Vanderbilt is riding a three-game winning streak for just the second time this season. They'll need all the momentum they can get, because they face the toughest test of their season on Wednesday.
The Commodores will travel to Gainesville to face #8 Florida in the O-Dome, an arena where Vandy has found little success in recent years. The Gators have been head and shoulders above their SEC competition this year, but recent struggles have dimmed their hopes for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If Billy Donovan is going to rise to the top line of college basketball's toughest bracket, he'll have to get his team through the next two weeks without a defeat.
Vandy's stakes aren't nearly as important, but the Commodores still have plenty to play for. At 7-9, they've still got a chance to reach .500 in conference play - a major accomplishment for a team mired in a rebuilding season. With one regular season game left against 3-13 South Carolina, Wednesday's game with Florida is clearly their biggest impediment between them and that goal.
Vanderbilt is just 1-13 at the O'Connell Center in the last 14 years, and they'd face steep odds even if they were playing in Memorial Gym. Florida has a stout combination of backcourt scoring and bulk around the rim that the 'Dores will have trouble matching up with. In order to pull off this upset, they'll have to slow down one of the country's most efficient teams on both sides of the court. There won't be much room for error, as history, statistics, and experience are all working against them.
Four years ago, a team stocked with rising talent rallied to an 8-8 SEC record and set the table for three straight NCAA Tournament appearances in the years that followed. On Wednesday, the 2013 Commodores can work towards a similar feat with a big upset win on the road. While a victory over the Gators won't do much to save the 2012-2013 season, it could be the building block for a major recovery in 2014.
Arkansas, who Vanderbilt split their season series with, knocked off the Gators back in February. Let's take a look at how the Razorbacks pulled it off.
Florida (23-5 overall, 13-3 SEC, #11 AP, #9 Coaches')
The bad news for Vandy is that they get Florida at home, where the Gators are currently undefeated. The good news is that Arkansas routed them with a balanced, guard-driven attack in Fayetteville back in February, sowing the seeds for a potential Commodore upset on Wednesday.
Key to Destruction: Balanced Scoring. Eight different players had seven points or more for the Razorbacks, giving Arkansas too many weapons for Florida to deal with. Mike Anderson was able to use his up-tempo, high paced attack to spread the floor and incorporate a bevy of different players into his offense. Crisp ball movement (19 assists to just eight turnovers) and savvy shooting gave the 'Hogs an early 36-13 lead, and the team coasted from there.
That's a tall order for Vanderbilt to replicate. Vandy has been the antithesis of an uptempo team in 2013, opting instead to grind out possessions when they can't find an open look inside the arc. However, they can follow up on the balance that Anderson and his team carried out thanks to the emergence of a pair of key freshmen. Sheldon Jeter
and Kevin Bright
have added a potent, if inconsistent, blend of scoring from the outside that has helped take some of the pressure off of an ailing Kedren Johnson
. Those three, paired with Josh Henderson's inside scoring, Rod Odom's shooting, and the streaky performances of Dai-Jon Parker
and Kyle Fuller
, could provide the depth needed to keep Florida off-balance and drive the 'Dores to a big upset win.
Keys to the Game:
- Incorporate the bench. Vandy's balanced scoring will have to rely on three key bench players on Wednesday. Kyle Fuller will have to prove that he can get into the lane against some of the SEC's top guards and produce in the face of high level defense. Shelby Moats will have to give the 'Dores a mean presence around the rim when Henderson is plagued by either fatigue or foul trouble. Sheldon Jeter will have to shake off a bad game at Auburn and play like he did when he sparked Vanderbilt to a comeback win over Georgia last week. The Commodores might be able to hang with Florida if only their starters show up to the O-Dome, but they'll need their bench to come up big to make this upset happen.
- Grind down the Gators. Arkansas was the fresher team back in February, taking advantage of a shorthanded Florida bench and wearing Billy Donovan's team down. That won't be as easy on Wednesday night. Players like Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier II have developed into contributors in the Gator rotation and the team doesn't have to rely as heavily on its starters. Even so, an athletic Vandy combination of pressure defense and timely substituting could sap Florida's energy quickly, help negate their home-court advantage, and press the game into the ugly kind of battle that Vanderbilt excels in.
- Protect the ball. Florida doesn't generate a ton of steals, but the Gators have an athletic backcourt that can disrupt passing lanes and take advantage of sloppy play. Arkansas negated that aspect of their game (only eight turnovers) thanks to a roster of ballhandlers - and, to a lesser extent, the effects of a blowout as the second half wore down. Vanderbilt should be able to handle Billy Donovan's defensive pressure thanks to guys like Kedren Johnson, Kyle Fuller, and Dai-Jon Parker, but passing has continued to be an issue for this team. If their offense isn't flowing, they'll force passes and subject themselves to bad turnovers. Vandy can't afford to let Florida pull away with transition points, so tight passing will be a big concern for this team in Gainesville.