Tuesday, February 1, 2011

VSL Gets You Ready: Vanderbilt travels to Gainesville to take on the Gators

When the season started, this is a game Commodore fans circled. 6 games into the SEC season, it turns out this game is just as important as we thought it would be in September.

Vanderbilt (15-5, 3-3), travels to Gainesville to take on the SEC East leading Gators of Florida (16-5, 5-2) struggling to find consistency. After gritting out a tough road win in Starkville Thursday night, the Commodores were bested by an Arkansas team that played their best game of the season, beating Vanderbilt in Memorial 89-78. Not surprisingly, VSLNation exploded after the loss, lamenting the Commodores lack of consistency and calling into question our security as a tournament team. While the lack of consistency is troubling, fears that the Commodores won't be dancing in March are, at this time, wildly premature. Still, with 10 games left in conference play, if Vanderbilt is going to make a play for the SEC crown, one has to think that charge will have to begin tonight in the O'Connell Center.

Scouting the Gators

Sitting atop the SEC East at 5-2 (1/2 game up on Kentucky and Tennessee), the Gators have a chance to solidify themselves as the front-runners for the division heading into their final 8 conference games with a win tonight. The Gators are unranked by the AP, but 23rd in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll (Vanderbilt is ranked 23rd by the AP, 24th by the Coaches), and their RPI is 20 (as compared to 26th for the Commodores). Against common SEC opponents, the Gators are 4-2, with noteworthy wins at Georgia and Tennessee. The Gators were not spared in the SEC East's bloodbath at the hands of the West Saturday, losing to Mississippi State at The Hump 71-64. Coming off of losses this season, the Gators (and the Commodores for that matter) are 4-0. After tonight's game, that will no longer be true for one of these teams.

Florida's Back Court

Billy Donovan's 2 diminutive guards can both play. Erving Walker (5'8, Jr.) is the team's floor general and leading scorer. Averaging 15.4 points and 3.7 assists a game during conference play, Walker has been instrumental in Florida's quick start out of the SEC gate. Last season against the Commodores, Walker poured in 22 in Nashville, hitting 5-8 from downtown and 7-8 from the free throw line. At home, however, Walker was held almost completely in check, netting just 5 points on 1-9 shooting. Walker is one of the quickest guards in the conference, and if Brad has trouble staying with him, it might force Stalling either to a) fall back into a zone, or b) employ Kyle Fuller more than we're used to seeing.

Florida's other guard, Kenny Boyton (6'2, So.) is another guy who can hurt the Commodores. Averaging 14.3 points, and just over 2 assists in conference play, Boyton has attempted 1/2 of his shots from behind the arc (where he is connecting 34% of the time. Boyton is another quick guard who can potentially give his man (John Jenkins) headaches on defense. Where Boyton and Walker are most dangerous is from deep. On the season, Billy Donovan's starting guards have hit 84 of the Gators' 122 3-pointers. Clearly, the Commodores will have to do everything they can to prevent these two from getting good looks from long range. Like Walker, Boyton played great against the Commodores in Nashville (scoring 28), but struggled in Gainesville (7 points, 2-15 shooting). The Commodores certainly wouldn't mind a repeat of last year's home performances from either guard.

Florida's Front Court

The Gators front line boasts 3 players all capable of having big games. Billy Donovan's 3 seniors are athletic, have size, and the potential to create match-up difficulties for the Commodores. The Gator man in the middle is Vernon Macklin, a 6'10 red-shirt senior who is averaging 13 points and just under 7 rebounds a game in conference play. Macklin was pretty much the Gators' sole source of offense last season in Gainesville against the Commodores, dropping 21 points and grabbing 9 boards in the Gators 64-60 loss. He is not a good free throw shooter (connecting on just 40% of his FTA overall, and only 37.5% in conference play), but is adept around the basket. With Stevie Thunder still hobbled, Festus staying out of foul trouble will be critical for the Commodores.

Next is Chandler Parsons, a 6'9 forward averaging 11 points and 8.6 rebounds a game in conference play. Parsons can hurt you from everywhere on the court, and is currently the Gators most accurate 3 point shooter, netting 46.5% of his attempts on the year. When Parsons is in the flow of the offensive, the Gators can be a dangerous offensive team. In fact, this season, Florida is 5-1 when Parsons attempts 10 or more shots. Last year, the Commodores effectively shut down Parsons, allowing him to score just 11 points and 11 boards in 2 games, with most of the damage coming in Nashville early in the season. Still, this is not a guy the Commodores want to lose track of. Lance Goulbourne is likely to D up against Parsons in a match-up likely to determine which team wins the battle of the boards.

Rounding out the Gator starting 5 is Alex Tyus, a 6'8 senior who's season average in points per game hovers right around 9. The least potent offensive threat Donovan starts, Tyus is still capable of having a big game. Among Gator starters, Tyus averages the fewest minutes, 25. I suspect Jeffery Taylor will be matched-up with Tyus to start the game, although that could certainly change if one of the guards gets hot.

Florida's Bench

The Gators aren't a deep team. In fact, only 2 players average double-digit minutes coming off the bench. Patric Young, a 6'9, 245 lbs. freshman is the Gators first player off the bench, and averaging over 20 minutes a game in conference play. Young is pulling down 4.6 rebounds, and putting in 4.6 points a contest in the SEC. The other real contributor off the bench for Billy Donovan is Scottie Wilbekin, a 6'2 freshman guard from Gainesville. Averaging just under 16 minutes a game during SEC play, Wilbekin has not shown much offensive prowess in conference play. Averaging just 1.7 points a game, Wilbekin has dished out 13 assists, and forced 12 steals, as compared to just committing 6 turnovers against SEC opponents. After these guys, there aren't a lot of players on the Gator roster that jump out at you in terms of production. If players other than the ones focused on above are getting significant time, it stands to reason someone is getting blown out.

Bobby's Thoughts

Usually this section includes stats that jump out as keys to the game. However, looking at Florida, there don't appear to be as many clear indicators of why Florida wins and why they lose games. The ones that stand out are turnovers, 3pt shooting percentage, and free throws. The Gators are just 6-4 when committing more turnovers than their opponents, but 9-0 when their opponents turn the ball over more than they do. The Gators are 7-1 when shooting a higher percentage from downtown then their opponents, and 6-1 when that percentage is better than 40%. Finally, the Gators aren't a very good free throw shooting team. On the season they are connecting on just 65% of their attempts, and in conference that number drops to 64%. A major reason why Florida lost Saturday to Mississippi State is they were just 9-19 from the charity stripe. In a 7 point game, those misses matter.

The Gators are 0-2 in SEC play when trailing at the half, and 5-0 when leading. On the season, the Gators haven't won a game where they trailed at intermission. The Commodores have developed a bad habit of getting down early; in their last 3 SEC games, Vanderbilt trailed at the half. While the Commodores have shown an ability to rally (albeit not Saturday against Arkansas), the Gators have been very stingy when it comes to holding onto leads.

For the Commodores, this is be a good test to see how well this team can shake off a bad game. Like the Gators, Vanderbilt has not lost back-to-back games this season. A win tonight gets the Commodores right back on track.

I'm looking for another great offensive performance from John Jenkins. Jenkins has been great since missing the Davidson game. In his last 7, Jenkins has failed to reach 20 points just twice. He's averaging 21.8 points in conference play, and shooting an truly absurd 48.7% from downtown. Perhaps more impressive, Johnny has already attempted 48 free throws in conference play; last season, he attempted just 60. Oh yeah, he's 47-48 in conference play.

Jeffery Taylor was unable to put together back-to-back dominating performances, but will be needed if the Commodores are going to stay above .500 in the league. The Gators are likely to key in on Taylor and prevent him from getting to the basket as much as possible. While Jeffery has shown much improvement in his outside game, he's still a better player when he's getting to the rim. He's got to take what the defense gives him, but he also can't settle for jump shots.

I'll be very interested to see what kind of defenses CKS throws at the Gators. Florida can certainly hurt you from the outside, but they are not a team that needs to hit 3's to win. If Vanderbilt can rebound, a 2-3 might be very effective against the Gators. The fact that they aren't deep might also give Coach Stallings motivation to trap. If I remember correctly (and it's 50/50 I doubt), Georgia was able to come back late in the second half when Florida wasn't able to handle their press. While the Gators ultimately won the game when they exploded for 19 in the second overtime after the Bulldogs let Erving Walker get a great look at the basket from 28 feet to force the additional OT (but I digress...), UGA's press forced turnovers and allowed them to crawl back in the game.

Vanderbilt, even with injuries, is deeper than the Gators insofar as they are usually able to get more from their bench than Billy Donovan can. Stevie Thunder looked could be a pivotal player tomorrow, and you have to think the Commodores will be expecting big performances from their 2 freshmen, Fuller and Odom. This is a game the Commodores can and should win. Despite sitting a 1.5 up on Vanderbilt in the SEC East, I have not been impressed with what I've seen from the Gators. We are a better team. Whether we play like one remains to be seen. I'm also remiss to call this a "must-win." As far as I'm concerned, the only "must-win" road games in conference play are to teams like Auburn (who, somehow beat South Carolina in Columbia in Saturday...go figure). Still, this is one the Commodores really do need. South Carolina always gives us problems, and it would be nice to start a 3 game home-stand with a win rather than a loss.

Seamus and I will be live-blogging the game starting around 7:45 central and hope y'all will join us.


Vanderbilt 73 - Gators 65


Slimbo said...

WALSH. You suck.

CAR said...

We are going to lose. I feel so negative about this game. I dont think i can watch it.

Anonymous said...

Crazy to think if we win tonight we will be tied for first in the East...

Anonymous said...

VU wins in easy fashion. Fla will have one of its 25% shooting nights and we will be hot and play with some purpose.