Vandy hungry

After two losses, the Commodores are desperate for a win over the Gators.

Published: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 17, 2004 at 12:41 a.m.

Florida forward David Lee was reminded that the Gators lost at Vanderbilt during its Sweet 16 year in 1999 and its Final Four year in 2000.

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David Lee and the Gators had little trouble putting away the Commodores last year at home, but Florida hasn't had the same success at Vanderbilt - winning by only three in overtime last year, and losing in Nashville five consecutive times from 1996 to 2000. "We're walking into a hornets' nest," coach Billy Donovan said.

MICHAEL C. WEIMAR/Sun file photo

"You can be the one to tell Coach that if we lose at Vanderbilt," Lee said. "You can tell him that to make him happy."

Florida will play at Vanderbilt tonight with a chance to establish some ground between the two teams in the eastern division of the Southeastern Conference.

Vanderbilt comes into the game on a two-game losing streak, with leading scorer Matt Freije struggling.

Florida has won its past six and beat Tennessee 95-57 last Saturday for its most lopsided win in the SEC since 1993.

The trends suggest Florida has the momentum. Florida coach Billy Donovan is more concerned about a Vanderbilt team that is coming into a game desperate for a win.

"We're walking into a hornets' nest," Donovan said. "We're walking into a complete environment that we have not seen this year. Our guys understand that, and I think that's very, very important."

That environment is Memorial Gym. With its unique configuration and benches under the basket, the 14,168-seat building can present a challenge that opponents don't face in more conventional arenas. Donovan will have to use hand signals to set up the offense when Florida plays its half on the other side of the court.

"For half the game, we'll have our offense in front of us, and half the game we'll have our defense in front of us," Donovan said. "It's the same situation for our opponent, but probably Vandy is more accustomed and better at it in terms of making sure all of the players know what's going on because they have to play in that place 18 times a year."

Florida has won its past three in Nashville but needed overtime to win at Vanderbilt last year. Sophomore point guard Anthony Roberson hit a runner in the lane with 4.7 seconds left in regulation to force overtime.

Roberson recalled the differences of the arena, having to take 18 steps to check into the game.

"As a freshman, that's something I wasn't expecting," Roberson said of the atmosphere. "They really feed off their crowd."

Vanderbilt came into conference play as one of the feel-good stories in the SEC. The Commodores extended their best start in school history to 12-0 with a 59-53 win in their conference opener against Auburn, but they have since lost at Kentucky (75-63) and Tennessee (76-66).

It's cause for concern for Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, who described his team's confidence level heading into the game as low.

"There are some guys that are very key to our success that we've got to get going," Stallings said.

Namely, Freije. The preseason SEC player of the year, Freije was held to 13 points against Kentucky and eight points on 2-of-12 shooting against Tennessee.

"That's one of the things you deal with when you're a good player," Donovan said. "You see Matt Walsh go through it, you see a Roberson go through it. It's hard when your name is up there on that scouting report board as the guy to stop. It brings on a totally different element, it brings on totally different responsibilities."

Florida is as concerned with the rest of Vandy's team and its style of play. With their array of screens and back-door cuts, the Commodores have been labeled as an up-tempo Princeton by their former coach, Eddie Fogler.

"I would imagine that we'll get Vanderbilt's best game of the year," Donovan said.

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