Florida’s men’s basketball team faces one of the great challenges of its season this Tuesday night — and no, it’s not Vanderbilt’s squad that presents it, but rather the still-annoying package of playing the Commodores on the elevated Memorial Gym court.
The Gators haven’t been unimpeachable when subjected to that setup, which also includes the venue’s baseline-set benches, in recent years: Florida won in Nashville in its first game after Keyontae Johnson’s collapse last season, survived a late Vandy push in the 2019-20 season, and handled the winless-in-SEC-play ‘Dores in 2018-19, but dropped their first three trips to Nashville under Mike White, part of a longer stretch of struggles against the Commodores.
And Vanderbilt will still have arguably the most talented player on the floor for this matchup, too, with Scotty Pippen Jr. playing possibly his last home game for the Commodores. Pippen, who is coming off a torrid stretch of five games scoring 23 or more points, will certainly be looking to improve on the six-point, 1-for-10 game he had in Gainesville earlier this season, too; that was probably Florida’s most dominant defensive performance of the year, and the Gators won by 19 while making just nine of a startling 36 threes.
But the presence of Colin Castleton for this game gives Pippen competition for that most talented player spot, and he tore up the Commodores last year, breaking out for 23 points and scoring as both driver and post-up option. Vandy is sure to throw the physical Quentin Millora-Brown at him in this game, but that is unlikely to be enough.
If Florida loses this one? It’s not the absolute end of the world, because it’s a road game — Vanderbilt is actually just close enough to No. 75 in the NET to hope that this provides a Quadrant 1 opportunity. But a loss does likely mean that the Gators would need to both beat Kentucky and win SEC Tournament games — plural, preferably — to make the NCAA Tournament.
Beating Vanderbilt, even at Memorial, would definitely pave an easier, if still uphill, road.