Gators and ‘Dores need to rebound

Rebounding is the key to winning in college basketball. That doesn’t just mean aggressively grabbing balls off the boards. It also means rebounding from setbacks and disappointments. In the case of Florida and Vanderbilt, it also means rebounding from weekend losses in games they could have (and perhaps should have) won.

Florida fell to Georgia on Saturday in a game everyone believes the Gators should have won. The Dawgs have lost 15 games and are 4-10 in SEC play, not the kind of squad that should have beaten the No. 11-ranked team in the country by 14 points. Not only did the Gators lose, they got hammered, missing 13 of their first 16 field goals and trailing by double digits for most of the second half.

But there is no time to sulk. Florida takes on Vandy Tuesday night. It is a critical matchup between the second- and third-best teams in the SEC behind Kentucky. How Florida rebounds –  not just after missed shots but overall – will depend a great deal on what kind of mindset they bring to the floor in Nashville.

The Commodores fell to No.1-ranked Kentucky on national television Saturday, as well. It was a game that showcased the ‘Dores’ physicality, but also exposed some weaknesses in their inside play. Kentucky’s first 45 points against Vandy were scored in the paint, despite the presence of big man Festus Ezeli scoring 15 points, pulling down six rebounds and blocking three shots.

Ezeli was not pleased by the outcome in Lexington, and will be looking to exact some revenge on the Gators, a team that beat Vandy 73-65 in their first meeting in Gainesville.

“I really am concerned if we will ever play with any passion again,” Donovan said after the Georgia debacle. “I’m being totally honest. Because if you can’t get excited to play on the road against a bordering state, getting a chance to go 11-3 in the league, and you come out and play like that?

“Obviously, I look at myself as a coach and say, ‘What can I do to generate energy?’ Sometimes as a coach with these guys, I feel like I’m grabbing these guys by the back of their shirts and I’m pulling them up a hill all of the time.”

He needs to pull hard. Florida can’t afford to drop two games in a row this close to tournament time. The Gators beat the ‘Dores three weeks ago, but neither team was coming off a stinging loss in that one. This time, it’s about who has the heart and fortitude to claw back from a disappointing loss and prove that the weekend was an anomaly and not a trend.

If Florida guards Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, and Bradley Beal return to form from outside the three-point line (they average 10.1 threes a game, but made only five against Georgia) then the Gators could lock up second place in the conference. But if, as Billy Donovan said, they have to be pulled by the back of their shirts, Florida will have its hands full against Kevin Stallings and a raucous home-court crowd in Music City.  

“This isn’t football, a team can lose late and still come back,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said of these late-season conference matchups.

That is true, but coming back is hard, especially after losing emotional, hard-fought games like the ones Vandy and Florida played over the weekend. Both teams have physical strengths, and arguments for winning can be on both sides.

But at the end of the night, the victor will be the group that can put the past behind them, and be mentally tough enough to rebound.