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Florida vs. Vanderbilt, Game Thread: Gators look for rebound against Commodores

Florida comes home wounded after being strafed by Alabama. Does an easier day await at home?

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Alabama Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

For the Florida Gators, getting back to basics after getting rolled by Alabama — like, rolled — on Wednesday is probably a good idea. In theory, Vanderbilt’s visit to the O’Dome this Saturday is an opportunity for just that — even with the Commodores fresh off a buzzer-beating victory over Tennessee.

And lest we forget: Colin Castleton probably wouldn’t have become Colin Castleton if not for Florida getting back to basics against Vanderbilt.

Way back in 2020, Florida’s first game after Keyontae Johnson’s collapse at Florida State didn’t come for almost three weeks, with the Gators cancelling the remainder of their non-conference slate to recover from that trauma. When they returned to the court, it was at Vanderbilt, and with a hole the size of the Preseason SEC Player of the Year in their rotation.

Enter Castleton.

He pulverized the ‘Dores for 23 points — not just his first double-digit scoring day as a Gator, but more points than he had minutes in any game for Florida prior to that Saturday — and added five boards and two blocks in a 91-73 blowout, making a rare off day for the sophomore version of Tre Mann (nine points on 3-for-10 shooting) irrelevant.

Since then, Castleton has had 13 more 20-point days as a Gator, including each of his last three outings, which together comprise maybe his best stretch at Florida. In those games, he’s averaged about a 25/9/3/2 line — against Tennessee, at Kentucky, and at Alabama — and has been by far Florida’s best player, with Riley Kugel’s 15-point output against the Crimson Tide being the only scoring performance of 15 or better beyond of the big man.

But what Castleton hasn’t really done since instantly asserting himself as not just a starter but a fulcrum for the Gators is dominate Vandy again. He was fine but unspectacular in the Gators’ second meeting with the Commodores that year (13 points, five rebounds), forgettable in the SEC Tournament (six points, eight rebounds; Mann had 22, six, and six), and out with a shoulder injury for Florida’s 61-42 home win last year.

The closest thing to a vintage Colin Castleton performance against Vandy since the first was his 19-point, eight-rebound night in Florida’s theft of last year’s road trip — but he went 6-for-15 from the floor, didn’t have a block, and was probably Florida’s third-best player, with Phlandrous Fleming stuffing the stat sheet and hitting a huge late three and Niels Lane and Myreon Jones doing plenty in their roles.

Castleton being at his best would be helpful for Florida on this day, as on any day ending in y — but it probably shouldn’t be counted on even before factoring in that Vandy can throw a bigger-than-most body at him in the form of Liam Robbins, who has been a defensive force and a foul magnet at the other end this year.

What might also help Florida is that Vandy has one excellent shooter in Myles Stute (40 percent) and a few struggling ones in Tyrin Lawrence, Trey Thomas, and Jordan Wright, all of whom have taken at least 56 threes without making 31 percent of them this year. Thomas, in particular, has not let variance in seasonal numbers stop him from catching fire against Florida before — he’s made 15 of his 69 threes against SEC competition against the Gators — but the numbers suggest that the Commodores are unlikely to beat Florida by bombing away.

Then again: Vandy topped Florida’s previously season-best performance against Tennessee’s defense by sinking 10 of 25 threes on Wednesday, with both Lawrence and Robbins (!) making three of four. Florida’s three-point defense is much improved after some early-season woes, but the Gators will need to be on their guard around the arc before a sold-out crowd.