A word about the foci of this season's basketball columns, before digging into Vanderbilt's home date with Florida on Saturday:
Readers who have followed this column through the season have noticed that columns have focused on Vanderbilt opponents -- not in terms of the game keys or category-based needs in specific on-court matchups, but in terms of the stories being authored by the programs opposing VU. If Vanderbilt had been in the thick of SEC or NCAA races, you would be getting a lot more in terms of "how to win this game" or "why this one-on-one battle is important." However, in a season which so quickly and decisively spun off the rails, to the point that NCAA Tournament dreams died a very early death, it seemed appropriate not to sink into the quagmire of misery which so often accompanies the intense desire to hope a team wins the next game, only for that longing to remain unfulfilled (especially in road games -- VU has clearly cleaned up at home since the end of January).
I felt that this season -- once Vanderbilt fell to the bottom of the SEC standings -- was better spent appreciating the successes and failures of other programs and coaches, to build a story and structure for Commodore Nation. In so doing, I felt these "take a step back" articles could develop a new way of seeing, a way of considering the long view, not the 24-7 immediacy of the news cycle and the next SEC opponent on the slate. Vanderbilt is in a transitional season, having some of the players from the 2017 NCAA Tournament squad but not all the pieces of a complete team... and being one year away from welcoming Bryce Drew's touted new recruiting class.
For all sorts of reasons, this season has become a time to immerse the basketball mind in perspective and context, in most cases pointing to the realization that Vanderbilt is positioning itself well in a more competitive SEC, and that the next few years represent a time for optimism within the program, despite this season's generally unpleasant (but sometimes uplifting -- see Wednesday night against Mississippi State) results.
I chose this time -- and not a game against other SEC teams -- to offer the above editorial explanation because in many ways, Saturday's game against Florida feels like the first game with considerable resonance in relationship to the 2018-2019 SEC basketball season.
Vanderbilt's games against Tennessee were robust attempts to measure up against this season's resurgent and transformed Vols, especially since they occurred in the first half of the SEC season. Vanderbilt similarly played its two games against Kentucky before the calendar moved to February.
Georgia probably won't have Mark Fox next season, and it definitely won't have Yante Maten. The Bulldogs will be new in one profound way if not more next season.
South Carolina is going through its post-Final Four transition, accompanied by the exodus of the players who made it possible.
The upcoming VU game against Missouri will offer a flavor similar to this Florida throwdown. Mizzou will lose Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett, but Michael Porter Jr. barely played this season, and probably won't be ready for that late-February contest, so while Mizzou will technically "lose" him to the NBA Draft, the Tigers have not been profoundly reshaped by him. Vanderbilt-Missouri will give Bryce Drew and Cuonzo Martin a chance to match wits against each other, in what could become a compelling SEC coaching rivalry.
Speaking of coaches, this leads us back to Florida... and the sense that this game offers a chance for Vanderbilt to gain leverage next season in the SEC.
When it was announced that the Ole Miss job would come open at the end of the season, Mike White -- who played college ball in Oxford and was a former Andy Kennedy assistant for the Rebels -- had to swat away the idea that he would want to come home to Mama.
Florida is a great job, and I highly suspect White is delighted to work in Gainesville, especially after notching an Elite Eight in his first season on the job. What is relevant about the Ole Miss angle is that it reminds White how seriously SEC programs are viewing basketball these days. The quality of coaching in the league is stronger than it was when White signed his contract at Florida. Moreover, a number of SEC teams which were still struggling at the time White came to Gainesville have taken the next step this season -- Auburn first, Tennessee second, Missouri third, Alabama fourth.
White isn't necessarily being boxed into a corner, but he is being shown -- at every turn -- how much tougher the SEC is becoming.
John Calipari, who -- with White's predecessor, Billy Donovan -- towered over the SEC for the first half of this decade, has recently acknowledged that the depth of the SEC has punished the limitations and flaws of his Kentucky team in ways which would not have happened a few seasons ago. White knows this as surely as Calipari does.
In 2018, White is not coping well with the reality of what Florida is facing in the present tense. Accordingly, this is causing an undercurrent of worry in Gainesville about White's coaching chops and the future of Gator basketball.
How strong is this undercurrent? I won't claim to say... but it's there. This doesn't mean White isn't up to the job, but at Florida -- built into a juggernaut by Billy D -- patience does not exist in abundance. Donovan earned and received patience because he was the builder of the program's greatness and prestige, but in a post-Billy world, Florida basketball is a plum job. If a 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament is a normal season, that's not good enough... yet that is precisely where White is headed in his second season at the helm.
Georgia has won only two games in the past month (since January 16). Georgia, the team which has reeled from a lack of supplementary scoring around Maten and whose coach appears headed out the door, has drifted into relentless mediocrity, both this season and over the past several years. Yet, the Dawgs have -- in this past month -- beaten Florida twice.
In fairness to White, the second loss to Georgia was partly the product of missed foul shots, but then again, a failed inbounds play late in regulation also contributed to a stunning UGA rally in Gainesville. Florida has a veteran roster coming off an Elite Eight appearance. Late-game situations should be handled with inner calm and a studied responsiveness. That the Gators failed to check those boxes is just as alarming as the double losses to a mediocre opponent.
All college basketball coaches go through rough seasons, even at the elite programs. This is something I have written many times before, but it bears repeating with White. It is way too early to make definitive statements about White's ability to maintain what Billy Donovan established at Florida.
White's struggles in 2018 make this Saturday's game -- in which UF is playing under the pressure of trying to fix its flaws -- a moment in which Vanderbilt and Bryce Drew can get inside White's head.
Yes, Florida shrugged off its losing streak to Vanderbilt with a win in the SEC opener on the penultimate day of 2017. Yes, Florida will go Dancing this season while Vanderbilt will close shop when the SEC Tournament is over. Yet, if this Vanderbilt team can continue to thrive at home on Saturday, preventing Florida from orchestrating a revival to its floundering "not-where-the-Gators-expected-to-be" season, the internal doubts which exist in Gainesville can acquire a shelf life. It doesn't mean they WILL, but it gives Florida a chance to question itself to an even greater degree.
Sports competition often involves this image or construct: One competitor asks questions, forcing the other to provide answers. It often matters more that the questions get asked in the first place, not that the other competitor answers. At least the superior competitor was forced to give an answer; the inferior competitor grew and evolved merely by asking the questions.
In the above construct, "asking questions" is another way of saying "mounted a robust and legitimate challenge." In blowouts, no questions are asked by the losing team. In close games, many questions are asked.
This clash on Saturday manipulates the above construct instead of following it to the letter. Vanderbilt doesn't just have a chance to merely ASK questions; it can win the game and force Florida to consider a fresh set of questions throughout the offseason... with VU's recruiting-class reinforcements not yet in the picture.
Winning on Saturday won't change Vanderbilt's 2018 postseason reality, but it could be a way for Bryce Drew to get a foot in the Dore of Florida's -- especially Mike White's -- house, and live rent-free in that dwelling for the next few years.
There is no guaranteeing that a win on Saturday will achieve this, but it would certainly apply waves of added pressure on White to bounce back next season in an increasingly cutthroat SEC landscape. If Vanderbilt can make Florida doubt itself, it would take one very big step toward reshaping the Eastern half of SEC hoops, adding to the storehouse of optimism the Drew Crew is collecting for 2019 and beyond.
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