With a season-high fourth consecutive win under its belt, the Florida Gators men’s basketball team will look to stay hot against the league’s coldest team, the Vanderbilt Commodores, when the programs take the court at 9 p.m. Wednesday in Nashville’s Memorial Gym.
“It’s a unique place to play. It’s a hard place to play,” UF coach Mike White said. “Hopefully we can find some success at some point.”
Winless in SEC play through 14 tries, the Commodores gave the Gators seemingly their best shot in the previous matchup. In that battle on Feb. 13, Florida overcame a rough night from the starters — and a slim deficit at halftime — before downing Vanderbilt. The Gators (16-11, 8-6 SEC) have yet to lose in the two weeks since — not that that affects UF’s approach come tip-off. White said the program talks about each game rather than the season as a full body of work, saying more often than not the outside perception of a team’s standing has negative internal consequences.
“We can’t allow any of that stuff to creep in because it will take away from the jobs in front of us that we got to accomplish,” White said. “I’m not saying it’s always a negative, but I think for the most part it will be a negative if that’s what we’re thinking about, the big picture stuff.”
Yet the winning streak unmistakably breathed life into UF’s hopes of making the NCAA Tournament. With just four games left on the schedule, the Gators have increased their odds of receiving an invitation — an achievement that seemed anything but certain just prior to UF’s first bout with the ‘Dores (9-18, 0-14 SEC).
While Florida’s play has noticeably improved as of late, especially from the second unit, there’s still much to be desired in White’s eyes.
“We want to attack the basket more. We were very one-dimensional early on. Unfortunately, we found that out the hard way. It’s stuff our guys work on every day, and our guys have taken ownership and have an understanding that it’s been a deficiency. It’s just individually, four or five of our guys have gotten better. We’re better at posting up. We’re better at interior passing. Keyontae Johnson puts more pressure on the rim. Jalen Hudson is finding a little bit of a rhythm,” White said. “Again, you hope all of these things continue. KeVaughn Allen might be the biggest factor in drawing fouls as of late.”
Johnson’s insertion into the line-up has added a different layer to Florida’s offense, resulting in more sets designed to attack the basket. It’s also helped the Gators get to the foul line earlier and often; Florida shot 19 free throws in the second half of Saturday’s 64-60 win over Missouri after getting into the bonus just five minutes after halftime. The Commodores themselves are near the top of the conference in getting to the charity stripe, as they rank fourth in the SEC with 436 free throws this season. If the Gators hope to escape Nashville with a fifth-consecutive win — which would entail White’s first in Vanderbilt as either a coach or player — they’ll need to keep finding ways to get to the line, said White.
“Uniquely for us, and much needed over the past few games, we’ve found ways to get there, whether it be paint touches by driving it or late game, playing with a lead, drawing fouls, getting to the foul line, post ups, offensive rebound, put-back opportunities,” White said. “It’s just kind of been a combination of it all. It’s been a stress of ours all year and we’ve kind of gradually grown in that area, but we’ve made a significant jump as of late and we need that to continue.”
Who: Florida (16-11, 8-6 SEC) vs. Vanderbilt (12-15, 0-14)
When: 9 p.m.
Where: Nashville, Tenn.
TV: SEC Network
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
Keyontae Johnson; F; 6-5; Fr.; 7.6 ppg; 6.0 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 7.1 ppg; 5.9 rpg
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 7.7 ppg; 5.3 apg
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 13.0 ppg; 2.9 rpg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr.; 10.7 ppg; 2.6 3FG
Simisola Shittu; F; 6-10; Fr.; 11.6 ppg; 6.9 rpg
Clevon Brown; F; 6-8; Jr.; 3.1 ppg; 2.6 rpg
Aaron Nesmith; F; 6-6; Fr.; 11.6 ppg; 5.9 rpg
Matt Ryan; F; 6-8; RJr.; 8.5 ppg; 2.8 rpg
Saben Lee; G; 6-2; So.; 12.7 ppg; 3.6 rpg
Notes: UF looks for its first win at Memorial Gym since 2014 … The Gators hope to build on their season-best four-game winning streak, the team’s longest since a six-game run last season that included the first four games of the SEC slate … This will be the 137th career meeting between the schools.