The final week of the college basketball regular season is upon us and the Gators have a critical week ahead. They enter the week among the “Next Four Out” in Joe Lunardi’s Bracketology, needing two wins to have any chance of making the tournament.
It starts tonight as they face the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville. The ‘Dores enter the game at 14-14 and can virtually end Florida’s season with a victory. If the Gators lose one of their final two games in the regular season, they would need a deep run in the SEC conference tournament to make it into The Dance.
Vandy is led by junior guard Scotty Pippen Jr., who is averaging 20.2 points per game on the season. Nobody else on the team averages more than the 11.9 of junior forward Jordan Wright. They enter having lost four of their last five, including a 74-69 loss to Mississippi State last time out.
Florida enters off an 84-72 win over the Georgia Bulldogs over the weekend that kept the season alive. At this point, every game is do-or-die for Florida as they try to reach the 20-win mark.
The last time these two teams met the Gators cruised to a 61-42 victory.
Florida was without their best player in Colin Castleton and still managed to roll the ‘Dores. This time, they will have Castleton, who is coming off a double-double against the Bulldogs on Saturday.
In his absence, the Gators spread the wealth a bit more with eight players scoring more than five points, including all five starters. Tyree Appleby led the way with 11 while Jason Jitoboh had eight points and 11 rebounds on the night.
Jitoboh has since been lost for the season due to injury.
The big story in that game was the defense for Florida. They held the Commodores to their lowest point total of the season on just 28.9% shooting from the field. The Gators had nine steals and forced 12 turnovers total in the game.
A huge part of their defensive success was keeping Pippen Jr. in check. Florida held the star guard to just six points and an assist on 1-10 shooting from the field and 1-5 from deep.
The Gators will need to have the same kind of success against Pippen Jr. again if they are to produce the same result as their last matchup with Vandy.
In this matchup, it will be huge for the Gators to have Colin Castleton back. He has been by far the Gators’ best player this year, leading the team in both points and rebounds. He is also third on the team in assists per game. The Deland native also presents an extremely difficult matchup for Vandy, a team with bigs that are not as physical inside as Castleton.
Vanderbilt’s basketball analyst, Tim Thompson, joined Sports Scene with Steve Russell to preview the matchup. He explained how the Commodores will likely handle the mismatch that Castleton presents for their roster.
Thompson also said that Appleby presents an extremely difficult matchup for the Commodores. He is always a threat to get hot, and if he does, he presents a stiff challenge for any team trying to match up with him.
Based on that, Florida should expect to cruise to victory, right?
Not necessarily. Vanderbilt has improved throughout the year and multiple players have stepped up into much-needed roles.
There is also always the challenge of Pippen Jr. Florida cannot bank on holding him to six points again and have to prepare for him to have a big game. He has the potential to change the game on any night and even win games for Vandy. Thompson discussed what Pippen Jr. has meant to the team over their recent stretch.
While Vandy has much less to play for than Florida, Thompson said one thing their teams never lack is effort. They are going to show up and make things tough on the Gatos tonight, no matter the circumstances.
It does not help that Florida will be on the road for this absolutely crucial game on their schedule.
The action tips off at 8:30 p.m., and coverage begins on 103.7 The Gator at 7:55 p.m.