The Florida Gators enter SEC play this Saturday (4 p.m., ESPN2 or WatchESPN) hoping to recapture the form they found earlier this season, which catapulted them all the way to No. 5 in the national polls and a top-10 perch in advanced statistical rankings.
Given their foe on Saturday, the number five is appropriate for another reason.
Vanderbilt strides into the O’Connell Center with a five-game winning streak over the Gators, and as the only SEC team that Mike White has yet to score a win over in his short and successful tenure as the Gators’ head coach.
The Commodores beat a middling Florida team twice in 2015-16 — once after holding Florida in check for all but the final minute of a game in ever-befuddling Memorial Gym, and then again in a road win that included a desperation heave just before halftime finding its mark — and then swept three games from the Gators in 2016-17, winning twice in Nashville (once at the SEC Tournament) and once in Gainesville.
But while the ghost of history floats over this series — last year’s and this year’s Commodores have been coached by Bryce Drew, whose Valparaiso Crusaders memorably upset White’s Ole Miss Rebels on a play in the 1998 NCAA Tournament memorialized as just “The Shot” — some of the players that helped make Vanderbilt an insoluble puzzle for the Gators over the last two years are mostly gone. Seven-footer Luke Kornet, who presented a matchup nightmare for Florida, was a senior a year ago, and Wade Baldwin and Damian Jones have moved on to professional careers.
And though this year’s ‘Dores are led by the veteran trio of Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance, Jeff Roberson — all familiar names to Florida fans, given that all three mustered at least an 18-point effort against Florida last season — their ship has been listing. Vandy is just 5-7, with a leather-tough non-conference schedule both explaining that record and leaving the Commodores bereft of even one win over a team in the KenPom top 150: The Commodores have gone 5-0 against teams outside it, and 0-7 against teams in the top 100.
Worse yet, Vandy has really struggled away from Memorial Gym. The ‘Dores are 0-4 in road and neutral-site games, and kept just one of those games — a 69-60 loss in a cross-Nashville jaunt to Belmont — a single-digit affair. Lopsided losses to Virginia, Seton Hall, and Arizona State away from home aren’t exactly unforgivable sins, but taken in conjunction with the Belmont loss, it’s hard to say good things about how Vandy has done outside of its bizarre home arena.
Then again: It’s hard to say too many good things about Florida’s last month of play.
The Gators have gone cold from the field in multiple ways on multiple days, and have been disinterested defenders too often, generally failing to prevent penetration and thus allowing team to feast against undersized post players. Chris Chiozza has been a north star, and is having his finest season as a Gator, but the trio of wings that seemed like a rotation of flamethrowers at the season’s outset — KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, and Egor Koulechov — has been inconsistent at best, with Allen most notably struggling to find a rhythm. (Hudson is also ailing, but will be available today.)
Consecutive wins over James Madison and Incarnate Word a week ago did feature Florida locking down at important moments, but Vanderbilt does bring more firepower to bear in this Saturday clash. And if Florida is going to make good on its potential and the promise shown in its early-season streak to prominence, it’s going to have to find ways — whether by heating up or icing foes — to win games like this one.
Here’s hoping the Gators start with winning this one in particular.