Conference play is finally here, VSLNation, and Vanderbilt is starting out with a doozy of any opponent as the 10-3 Gators come to Memorial Saturday morning. The game, available across the country on ESPN2, is a very important game with both teams, especially in light of the tumult on Rocky Top. There is every reason to believe that Florida and Vanderbilt will be competing for second in the SEC East, and looking for a shot to unseat the prohibitive favorite Wildcats of Kentucky. Given this is a home-game, the pressure is certainly on the Commodores to hold serve to open conference play. Still, that won't be easy.
The Gators have won 6 of their last 9 games at Memorial, and won 9 straight SEC openers. Last year's game in Memorial was one of the worst for the Commodores, losing 94-69 in a game that was never competitive. In that game, seen across America on CBS, was a complete beat-down. The Gators were 15-25 from three-point land, led by 6'9 junior Chandler Parsons, who lit up the Commodores for 27 points, including 7-8 from downtown. Against quality opponents (except for Arizona), Vanderbilt has had difficulty defending the perimeter. That has certainly improved as of late (completely styming Mercer's dynamic shooting duo comes to mind). However, if Florida gets hot like they did last year, it could be a long afternoon.
The Gators enter Saturday's game with 5 players averaging in double figures. Freshman guard Kenny Boyton leads a very balanced scoring attack for Billy Donovan's Gators. Averaging 13.6 points and 3.4 assists, Boyton has been an impact player in a very dynamic back-court. The other guard, sophomore Erving Walker is averaging 10.7 points and 4.9 assists a contest. Walker stands at only 5'8, but has been integral in the backcourt. Entering SEC play, this backcourt has an incredible 117 assists, compared to 52 turnovers (2.25:1 A:TO ratio).
The front court of the Gators sees more balanced scoring, with 6'10 junior Vernon Macklin averaging 10.6 points and 5.8 rebounds a game, with 6'8 junior forward Alex Tyus pouring in 11.7 points and 6.9 boards a game. Rounding out the starting line-up is 6'8 senior Dan Werner, who is good for 6.3 and 4.5 a game. For me, the key to the game will be containing Parsons off the bench, and limiting Macklin's ability to score inside. Florida is 8-1 this year when he scores in double figures.
The 2-headed monster of A.J. Ogilvy and Festus Ezeli has proved a great combination as of late. But that was against decidedly weaker and under-sized opponents. Vanderbilt would be well served by starting out the game committing to their inside game and either a) scoring points, b) getting the Gator front-court into foul trouble, or c) opening up their perimeter shooters.
The Gators are not a particularly deep team. In fact, only 7 players are averaging double-digit minutes. This fact makes it that much more important for Vanderbilt to try and pound the ball inside early and force the Gators into utilizing a bench that is pretty untested. The question to me is how with Coach Kevin Stallings seek to exploit Florida's lack of depth? Will they try and pound the ball inside as I've suggested? Or, will Vanderbilt try and rely on a press that has been porous at times, to try and tire out the Gators? Seth Davis thinks Vanderbilt's press is ill-suited for the personnel. We disagree that it's a personnel issue, but would concede that it hasn't always been effectively run. Florida takes care of the basketball, and Vanderbilt doesn't want to give the Gators a chance to score easy buckets or find the open man to bury 3's like last year. Still, CKS is undoubtedly trying to come up with a game plan that exploits the Gators' seeming lack of depth.
Florida's defense as of late should worry Commodore fans. In their last 3, the Gators have forced 55 turnovers, while allowing only 57 field goals. That's a ridiculous stat. Granted, the Gators last 3 opponents have been American, Presbyterian, and N.C. State. N.C. State isn't bad, but they are not great (it's also worth noting that the Gators lose that game is Parsons doesn't hit a miracle 70 footer at the buzzer). American and Presbyterian, on the other hand, are bad...very bad. So bad, in fact, that these teams are a combined 5-26.
When you look at the Game Notes for Florida and Vanderbilt, and look at the team stats side-by-side, the teams are pretty evenly matched. Of all the stats, the one that sticks out to me is that, for the season, Florida is shooting just 29.3% from downtown. Vanderbilt has to work hard to make sure this isn't the game where the Gators find their stroke.
Looking at the Commodores, there is reason to think this team is on the up-tick. Winners of 5 straight, Vanderbilt has held opponents to 55.4 points a game on 31.7% shooting over this streak. Admittedly, Vanderbilt hasn't played great opponents, but they are certainly as impressive (if not more so) than Florida's last 3. The Commodores have (the potential to have) a very balanced scoring attack. With 4 players averaging in double figures (Taylor, Beal, A.J. and The Future) who all score in different ways, Vanderbilt can score points in a lot of different ways. In addition, Vanderbilt is deep...very deep...maybe too deep. Heading in the Florida game, 10 players were averaging double-digit minutes. That number is sure to shrink with the rotation in SEC play likely to go no more than 8 or 9 deep. This is, as far as playing time goes, a "separation game," and we should hopefully get an idea of what Kevin thinks his rotation should look like going forward.
Vanderbilt has to rebound the ball better than they have. Florida has a +3.2 rebounding advantage over opponents, compared to +2.1 for the Commodores. Controlling (i.e. omitting) for the Cincy game, Vanderbilt's average is actually +3.9, which means the teams are evenly matched. Still, historically, Florida teams have punched the Commodores in the mouth early and just out-physicaled them. That cannot happen. Unfortunately, Memorial probably won't be as hostile as it will be for other SEC games because classes don't start back until Monday, and it's doubtful that that many people (save the ladies participating in sorority rush who have "better" things to do) will be back on campus. Tickets are available for the game at a reduced price and we would certainly encourage anyone our there reading this to battle the cold and make the trek to Memorial. If you're smart, you'll come early and pre-game at Rotier's...I know I will.
This is a game that should tell us a lot about this Commodore team going forward. They have a difficult, but manageable schedule to start SEC play (vs. Florida, at Bama, at South Carolina, vs. Auburn) before taking on a Tennessee team that will probably have some of their suspended players back on January 27th. Beating Florida will set the tone for what Commodore fans will hope is a successful season.
Stanimal will be hosting a live-blog, and I will be tweeting from the game (and hopefully into the live-blog itself).