By virtue of their come-from-ahead loss to Tennessee last Sunday, the one that relegated them to the No. 5 seed in this week’s SEC Tournament, the Florida Gators earned a disadvantage no other team playing in Thursday’s second round had: No knowledge of who their foe would be.
As it turns out, Florida will see Vanderbilt for a third time this year (~2:35 p.m., SEC Network or ESPN+) — something that didn’t work out for the Gators the last time it happened.
That was in 2018, when Vandy produced three of Florida’s eight pre-NCAA Tournament losses before the Gators made an improbable run to the Elite Eight. Luke Kornet’s size and shooting bedeviled that Florida team, which finished that season 0-5 against Vandy under Mike White — whose struggles against Bryce Drew, the Valparaiso player who hit the miracle shot to beat his Ole Miss team in the 1998 NCAA Tournament, were then a major talking point.
Flash forward four years, and both programs are in very different places. White is now 7-6 against Vandy, with the Gators 6-0 against them since 2019, and Drew is at Grand Canyon University, with Jerry Stackhouse hired in Nashville to replace him after the Commodores went winless in SEC play in 2018-19.
And while Stackhouse was supposed to bring a wealth of knowledge to Nashville after extensive NBA playing and coaching careers, it hasn’t worked out like that; the ‘Dores, despite having NBA talent — Scotty Pippen Jr. on this year’s team, Aaron Nesmith and Saben Lee to go with Pippen on last year’s — have been bad overall and downright noncompetitive in the SEC, where they are 6-28 in two regular seasons under Stackhouse.
Yet they’re dangerous and even “hot” coming into this game, thanks to a win over Texas A&M on Wednesday that saw Pippen make all of his 15 free throws against a team playing just its third game since January. Pippen, one of the highest-usage players in men’s college basketball, gives Vandy a chance in any game he plays in, and he is averaging 25 points per game in two losses to Florida this year.
And the Gators are “cold” or slumping, having had a valiant rally against Missouri thwarted by a last-second game-winner and seen a big lead against Tennessee vanish without Tre Mann healthy to defend it. Mann — named a first-team All-SEC performer by the league’s coaches this week — should be fine for this one, though, and Florida has aerated the Commodores’ defense twice, shooting better than 60 percent in Effective Field Goal Percentage in their wins.
If Florida wants to go into the NCAA Tournament with a bit of positivity at its back, winning this game is crucial; if the Gators fall to a lowly Vandy team, there will be little optimism about their ability to win a game in the Big Dance.