Top-ranked Gators set sights on SEC crown
Nashville, TN (SportsNetwork.com) - The Florida Gators, the new top-ranked team in the country, will attempt to continue their program-record winning streak on Tuesday night when they venture to Memorial Gymnasium for an SEC clash with the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Florida comes into this matchup with 19 consecutive victories, which includes a solid 75-71 road triumph at Ole Miss on Saturday to improve to 25-2, the team's best start in history. The Gators are a perfect 14-0 in the SEC, a school record for most conference wins in a season, and they hold a three-game lead over Kentucky for first place in the league with just four games left. Florida can claim a share of the SEC regular-season title with a win here.
Vanderbilt embarked on a two-game road trip last week, coming away with a loss at Missouri on Wednesday (67-64) and a win at Auburn on Saturday (67-59) to move to 15-11 overall and 7-7 in the SEC. Most of the Commodores' success this season has come in Nashville, as they have gone 10-4 at Memorial Gymnasium.
In regards to the all-time series, Vanderbilt holds a slim 64-61 advantage over Florida, although the Gators have gone 23-12 during head coach Billy Donovan's tenure.
The Gators battled tight with Ole Miss over the weekend and even trailed by one midway through the second half, but they surged ahead thanks to a 10-2 run and held on down the stretch for the four-point victory. They shot slightly worse from the field (.444) than did Ole Miss (.450), but they drained 12 3- pointers and outscored it at the free-throw line, 15-9. Scottie Wilbekin led the way with 18 points and seven assists, Michael Frazier knocked down 5-of-10 from 3-point range en route to 17 points and Patric Young added 12 points to the mix.
The primary reason for Florida's status among the nation's elite this season has been the stout play of its defense, which ranks eighth nationally in allowing just 58.7 ppg. It's also been more than good enough offensively, shooting 45.8 percent from the field for 71.3 ppg, and it owns strong margins in the rebounding (+5.7) and turnover (+2.4) battles. Casey Prather is the leading scorer with 15.4 ppg on a lofty 61.4 percent field-goal shooting. Wilbekin (13.8 ppg, 3.8 apg) and Frazier (12.3 ppg) have combined for 118 3- pointers at greater than 41 percent efficiency, and Young (10.8 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.0 bpg) and Dorian Finney-Smith (8.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg) man the paint.
The Commodores trailed by as many as 10 points early in the second half but caught fire down the stretch and ultimately captured the impressive eight- point road victory. Although they shot 44.2 percent from the field, including 11-of-26 from beyond the arc, the biggest story was their defensive effort, which held Auburn to a mere 33.9 percent shooting. Dai-Jon Parker was on fire from long range (5-of-9) en route to 21 points, while Damian Jones and Luke Kornet netted 14 and 10 points, respectively.
Vanderbilt has also been largely defined by its stellar defense this season, as it holds opponents to only 40.1 percent shooting from the field for 65.2 ppg, but unlike Florida, the squad doesn't have a strong offensive attack to back it up, scoring just 66.5 ppg on 44.3 percent shooting. Rod Odom is the catalyst with 14.2 ppg and 5.7 rpg and does a large portion of his damage from 3-point range (.75-of-185, .405). Kyle Fuller brings 11.6 ppg and 4.5 apg to the table, while Jones (11.6 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 1.3 bpg) and James Siakam (7.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg) both shoot greater than 56 percent from the field.