No. 12 Florida aims to stay hot versus Vanderbilt (Mar 04, 2017)

Vanderbilt and Florida have much to play for when the teams meet in Nashville’s Memorial Gymnasium on Saturday.

Florida (24-6, 13-3 Southeastern Conference) can’t be the top seed in next week’s SEC Tournament, but a win over Vanderbilt, coupled with a Kentucky loss at Texas A&M, would give the No. 12 Gators a share of the regular-season title.

The Commodores (16-14, 9-8) are gunning for an NCAA Tournament bid. On a four-game losing streak and buried for dead at 8-10 and 2-4 in the league, Vanderbilt shocked the Gators in Gainesville 68-66, becoming the only team to beat Florida on its campus this year.

Vanderbilt has since beaten three other probable NCAA Tournament teams in Arkansas, Iowa State and South Carolina, but an at-large bid has never been awarded to a team with more than 14 losses.

Vanderbilt’s resume is unique. According to CBSsports.com’s RPI, the Commodores have the No. 2 strength of schedule in the country — that should rise to No. 1, since the Gators are No. 3 in the RPI — and the toughest out-of-conference slate, too.

ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, as of Friday morning, has Vanderbilt as his first team out of the tournament, while handing Florida a No. 4 seed. The Gators’ 8-3 road record, 15 top-100 RPI wins and high ratings in computer rankings that the NCAA Tournament is said to consider suggest the Gators could climb as high as a No. 2.

The key to this game could be in the paint, where Vanderbilt center Luke Kornet (21 points versus Kentucky on Tuesday) has played wonderfully since his knees have felt better. Kornet, who along with starting guard Nolan Cressler will be honored on Senior Day on Saturday, ranks in the top 10 in conference play in seven statistical categories.

Vandy’s 7-foot-1 center, named a CoSida second-team Academic All-American this week, is three blocks shy of tying Festus Ezeli’s school record of 204.

The Commodores are aiming to rebound from a 73-67 loss to Kentucky — a game in which they let a 19-point lead slip away.

“At the end of the year, you can look tired, but when you are still improving as a team, it rejuvenates you and gives you energy,” Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew said. “And from the practices to the games, we are still getting better.”

Florida could be particularly vulnerable in the paint. The Gators lost 6-foot-11, 255-pound center John Egbunu to a season-ending knee injury in the Auburn game on Feb. 14, and don’t have a similar player to replace him. The Gators have given 6-foot-9, 218-pound Kevarrius Hayes more minutes, and also given floor time to seldom-used Schuyler Rimmer and Gorjok Gak.

Florida’s 3-point defense is 11th-best in the country (30.5 percent), but Vanderbilt shoots 38.4 percent behind the arc and was 10-for-25 (40 percent) in its victory over UF.

Guard Matthew Fisher-Davis led Vanderbilt with 19 points in the earlier meeting, but his season has included a one-game suspension and some partial-game benchings. The junior failed to score at Kentucky and had four turnovers, which may have been the difference in a 6-point loss to the ‘Cats.

Florida has also shot well from the outside, going 10-for-23 (43.5 percent) from 3 in its last game, a 78-65 win over Arkansas. In the earlier meeting, guard KeVaughn Allen had a season-high 29 points, but missed a last-second 3 from the corner with Fisher-Davis bearing down on him.

The Gators lack stars and thrive on a team-first approach.

“I think that speaks to this team in general, how any given night any person can step up and have a big game,” senior swingman Canyon Barry said.