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The Vanderbilt men's basketball team reached the 2017 NCAA Tournament because it was good enough to get there, but let's not deny that if any team helped the Commodores get over the top, Florida sits at the top of the list. It's hard enough to beat another team three times in the same season. It's harder to beat the second-place team in a 14-member power conference three times. It's harder to beat a No. 4 NCAA Tournament seed and future Elite Eight team three times. It's harder still to beat that credentialed opponent by two points in two separate games, and in overtime in a third instance.
Given that Vanderbilt was a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Dores probably didn't need to beat Florida a third time to make the field of 68. They either would have gone to the play-in game in Dayton for a second straight season, or they would have been an 11 seed in a Round-of-64 game. However, it's safe to say that VU needed to beat Florida twice to make the field, and that in itself was daunting. Vanderbilt trailed for much of the second meeting between the two teams last season, on Senior Day in Memorial Gym. VU made a successful comeback down the stretch by consistently attacking the basket and drawing fouls on a Florida defense which became less organized and more confused as the second half wore on.
Vanderbilt found enough of the timely offense and persistent defense -- especially late in games -- which eluded it at other points in the bumpy and wild but ultimately thrilling and satisfying first season of Bryce Drew's tenure. Florida became Vanderbilt's get-well tonic, more than any other team in the SEC.
What also has to be said is that Florida looked as good as any other NCAA Tournament team through the first two rounds. The Gators stormed into the Sweet 16 with the icy focus of a group which learned all the right lessons from its Vanderbilt-fueled failures. Florida grew up on the first weekend of the NCAAs, then knocked out the one school which has made each of the last four Sweet 16s, the Wisconsin Badgers. UF coach Mike White entered last season surrounded by questions about his coaching chops in the big-boy world of the SEC. Everyone in Gainesville and throughout the conference wondered if he was a worthy successor to Billy Donovan. White could not have done more to quiet the skeptics. Florida engaged a white-hot South Carolina team in a riveting if somewhat choppy Elite Eight game. The Gators left the court having given all they had, beaten by a better opponent more than any of their own flaws.
Florida entered this season not having to answer any "But what about Mike White's competence?" questions. The Gators belonged at the forefront of the SEC basketball conversation with Kentucky, just as they regularly did under Billy D. The prominence of Florida hoops had been restored.
Entering Saturday's SEC opener in Gainesville, that sure and strong foundation has not crumbled, but there are cracks in that foundation which need some reinforcement and repair.
Florida flourished at the PK80 Invitational in Portland, beating Gonzaga in a marathon game which ended after 2:30 a.m. Gainesville time on the Saturday of the Florida-Florida State football contest. UF then battled Duke on even terms before losing by a whisker. The Gators left Oregon thinking they were going to be at the top of the SEC all season -- justifiably so.
Then came December.
The losses to Florida State and Clemson -- teams without the same level of talent as the Gators -- were bad enough. Yet, those setbacks didn't compare to the out-of-the-blue stunner which led to a tidal wave of doubt, a home-court stumble against Loyola-Chicago.
Florida still has the high-end wins that look really good in March, having also beaten Cincinnati. The Gators are not in NCAA Tournament trouble. However, if their SEC reason more closely resembles their December than their November, they will play a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the Round of 32 (if they even get there), instead of BEING the No. 1 or No. 2 seed they hoped they would become this season.
Mike White had this program soaring at the end of November, picking up where he left off in late March of 2017. Now, he has to refocus his team, just as Bryce Drew and the Dores must.
The smell of desperation -- that is not an exaggerated word, given the trajectories of these two teams' seasons -- will fill the O-Dome on the final Saturday of 2017. Vanderbilt needs Florida to be its SEC lifeline again... but the Gators are immersed in their own highly urgent fight for survival.
Here is a look at the Gators' most prominent players:
Jalen Hudson: The Virginia Tech transfer is more than making the most of his second opportunity with the Gators. After sitting out last season, Hudson has exploded onto the scene, averaging over 18 points per game on 42 percent shooting from three-point range. He has excelled in a variety of scoring scenarios and is a versatile threat with the ball. Hudson has taken the most threes on the team (for a good reason) and good things generally happen with the ball in his hands. However, after breaking out with 35 points against Gonzaga and 24 against Duke, Hudson has been sporadic in terms of his production, He did have 23 points against Clemson and 17 against Cincinnati, but he’s also had some stinkers recently in UF's December slide.
Hudson is relatively mediocre defensively. He doesn’t do anything spectacular, has 12 steals and six blocks, and isn’t a complete liability.
Egor Koulechov: The best rebounder on the team (6.8 per game) and a spotty shooter, Koulechov has also cooled off considerably since his hot start to the year. He had 21 against Cincy but failed to reach double-digit numbers in three of the last four games. If you go back to Florida’s first-round game against Stanford in the PK80, his regression is even more apparent. His inconsistency is part of what Florida has been dealing with of late.
Koulechov hasn’t slipped on defense, though. In 86 possessions as the primary defender, he has allowed 66 total points, which is a 38 percent success rate for opponents. That’s a quality number for the amount of action he gets.
Chris Chiozza: The heart and soul of what the Gators are all about on both ends of the floor, Chiozza can do it all. But, like everybody else on the team, he’s been all over the place. He has, however, been the team’s only bastion of consistency in the last few games, hitting double-digit scoring figures in each contest. His shooting has steadied a bit since poor outings against Florida State and Loyola-Chicago. He has 69 assists and 24 steals and shoots over 45 percent from three-point range, though he doesn’t force the long ball. He’d much rather attack the basket.
He’s quick and shifty, moves well and fights through screens extremely well. He’s a pest on defense and spearheads the Gators’ attack.
Kevaughn Allen: Another inconsistent scorer with great scoring ability. Allen had two points against Cincy, seven against Incarnate Word and 17 against James Madison. Part of his struggles have been his poor three-point shooting, hitting just 20 of his 69 attempts. This is coming a year after hitting 37 percent of his outside shots. He’s hit just 34 percent of his total shot attempts, which is a mediocre number altogether. He does have 16 steals on the year, good for second on the team, but other than that, Allen isn’t providing much of a boost on either end of the floor this season.
Keith Stone: Not to be confused with the cliche spokesperson for the awful tasting Keystone Light beer a few years ago, Stone isn’t much of an offensive threat. Though he’s been smooth in spot-up situations, he’s hit double-digit scoring numbers just once this season. There isn’t much to go on other than that because he’s not an assertive offensive force.
Stone does well defensively in the paint, where most of his opponents take their shot attempts. Beyond that, it’s really mediocre.
Overall Takeaway: The thing to know about Florida is that the Gators are incredibly hit-and-miss right now. After starting off the season looking like a national championship-caliber team, we now have to wonder if they’ll even finish in the top three of the SEC -- not because they don’t have the talent to be there, but because they haven’t put a complete game together in over a month. It could be the non-conference blues, but now the games matter, so we’ll see how they respond.
One final note about Florida: Frontcourt players John Egbunu and Isaiah Stokes have been out for extended periods with injuries. They are not scheduled to return until late January at the earliest. Some -- though certainly not all -- of Florida's struggles can be attributed to a shorter bench, longer minutes for the healthy starters, and a thinner frontcourt which demands more rebounding and low-post defense from players having to stretch themselves beyond the positions where they are most comfortable at that end of the floor. A foremost point of emphasis for Vanderbilt will be to make Florida defend every inch of the paint, especially near the rim.
Don Yates - Publisher, http://www.vandymania.com
zemek wrote:The losses to Florida State and Clemson -- teams without the same level of talent as the Gators -- were bad enough.
I'd have to question this comment. Certainly, from an NBA standpoint, Florida State is more talented than Florida and Clemson is comparable. From an NCAA standpoint, I'd still argue that FSU is perhaps about even and Clemson is at least in the same ballpark. For instance, Shelton Mitchell (whom I'm sure we all remember) is Clemson's third-best player. They've got some talent. And even after losing Isaacs, Florida State has a whole bunch of players who were four-star recruits. Florida should've made better showings against FSU and Loyola (Ill) (although they're 10-3, so not necessarily a bad team either), but losing to Clemson by a bucket is hardly a reason to rake them over the coals.
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