Florida is opening SEC play today against a familiar nemesis.
Vanderbilt beat Florida in all three meetings last season and has won five straight against the Gators. The Commodores are the only SEC team that Mike White has yet to win against in his three-year tenure as UF coach.
So it would stand to reason the Gators would have extra motivation to end the slide when they host Vanderbilt at the O’Connell Center.
“I know they’re going to be gunning for us with us beating them three times last year, especially at their place,” Vanderbilt senior guard Riley LaChance said. “So we want to go down there and get another win.”
But Florida has its own issues.
Offensively, Florida hasn’t resembled the same high-octane offensive team that led the nation in scoring entering December at 99.5 points per game. The Gators have averaged just 67.5 points in six December games, going 3-3 in that span.
In addition, Florida is coming into its SEC opener banged up. Center Gorjok Gak has missed practice all week with knee problems, while leading scorer Jalen Hudson was limited in practice Friday after sitting out practices earlier this week due to an illness. Both Hudson and Gak are considered game-time decisions for the match-up with the Commodores.
With freshman forward Chase Johnson still out due to concussion protocol and John Egbunu and Isaiah Stokes still rehabbing torn ACLs and out until late January, Florida practiced with only eight scholarship players this week, plus walk-ons Mak Krause and Andrew Fava.
“I haven’t been a part of something like this,” White said. “It’s nuts, how many guys we’ve got banged up. I know they’re just as frustrated — and their teammates are. We’d like to get to full strength at some point.
“That said, we’ve gotten some stuff done. I like the renewed energy level and focus that those eight scholarship players have come back with. We’ve worked hard, had a good attitude and hopefully we can get some of this offensive mojo back here soon.”
Vanderbilt dashed UF’s hopes of winning SEC regular season and conference titles last season, beating the Gators twice in the regular season by a margin of four points and once in overtime by 10 points. The Commodores burned Florida from the perimeter, making 26 3-pointers and shooting 35.1 percent in the three wins.
“We’re normally pretty confident playing Florida,” said Vanderbilt senior guard Matthew Fisher-Davis.
Said Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew: “Those games could have gone either way. We’re very thankful that we won. Those are one-possession games. You know three times. We made a couple of shots at the end. They missed a couple of shots and if it goes the other way around you’re asking why we can’t beat Florida right now. So you know sometimes it just bounces your way.”
The Commodores have had their own early season struggles trying to replace departed big man Luke Kornet, who was instrumental in all three wins against the Gators last season. In addition to being a rim protector, the 7-foot Kornet was able to draw opposing big men away from the basket with his ability to shoot from 3-point range. Vanderbilt is shooting just 31.9 percent from 3-point range this season, but is coming off making a season-high 17 3-pointers in its last game, a 92-51 win over Alcorn State.
“Our guys understand that Vandy has gotten the better of us the last couple years,” White said. “But if we’re thinking about that then we’re thinking about the wrong things. We need to think about this year’s Vandy team and how to defend them, and how to shoot the ball with more confidence, have better floor balance, all those things. This team executing against this year’s Vandy team tomorrow at 4 o’clock is what will give us a chance.”
Florida junior guard KeVaughn Allen said Vanderbilt made the Gators pay for every little mistake they made on the floor last season. Allen said opening against the Commodores in SEC play will give Florida a chance to turn the page after a topsy-turvy first 12 games against non-conference opponents.
“We did some good things, and also, we did some bad things,” Allen said. “We’ve just gotta capitalize on the mistakes that we made and just learn from that and keep moving forward.”
Who: Florida Gators (8-4) vs. Vanderbilt Commodores (5-7)
When: 4 p.m.
Where: Exactech Arena/O’Connell Center, Gainesville
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G KeVaughn Allen 6-2 So., 11.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg
G Chris Chiozza 6-0 Sr., 12.9 ppg, 5.8 apg
G Egor Koulechov 6-5 GSr., 14.1 ppg 6.7 rpg
G Jalen Hudson 6-6 RJr., 18.2 ppg 4.3 rpg
C Keith Stone 6-8 RSo., 5.8 ppg 3.0 rpg
VANDERBILT PROBABLE STARTERS
G Riley LaChance 6-2 Sr., 11.7 ppg, 2.8 rpg
G Saben Lee 6-2 Fr., 8.8 ppg, 3.6 apg
G Matthew Fisher-Davis 6-5 Sr., 12.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg
F Joe Toye 6-7 Jr., 5.9 ppg, 2.3 rpg
F Jeff Roberson 6-9 Sr., 14.4 ppg, 8.3 rpg
Notes: Florida has won five straight SEC openers. UF’s last loss in an SEC opener came on Jan. 7, 2012 at Tennessee (67-56). The Gators haven’t lost an SEC opener at home since falling to LSU 92-66 on Jan. 3, 1981. … The Gators rank second in the SEC in turnover margin (plus-5.3), second in steals (8.0 spg), second in free throw percentage (76.3 percent) and third in 3-pointers made per game (9.3).. … Point guard Chris Chiozza has posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 11 to 0 over his last two games, averaging 17.5 ppg and 5.5 apg during that span. … Senior forward Egor Koulechov is leading the SEC in free-throw percentage (96.8), but is just 5-for-29 from 3-point range in December and has just four assists during the span. … Vanderbilt is shooting 49.2 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range over its last two games. …. Vanderbilt senior forward Jeff Roberson has already posted six double-doubles on the season and is shooting 44.6 percent from the field. 41.7 percent from 3-point range and 94 percent from the free-throw line. “He’s about as tough a guy as there is in our league,” White said of Robinson. “He’s extremely physical. Last year he made a lot of winning plays against us that didn’t show up on the stat sheet. He’s making 3s at a high clip, he makes good decisions, he posts you, he can guard. He’s just a really good college basketball player.”
— Kevin Brockway