On January 31st of this season, the Vanderbilt Commodores invaded Gainesville and stormed out to a 41-30 halftime lead -- only to watch their hopes of knocking off the nation's #1 team fade away in the second half, losing the game 74-64 to the Gators.
From that game it was evident that any team could be a dangerous team if they were hitting on all cylinders, shooting a high percentage, rebounding the ball well, forcing turnovers and forcing bad shots. Fortunately for the Gators on that night we saw Vandy cool down a bit, lose some of their defensive composure and squander the game away.
Today was a different story for these two teams, however, as Florida lost their first conference game 83-70 to the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Bad halves of basketball have been haunting the Gators quite a bit this season -- Florida State, UAB, Kansas, Vanderbilt and Alabama all beat Florida up in at least one half this season -- but while they were winning some of these contests it was clear that at some point it was going to come back and bite them.
It did today in Nashville, as a first half in which the Commodores outplayed the Gators was followed by yet another half with the advantage going to Vandy. The first half saw the Commodores shoot 60% from the field followed by the second half seeing an almost-as-impressive 55% shooting.
Vandy just never let up. They had 21 assists in the game compared to Florida's 11. They shot 48% from the 3-point line, hitting 10 of them. They forced 22 Gators turnovers. They were just not going to be beat today on their homecourt, even by the #1 team in the nation.
I've heard several people say that the Gators "needed" to lose a game eventually, as it would be better in the long-run, and I tend to agree with that statement. This team and their fans were riding a ridiculous high, and eventually I feel that in order for NCAA tournament success (in other words, avoidance of an upset in the field of 64) the Gators would need to be knocked back down to Earth.
All it takes is a team getting hot from the floor and a few mental mistakes and you're out of a game. I think that this team learned that today at the hands of the Commodores. Hopefully they'll take it as a learning experience.
Here are a few random thoughts from today's game:
If he isn't already considered one, I think that Derrick Byars could be one of the most under-appreciated players in the nation. Today he showed how versatile he could be for the Commodores, scoring 24 points, dishing out 8 assists and picking up 5 steals. He really was the sparkplug for Vandy today.
In Gainesville he scored 21 points for the Commodores, so playing well against the Gators was not uncharted territory for Byars coming into today's game.
After today Byars should be averaging around 17 pts and 5 boards a game -- pretty impressive numbers for someone who isn't discussed too much on a national level.
Memorial Gymnasium was not always the nicest place to the Gators, and that's my most vivid memory of the place.
The Gators had won 5 of 6 in Nashville before today's game, having beaten the Commodores 7 straight times. However, there was quite a hefty losing streak on the funky-looking hardwood prior to recent success.
I've never felt comfortable when the Gators play there, and I never will. In fact, I feel the same way about Knoxville. Something about the state of Tennessee makes me uneasy in regards to Gators basketball.
The Gators shot pretty well from the 3-point line today, going 8-21 (38%). The team wasn't hitting their 3-pointers in their previous two games against Kentucky and Alabama, so I thought that this would be a point of emphasis today.
Our guys hit some 3s in the second half that I thought would catapult them into some type of comeback mode, going 6-13. Vandy just couldn't be stopped on offense though, so these shots weren't the type of momentum-changers we wanted them to be.
Lee Humphrey went 3-8 today, not too bad all things considered. He had a couple poor shooting performances recently (by his standards, at least), so hopefully this game got him back in rythym somehow.
While on the shooting topic, I think that it is important to let it be known that the Gators shot 82% from the foul line today -- way above their season average.
Al Horford led the way in this category, shooting 11-14. Noah also had a good percentage on the game, going 5 of 6. 20 FTs between the two big men shows the amount of battling they were doing underneath today, although that doesn't matter too much when you can't stop the opposition's offense.
Anyways, I hope to see the Gators continue to shoot free throws like they did today. In the near future a performance like that from the foul line could win them a close game.
22 turnovers for the Gators today is cause for concern, considering that they only averaged 13.5 per game prior.
I think that today, outside of the first 10 minutes or so, we saw an opposing crowd rattle the Gators gameplan and rythym. There were just some ill-advised shots, passes and sets today for UF. This was surprising because we saw the mental toughness as a strength of this team so far this season.
I don't think that this will be a trend, but games on the road against Tennessee and LSU could be trouble if this happens again.
If you didn't see it, there was a little confrontation between Vandy coach Kevin Stallings and Joakim Noah on the baseline during a change of possession. Basically Stalling grabbed the ball and would not give it up to Noah, who was trying to get the ball inbounds.
Noah reaching for the ball induced a swipe by Stallings as well as a few words for the Gators center.
Really, this was just a childish move by Stallings, especially the swipe he took at Noah, and I think that he should have gotten more of a talk from the refs for it. A coach has no place grabbing the ball and delaying the game by not giving it up. Stallings was clearly in the wrong here, and this is a shame because I think he does a great job of coaching a successful basketball team.
Of course, people will say that Noah is a hothead, troublemaker, etc., but that would just be blind to the facts at hand.
Speaking of Noah, he only got 5 shots today, hitting all 5 of them. The reason I think this is significant is because of the disparity between shots attempted by the starting 5 in this one. Corey Brewer took 12, which is a difference of 7 between the high and low. The Gators have averaged a shot margin of less than 2 this season from their starting 5.
They're at their best when they share the wealth. This disparity combined with only 11 assists makes for an off-balanced, less-than-impressive attack by the Gators offense.
Once again, I think we should just move on. No use in stressing over this loss.
As I mentioned before, this loss could be a blessing in disguise for the Gators, and I think many of us have been thinking that over the last few games. Hopefully we see a more focused, more hungry, less complacent team in the next few games.
I wasn't surprised by this outcome, though. Vanderbilt should make the tournament if they finish strong, and with their playmakers I think they could make it out of the first weekend if they catch some momentum. Some of their early season losses (i.e. to Furman) are just baffling at this point.
Congrats to Vandy on a great game played, a game in which they easily deserved to win.
At this point, I would not want to be South Carolina next game.
AP Photo/Neil Brake