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January 31, 2007

GAME DAY REPORT: No. 24 Vandy vs. No. 1 Florida

QUICK FACTS
Vanderbilt (15-6, 5-2) vs. Florida (19-2, 6-0)

Tip-off:: 6:00 p.m. CDT, O'Connell Center, Gainesville, Florida.

The line: Florida by 16.5

RPI: Vanderbilt is 54, Florida is 17

Sagarin ratings: Vanderbilt is 105, Florida is 21

Series info: 112th meeting; Vanderbilt leads the all-time series 59-52; Vanderbilt leads 37-12 in Nashville; Florida leads 35-20 in Gainesville and 5-2 at neutral sites. Last Year's Meetings: Florida won both meetings: 81-58 in Gainesville on Jan. 28, 2006 and 73-68 in Nashville on Feb. 15, 2006.

Coaches: Kevin Stallings is in his eighth year at Vanderbilt (137-102) and his 14th year overall (259-165); Billy Donovan is in his 11th year at Florida (245-100) and his 13th year overall (280-120).

Rankings: Vanderbilt is ranked NO. 24 in the AP poll and is No. 28 in the ESPN/USA Today Coach's poll. Florida is ranked No. 1 in both polls.

Radio: In Nashville, the game is carried on the ISP Radio Network (WGFX 104.5 FM).

Television: Lincoln Financial Sports. Tom Hammond provides the play-by-play
alongside color analyst Larry Conley.


STARTING LINEUPS

Vanderbilt
3 - Alex Gordon, G, 5-11, 164, Jr., Pensacola, Fla. (8.2 ppg, 3.8 apg)

32 - Shan Foster, G/F, 6-6, 200, Jr., Kenner, La. (15.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg)

4 - Derrick Byars, G/F, 6-7, 230, Sr.-Tr., Memphis, Tenn. (15.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.0 apg)

20 - Dan Cage, G, 6-5, 215, Sr., Indianapolis, Ind. (11.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg)

41 - Ross Neltner, F, 6-9, 247, Jr.-Tr., Fort Thomas, Ky. (10.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg)


Florida
11 - Taurean Green, G, 6-0, 177, Jr., Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (13.7 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 3.9 apg)

12 - Lee Humphrey, G, 6-2, 192, Sr., Maryville, Tenn. (10. 7 ppg, 1.6 apg)

2 - Corey Brewer, F, 6-9, 185, Jr., Portland, Tenn. (12.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.0 apg)

13 - Joakim Noah, F, 6-11, 232, Jr., New York, N.Y. (12.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg)

42 - Al Horford, F, 6-10, 245, Jr., Puerto Plata, D.R. (12.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg)


SCOUTING FLORIDA

What can you say about Florida that isn't patently obvious to any college hoops fan? The Gators, with a starting five that could (and soon will) compete in the NBA, could go undefeated in the SEC this year. With the struggles in Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge, and the continued faltering in Lexington and Knoxville, there just doesn't appear to be an SEC team that is even within striking distance of last year's national champs.

Florida leads the nation in field goal shooting (54.4 percent), due in large part to the lights-out 3-point marksmanship of Humphrey. The Tennessee native is 23-32 from 3 in SEC games, for 72 percent.

Horford and Noah are a truly unique two-headed frontcourt monster that is virtually impossible to defend man to man. The duo combine for 24.7 points, 16.9 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game. Noah is shooting 65.3 percent from the field while Horford is shooting at a 64.6 percent.

And if that's not all, Green has established himself as one of the nation's best point guards, scoring 13.7 points from the perimeter for the season. And we haven't even mentioned another Tennessee native, Corey Brewer, who leads Florida with 34 steals this season. Brewer is also one of the most tenacious defenders in the league, and single-handedly obliterated the Commodores in their Nashville matchup last year, scoring 26 points and grabbing eight rebounds.

Since the start of SEC play, Vanderbilt has gone from David to Goliath, beating every ranked opponent they've faced. But to be perfectly honest, Alabama, LSU, Kentucky or Tennessee can hold a candle to Florida right now. Donovan is perhaps the best coach in the league, and is playing with the best talent in the nation.

This week, Stallings said he thought Florida was hands down the best team in the NCAA, and few people outside of Tobacco Road would argue it.

Vanderbilt's last win in Gainesville came on Jan. 20, 2001 when the Commodores topped the seven-ranked Gators 63-61. That was Vandy's last road win over a ranked opponent since this season. Florida is favored by 16, and there's a multitude of reasons. There's no doubt that Vandy could play a solid game today and still lose by double digits.

The biggest problem Vandy has tonight is how to defend Florida. Stallings has employed a variety of defensive looks this winter, playing zone, man, and a match-up trapping press -- sometimes switching between them mid-possession. But what worked versus Georgia Tech and Alabama -- two teams with double digit basketball IQs -- and LSU -- a team with sub-par guards and no outside shooting -- will not work tonight. If you double down on Noah, you have to contend with Humphrey and Green stroking wide open bombs. If you man up, you force 6-4 Cage to try to handle Horford, who can put the ball on the floor and blast Cage into the seats on the blocks. If you help on the baseline, you leave Noah open to do his damage inside and out.

Vandy is on the national radar tonight, with a ranking no one expected just three weeks ago. Unfortunatley, this is a test that may make Vandy look bad even if they play well. Still, few picked VU to beat any of the ranked opponents they've played thus far, and VU has nothing to lose tonight by playing loose and aggressive.


OUR TAKES

Mike Rapp
Franklin, Tenn.
VandySports.com Publisher


That Vanderbilt may be the second best team in the SEC right now, and is a 16 point underdog, tells you how far ahead of the pack this Florida team is. Of course, it's no surprise, since the Gators return everyone from their national championship team from last year.

There isn't a position on the court where Vanderbilt has an advantage in match-ups. But to be fair, that could be said for most of the teams Florida will face this year. VU is used to being the underdog, and have already played and won at UK, LSU and Alabama.

Still, the O-Dome is second only to Rupp in the Intimidation Factor, and Florida crushed VU last year when Stallings had Terrell and Carroll on the blocks. Vandy's only hope is to come out blasting from 3, and hope Florida has an off-night shooting the ball. You have to like Vandy's chances if the game is close at the end, but I think this one will be over early.

If there is an X-factor for VU tonight it is the team's confidence level. I don't expect these guys to get tight tonight; After weathering the storm from embarrassing preconference losses, and winning three SEC road games already, the new Bomb Squad should come out playing to win tonight.

I am especially intrigued by the matchup of Neltner and Noah. Neltner could arguably be the most important player on VU's team right now, and he simply cannot get into foul trouble if Vandy hopes to pull this one out at the end.

I hate to sound like a moral victory guy, but Vandy doesn't have to win tonight to stay on course. The must win game is Saturday against Georgia. Tonight, I hope for a respectable performance with the nation's spotlight on the Commodores for the first time in ages -- and then get payback against the Bulldogs back at Memorial.

Florida 85, Vanderbilt 68


Tommy Crockett
Reno, Nev.
VandySports.com Staff Writer


Arguably the hottest team in the SEC meets the best team in America. Well, something has to give. Vandy escaped their trap game by holding off Ole Miss in front of just over 11,000 home fans in Nashville.

Florida just keeps on winning. Going to Gainesville is never pretty, "All in the valley of Death Rode the six hundred. 'Forward, the Light Brigade!" While this won't be close to the sort of drama that Tennyson once described and at first glance one might think that Vandy's interior versus Brewer, Noah and Horford could be a similar mismatch. Yet Neltner, the guy that suffices as Vandy's "big man" in the starting lineup, is becoming a "passing to the right man" phenom. Ross is coming off his career high six assist game against Ole Miss.

Vanderbilt has a history of rising to the top when playing a No. 1 team, and has pulled off the upset on five occasions. Only nine teams in the history of the NCAA have pulled off this feat more often.

Byars is playing with more confidence than in anytime in his career and Foster can and suddenly will take it to the basket. To most Cage is the surprise of the season in the SEC.

History tells us the Commodores have only won 20 games in Gainesville and Coach Stallings owns a 3-12 mark against the Gators. "Cannon to right of them, Cannon to left of them, Cannon in front of them, Volley'd and thunder'd."

I don't expect the Commodores to walk into O'Connell with the proverbial "Deer in the Headlights" syndrome. I fully expect the Gators to be prepared and certainly not the kind of team that will take this game for granted. Vanderbilt should be hot and I expect the first half to be a dog fight in terms of scoring with Vandy taking the lead for much of the first period. It will take a complete game from every 'Dore on the floor to win this game.

But in the end Florida's defense is going to be very difficult to overcome.

Florida 70, Vanderbilt 68


Jesse Johnson
Murfreesboro, Tenn.
VandySports.com Recruiting Analyst


The Florida Gators are the defending national champions and are on a 12 game winning streak. The Vanderbilt Commodores are on a four game winning streak, have beaten five ranked opponents, and are a AP top 25 team for the first time in three years. Obviously, something's got to give.

With the game being in Gainesville, it looks like it will be the Commodores that will give -- but what could be a key matchup for the SEC Eastern Division crown does not look like it will be a cake walk for the Gators. Vanderbilt has five legit scorers who can shoot from anywhere on the court and have played aggressive defense that has limited some of the best programs in the league well under their average.

The keys for Vanderbilt are to take smart, aggressive shots and run any fastbreak opportunities to perfection. Vanderbilt has to have another good shooting night in order to defeat the Gators in a tough place like Gainesville.

Defensively, this could be the Commodores' toughest matchup of the season, since the duo of Noah and Horford are perhaps the best inside duo in the nation. Vanderbilt will likely have to play some type of zone to limit touches on the inside, but they cannot just leave the wings camping. Humphrey and Brewer have been 'Dores killers from the outside the past couple of years.

The X-factor, as with any time Vanderbilt has played Florida the past two seasons, will be Brewer. The Portland native and one time recruiting target of the 'Dores has been a thorn in Vanderbilt's side, and seems to take a pleasure in giving Vanderbilt fits on both ends of the court. If Brewer has his typical game, Vanderbilt is to likely lose. If the Dores can get pressure on Brewer and maybe get inside his head, then Vanderbilt's chances improve greatly.

The last time that Vanderbilt defeated Florida in the O'Connell Center was during Coach Stallings' second year during the 2000-2001 season. Since then, the Commodores have lost by an average of 16 points -- although there have been a few occasions where they have came out hot in the first half, only to wilt in the second. Vanderbilt must make sure that if they get off to a good start on Wednesday, they avoid letting the Gators make major runs and "effort" plays that have generally put Florida on top.

There is no real pressure on Vanderbilt in this game, as most expect the 'Dores to go down in Gainesville. If Vanderbilt could play with a loose but determined mindset, I believe Vanderbilt can pull a shocker. However, I have too many visions of Corey Brewer's long arms somehow getting a block or a steal at a key moment in the game and giving the victory to Florida.

Florida 68, Vanderbilt 66


Chris Lee
Nashville, Tenn.
VandySports.com Publisher


No one would have thought it a month ago, but Wednesday night's matchup in Gainesville could be the SEC's game of the year. The Gators are far-and-away the league's best team, but the Commodores haven't been far behind the last three weeks.

It would be hard to imagine the Commodores playing much better. The defense has improved, the shots are falling, and most importantly, the team believes it can win. The team plays hard, is scared of no one, and has fantastic senior leadership from Byars and Cage.

But, even with the impressive run of late, this team has not faced anything like Florida. What's scary about Florida is that, even though they've not dropped a game since the December 3 loss to Florida State, is the feeling the Gators have not yet hit their stride.

Remember, this is the same Gator team that won five of its six NCAA Tournament games last year by 13 points or more (only Georgetown, who fell 57-54 to Florida, kept it close). In recent weeks, Florida has struggled to win at Mississippi State, and nearly blew a large lead at home to Ole Miss.

And if Florida brings its "A" game, the Commodores will have to play their best game of the year... just to keep it close. Vandy has done a terrific job of holding down some good post players in Glen Davis and Randolph Morris of late, but hasn't faced a duo of big men like Noah and Horford. One can be stopped, but can both?

Then, there are other problems. Humphrey is connecting at a phenomenal rate from outside. Brewer could potentially shut down Foster or Byars, depending on which one he's assigned to guard. Green is a very good dribble-penetrator, something which Ole Miss's Todd Abernethy hurt the Commodores on Saturday.

Is it impossible that Vandy can come to Gainesville and win? No, but it's highly unlikely. It would take strong performances from Cage, Foster and Byars, a good defensive job by Gordon on Green, a sub-par shooting night by Humphrey and a relatively foul-free night from Vandy's inside players.

But I think the essential difference in this game is the home-court advantage of the O'Connell Center, and the matchup problems of Noah and Horford underneath. I expect the Commodores to play OK for a while, but Florida is America's No. 1 team for a reason.

Florida 85, Vanderbilt 70


Robbie Smoot
Nashville, Tenn.
VandySports.com Contributing Writer


This game is going to be a chess match between two friends. How Kevin S. and Billy D. decide to play this game will be very interesting to see. I think both coaches have some decisions to make on the defensive end of the floor, and what decisions they make will play a huge part in the outcome of the game.

I think Vanderbilt is totally mismatched when they are on the defensive end of the floor. If Cage guards Horford, I really don't see how he handles him. Yes, he handled Hendrix, Perry, and basically everyone else that he has come up against, but he hasn't come up against Horford -- who is far and away the best power forward he will play against this year.

And, the dilemma is, if you help out Cage, Horford and the Florida team are good enough passers to find the open man, and virtually everyone Florida has on the floor are excellent shooters. In my opinion, Vanderbilt will need to constantly switch up the defense between zone and man to try to confuse the Gators some, and hope they have an off shooting night.

Another concern is Green's penetration. Vandy has seemed to improve a lot in that area, but Abernathy of Ole Miss had his way in the second half. Vanderbilt will have to hope that was just a blip in the radar and not a sign of things to come.

On the offensive end of the floor, the Dores could have a slight advantage. I wouldn't be surprised to see Florida play some zone, but I think they will try to play man for the most part. If they do, the key will be, who will Horford and Humprheys guard? If Humprheys guards Foster or Byars, they will have quite an advantage over him. Also, if Horford guards Cage, it could help Vandy pull some offensive boards if Cage keeps Horford on the outside.

I actually think we will see Horford guarding Byars or Foster, and Humprhey will play Cage. Yes, Horford could have some trouble there, but you pick your poison. As good as Foster is, I think he is more stationary and doesn't handle the ball quite as well as Cage.

A good example of how Florida plays a four guard team is the Villanova game in the Elite 8 last year. They basically stayed on Foye, Ray and Lowery, and let Nardi be the open man. Nardi couldn't throw it in the ocean that game, and Florida went on to win the championship.

Vandy absolutely must knock down open shots if they are to win this game. Also, coach Stallings has to pull all the right cards, as his margin for error is much smaller than Billy D's. I do think Vanderbilt will be hyped to play this one, and I think they will play well. But, Florida's not overlooking this one, and they just have too many horses to lose if they play a good game.

Florida: 80, Vanderbilt 70


Jake Lowery
Atlanta, Georgia
VandySports.com Staff Writer


The Gators will be a great challenge to defend, but Vanderbilt's "small" lineup may be able to produce some open 3-point opportunities for the 'Dores to stay in the game. Noah and Horford get their share of points and offensive rebounds against just about anybody, and Vanderbilt has struggled this season when they have been unable to play good post defense (i.e. UGA, Georgetown).

Coach Stallings' toolbox may be limited today, since a straight 2-3 zone would allow Florida's excellent shooters many open looks.

The key players for Vanderbilt are Foster and Cage. Byars will likely have Brewer, and sometimes some "help", draped all over him, so Shan and Dan's ability to hit 3-pointers will determine whether Vanderbilt can stay in this game. In addition, Dan's ability to execute his defensive responsibilities will be crucial to the Dores' chances.

Vandy's best chance to win is to play very aggressive defense, as several Florida players have had turnover problems this season. It's a longshot, but winning the turnover battle and hitting some shots from downtown could give Vandy the edge it needs to stay competitive. However, Billy Donovan is a great coach who will adjust to whatever defense Stallings can throw at him, and Florida's talent will win the day in the end.

Florida 78, Vanderbilt 70


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