Florida opens its Southeastern Conference tournament when the Gators take on Vanderbilt in Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday afternoon.
The Commodores (9-15, 3-13 in the SEC’s regular season) and Gators (13-8, 9-7) will begin 25 minutes after the conclusion of the Kentucky-Mississippi State game, which tips off at 11 Central.
Vandy comes in off short rest, having polished off Texas AM, 79-68, in a game that finished about 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday.
“I’m super excited for our guys — happy for them, happy for our fans. We’re excited about this one and excited about the challenge ahead of us (Thursday),” Vanderbilt coach Jerry Stackhouse said after Wednesday’s victory.
It’ll be the third meeting between the two teams, with the Gators winning the previous two by scores of 91-72 and 78-71.
Florida cruised in each game, leading the last one by 22 with 9:52 left. But this one may not be easy, as the Gators catch Vandy playing its best basketball of the season.
Improbably, that’s happened without Dylan Disu (15.0 ppg, 9.2 rpg), the SEC’s leading rebounder, who has missed the last six games and is done for the season with a knee injury.
Vandy has won three of those without the sophomore, including two of the last three. The biggest star in the last two wins has been Scotty Pippen Jr. (20.6 ppg), who scored 36 in a win at Cincinnati on 10-of-13 shooting from the floor and was 11 of 12 at the foul line.
Against AM, Pippen was just 3 of 17 from the field, but canned all 15 free throws and dished out six assists against just two turnovers.
Another key for the Commodores is getting supporting scorers, which Vandy got from D.J. Harvey (17 points) and Max Evans (12) on Wednesday.
Florida likely has an NCAA Tournament bid sewn up, but would like to enter the Big Dance on a better note after falling 65-54 at Tennessee in Sunday’s regular-season finale.
The Gators, who lost the SEC’s preseason player of the year in Keyontae Johnson in their fourth game of the year on Dec. 12, were without their best remaining player, first-team All-SEC guard Tre Mann (15.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg) last time out. Mann, who’d played in all Florida’s games to that point, missed that contest with migraines.
Tyree Appleby fired in a season-high 19 points in 35 minutes, while second-team All-SEC junior Colin Castleton (12.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg) added 11 points for Florida against the Vols.
Florida had two things Vandy couldn’t handle in the first two meetings: perimeter athleticism and quickness (which led to a combined 33 Vanderbilt turnovers against just 23 assists) and the 6-foot-11 Castleton, who scored 36 points and was 17 of 21 from the floor in those two games.
But the Gators need to find consistency if they’re going to win four consecutive games to get a tournament title. Florida did that just once this year during a four-game stretch from Jan. 19-30.
“We go win two games and come back and lose a game,” Mann said. “I just feel like it’s different where we know how much is at stake now. I don’t think we’re going to take a game off, or a day off, or a practice off anymore just because of what’s at stake now.”
–Field Level Media