The Florida Gators have already taken one of their worst losses of the year this week.
On Saturday, at Vanderbilt (4 p.m., ESPN2 or WatchESPN), they’ll try to avoid making that two.
Fresh off a 72-69 overtime defeat at the hands of a Georgia team that erased an 11-point lead in the second half and a six-point edge in the final 20 seconds, the Gators are set for a meeting with an old nemesis at a venue — the notoriously weird Memorial Gym, with its raised floor and its benches on the baselines — that has been inhospitable to them. In a normal year, this would be a recipe for a road loss.
Except: Vanderbilt is not having a normal year, but a bad one. The last stalwarts of Kevin Stallings’s tenure in Nashville, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Riley LaChance and Jeff Roberson, have been hurt and inconsistent and inconsistent, respectively, for a team that is about a year away from having a true infusion of talent under Bryce Drew.
Fisher-Davis hasn’t played since late January thanks to a season- and collegiate career-ending shoulder injury, LaChance has two separate games of single-digit scoring on the year, and Roberson — who ranked 57th in Offensive Rating entering Saturday, to be fair — has only really found his rhythm in SEC play of late, clicking off six 20-point nights in his last eight games after having just three such games in the first two months of the season.
And while freshman Saben Lee is actually Vandy’s highest-usage player, he’s been a poor shooter (28 percent from three), as has forward Joe Toye (26 percent), and both have been turnover-prone.
Vandy, as currently constructed, is really a team that Florida should be able to pressure and feast on, and one without an imposing big man on offense — Roberson is 6’6”, Toye is 6’7”, and the Commodores’ players over 6’8” are little-used at that end — to tax the Gators’ own undersized frontcourt.
But, of course, these teams have played already this year — and though Florida won, Vandy hit 12 of 31 threes and sliced a 20-point halftime margin all the way down to seven points by game’s end. Fisher-Davis was around and helpful (17 points) for that contest, which happened way back in late December, and Vandy just hasn’t been the same on offense without him ... but Vandy is also 5-1 against Florida with Mike White coaching the Gators, and has flummoxed White’s charges in various ways over the last three years.
And Vandy has made a habit of being annoying at home, even this year. The ‘Dores have wins over Alabama, Georgia, and TCU in Nashville, and made serious runs at both Kentucky and Tennessee in Memorial Gym.
And Florida can ill afford to add the worst possible loss remaining on its schedule to an NCAA Tournament resume that has plenty of black marks already.
So Florida, which has one win since 2011 at Memorial — a three-point win by the memorably dominant 2013-14 Gators, mind — ought to be on edge for this contest.
But it’s nearly impossible to tell whether the Gators will do that or put fans on edge in any given game — and so I’m settling in for this one with nails to bite.