their new group of players was gelling and improving.

Then disaster struck in the form of some extremely unfortunate injuries.

First, it was their star player Aaron Nesmith. The 6’6” wing was putting together a spectacular season offensively, scoring 23 points a game in Vanderbilt’s first 14 contests despite the fact he was unquestionably the number one scoring option the opposing team had all their focus on. Not only was he filling it up against heavy defensive pressure but he was doing it efficiently on 51% shooting from the field and a remarkable 52% from three. If he continued to play Vanderbilt’s SEC losing streak would have almost certainly ended early this season, but the loss of a 23 point per game scorer is particularly devastating for a team that lacks a lot of high-end talent.

Next, it was Clevon Brown, the only senior on the roster who held things together defensively and on the glass. He was an elite glue guy, a valuable role player who played within himself and did the dirty work. Now missing the elite scorer as well as the heart and soul, Vanderbilt was left in a bad spot which has resulted in an 8 game losing streak with their last win coming on December 30.

Biggest Problem

Athleticism isn’t everything when it comes to defense but when you don’t have a lot of it it’s going to be tough for you to regularly get stops, particularly in the SEC. That’s the biggest problem with Vanderbilt right now, especially losing two great defensive players in Aaron Nesmith and Clevon Brown to injury. Not only were those two good defenders but they were good defenders with solid size at their positions, something the Commodores now lack. They often play three guards 6’2” or under at the same time, something the Gators could look to exploit. Getting Andrew Nembhard the ball on the block for some post ups against a smaller guard could be in the cards, and if Florida can get Keyontae Johnson out there guarded by a much smaller player he’d be able to power his way to the rim on drives.

Perimeter defense has been the big problem as Vanderbilt has hemorrhaged points and watching them play you’ll see them give up drive after drive and it becomes impossible for them to continue to help and recover multiple times before their opponent gets an open shot. One stat that points to just how poor Vanderbilt’s defense has been is the fact they are 19th in the country in opponent possession length. This number is so damaging because it shows that opposing teams are getting good looks so early in the clock.

Florida’s offense has been good in the second half of this season and if they continue to move the ball well side to side they should have success against one of the worst defensive teams they’ll see this year.

Time To Improve

One of Florida’s issues that has plagued them throughout the last few seasons has been defensive rebounding and their inability at times to secure boards has severely hurt them. Luckily, they’ll now see a Vanderbilt team that is one of the worst rebounding teams in the high major ranks. Ranked 224th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage and 258th in defensive rebounding percentage the Commodores have been pounded on the glass this year and this is a game where Florida has to impose their will and start to improve when it comes to rebounding. Clevon Brown was their best rebounder who used his strong base to carve out room under the glass and losing him has devastated their rebounding. Often times Vanderbilt simply won’t send players to the offensive glass knowing they likely aren’t going to come up with the ball and they have one decent defensive rebounding in freshman Dylan Disu but looking up and down the rosters the rebounding battle should definitely be in Florida’s favor.

Player To Watch

Leading the way offensively for Vanderbilt now that Aaron Nesmith is out is point guard Saban Lee, a junior who you are probably familiar with as he has been a key part of Vanderbilt’s rotation these last two and a half seasons. At 6’2” and 180 pounds he looks like a prototypical point guard and in a lot of ways he is one. Not flashy or a big risk taker he plays smart basketball and plays within himself, making the right reads and taking the right shots. Currently averaged 16.2 points and 4.6 assists he’s putting together a really nice season considering he doesn’t have a lot of help around him and if not for a major 3-point shooting drought that he’s going through he’d probably have more points. Lee can also be impactful on the defensive end with his ability to get steals and if Florida’s ball handlers aren’t careful he’s someone who will use savvy timing to poke away the ball. Not a great perimeter defender he is someone that Florida can attack, and they’d be wise to try to get him in foul trouble since he’s so important to what they do offensively.

Matchup Outlook

Vanderbilt is a rebuilding basketball team who is missing a star player and everything points to the matchup being in Florida’s favor but it’s worth noting that the Commodores in their last game were up by 10 at the half against Kentucky and if the Gators sleepwalk they could find themselves in trouble. Vanderbilt may not be the most talented roster right now but they play hard and will be desperate to end their losing streak and playing at home in a building the Gators have struggled in historically could make for an interesting game. If Florida does win you’ve got to hope they do it in convincing fashion in a game where they defend and play well. Due to Vanderbilt’s depleted roster there is definitely a chance the Gators could just win due to the gap in talent and athleticism but a win where they don’t play well wouldn’t be satisfying. Florida has needed to tighten up their defense and shore up their rebounding and Vanderbilt is the right opponent to start to try some new things and try to improve.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on 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 @Efawcett7.