No. 1 Florida at Vanderbilt preview: Gators to test top ranking in tough environment

Location: Memorial Gym – Nashville, TN [Capacity: 14,316]
Time: 7:00 p.m. EST

TV: ESPN (Brad Nessler, Jimmy Dykes, Shannon Spake)
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(1) FLORIDA GATORS VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Head Coach: Billy Donovan Head Coach: Kevin Stallings
Record: 25-2 (14-0 SEC) Record: 15-11 (7-7 SEC)
Conference: Southeastern Conference: Southeastern
Roster | Schedule Roster | Schedule

Odds: Florida -8.5 | O/U: OFF

NO TOP-RANKING BURDEN

Donovan was adamant that the Gators being voted No. 1 will not go to their heads. He noted Monday that while he is pleased Florida is being recognized for winning and overcoming obstacles this season, UF has not really accomplished anything yet.

“I always think any time that it happens that it is an honor. I’m not dismissing that, dismissing the polls or dismissing any of that stuff. I think that what happens is that sometimes you can get focused on that. What happens is, now everything that you do is attached to a ranking,” Donovan explained.

“For our guys, that means nothing – in reality, in terms of us preparing, us getting ready to play and us doing what we need to do to play against Vanderbilt. It’s a very nice honor. It’s kind of like individual awards. They’re very nice. You’re playing in a team sport and trying to win competitively. Although they are nice, I don’t think our guys are playing for individual accolades, awards or for rankings. I think our guys are in the process of competing in a very tough SEC race right now, then the SEC Tournament will come and then postseason play will come.”


While standing as the No. 1 team is “a nice compliment,” according to Donovan, Florida would not have risen to that ranking without other teams losing. He pointed out that Wichita State and Syracuse have both had extraordinary runs, as did Arizona before it lost Brandon Ashley for the season.

“A lot of times when you get that ranking, a lot of times it has nothing to do with what you do, but has to do with what other people do. When you start to be affected by other people, you get focused on the wrong things and your focused gets a lot broader. Where you really need to narrow your focus this time of year on what you need to do,” he said.

“It’s not like all of a sudden Florida is number one or we get a ranking like that, that we’re in my opinion the best in the country. We’ve been given a number, and that is the extent of it.”

INJURY UPDATES

Freshman point guard Kasey Hill (groin) remains unlikely to play on Tuesday with Donovan calling his young floor general a game-time decision at Vanderbilt.

“It is one of those things where he is progressing, going through individual workouts, running, moving and getting better, but I think it is going to be the trainer’s decision,” he said. “We’ve come this far: what is the risk and reward of him playing and what is the potential of him getting injured again? Is he beyond that? He can always get hurt, but I don’t think we want to put him in a bad situation. He’s probably not going to play.”

Also still ailing is senior forward Casey Prather, who remains the team’s leading scorer at 15.4 points per game but was not his usual self on Saturday at Ole Miss, going a woefully inefficient 3-for-10 from the field.

“He’s having some issues right now,” said Donovan, referring to Prather’s health. “He’s having some tendinitis in his knees; he did not practice [Sunday], I don’t know if he’ll practice [Monday] or not. He just didn’t seem to have it in the game there and just wasn’t playing at the level he normally plays at, and we just decided to go bigger in the game. We put Dorian [Finney-Smith] at the small forward spot and got really good minutes out of him there. We rebounded the ball fairly well and did a pretty good job offensively executing in a spot where Dorian hasn’t played a lot of minutes there.”

Speaking of Finney-Smith, though he broke a 0-for-22 slump from beyond the arc on Saturday, the three-pointer was his only basket. He has shot 28.4 percent from the field over the last 30 days but has made 81 percent of his free throws in that same span.

DEALING WITH THE GYMNASIUM

The location of UF’s game Tuesday, the Memorial Gym in Nashville, is always a topic of conversation heading into the contest. One of the most unique venues in college basketball, the venue features a floor that is built up to resemble a stage with wide out-of-bounds areas. The team benches are also placed on the baseline looking into the court rather than on the same sideline like most arenas.

In addition to the strange setup that makes it more difficult for coaches to run their team during games, players have to deal with shot clocks on wall columns rather than above the backboard. There are also large interior walls that take up a good deal of space with players not just shooting into a background of fans in seats, a different view than they are used to seeing.

“We’ll get a chance [to get used to it] at the shoot around. We’ll get a chance to get to the arena,” said Donovan on Monday. “The one thing that’s difficult is, in the first half, it’s always easier to adjust and change defenses because their offense is right in front of you. You’ve got to rely on your guards and your team to get us in and out of offense and to recognize defense because it’s right in front of them. Then in the second half, you’ve got your offense in front of you and our defense is at the other end of the floor.

“It’s an interesting thing because the whole first half, for the most part, my team is going to have their back to us. Think about it, run down the floor on offense, their backs are to me and they come back on defense, their backs are to me. In the second half, everything is facing me. Our defense is facing me and then obviously, our offense is facing me. So that’s a unique part of playing there. Our guys, we need to get in and out of offenses, we need to get in and out of defenses, we have to address those things, but ultimately our guys have to go out there and play.”

Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II, the Gators’ sharpshooter and leading threat from beyond the arc, appeared unfazed when asked about playing in a different kind of arena.

“I’ve seen it on TV, and I’ve heard about it, but the goal is still 10 feet, the three-point line is still the same. So, I don’t think it will be much different,” he said.

FINDING HIS GROOVE

Senior center Patric Young has not necessarily posted better overall numbers this season, but his improved consistency, top-notch work ethic and positive attitude have undoubtedly helped his teammates. Both Frazier and senior forward Will Yeguete, Young’s roommate, have noticed the player stepping up his game on and off the court.

“Just his attitude and the way he approaches the game and approaches practice every day. He’s grown up so much since last year,” Frazier said. “He’s matured so much and that just shows a lot about his character and that he internally looked inside of himself and understood that he had to get better in certain areas and I think he has really grown in that part of his life, his attitude. Also, his work ethic. I’ve seen that improve since last year and I think it’s showing this year.”

Added Yeguete: “He’s more consistent every day. He’s more vocal and trying to be our leader. I think he’s having a really good season and a really good last few games. I think he’s more focused and I think talks more to us. I think Scottie [Wilbekin] is a good leader as well, but Pat has done a really good job just stepping into that role and staying consistent and not letting anything get to him, especially in practice.”

In addition to scoring and rebounding at higher rates, Young has hit 24 of his last 32 free throws for a 75 percent efficiency from the charity stripe in February.

HISTORY, STATS AND STREAKS

» Vanderbilt leads Florida 64-61 in the all-time series between the SEC East rivals, holding a 44-16 edge at home in Nashville. Under Donovan, the Gators are 23-12 against the Commodores overall, 7-9 on the road at Memorial Gym.
» UF and VU played home-and-home series for 47-straight years but will only meet once this season for the second-straight campaign.
» Florida set a program record by winning its 19th-straight game on Saturday. UF has also won 24 of its last 25 games.
» At 25-2 (14-0 SEC), the Gators have also set school mark for best overall start to a season and tied a program-best for league record to begin a conference slate.
» UF has won seven-straight SEC road games, also a program record.
» Florida will clinch a share of the 2013-14 SEC regular-season title with a win.
» The Gators have already clinched a top-two seed in the 2014 SEC Tournament.
» Florida has won 30-straight home games and 15-in-a-row against league opponents in the O’Dome, both school records.
» Florida is 76-9 since the beginning of the 2011-12 season when holding an opponent under 71 points in a game.
» UF is 12-2 this season in single-digit decisions after going 0-6 in such contests during the 2012-13 campaign. Florida is also 1-0 in overtime games.
» The Gators are 9-2 in true road games this season with both losses coming against ranked opponents during the first month of the season. UF lost those contests by a combined seven points.
» The Commodores are 4-1 in their last five home games against No. 1-ranked opponents dating back to 1987. Vanderbilt is 6-7 at home all-time against No. 1 teams.
» The last time UF was ranked No. 1 in the regular season, in Feb. 2007, VU knocked it down with a 83-70 home victory.

NOTES AND QUOTES

» Donovan on whether it is beneficial to lose a game late in the year before the postseason: “I don’t know. I know how I view it. I view every game as an opportunity. That is how I view it. I don’t view it is as we have pressure on us or anything else. I view every game as an opportunity to go out there and compete and play. I think that any coach will tell you that the best way to learn is through winning, but losing does help you grow as well. I don’t know how to answer that in terms of does it help you or does it not help you. It’s one of those things that I say after every game, there are always residual effects that you have to deal with as a coach. Whether it’s your team didn’t play well or whether it’s your team played well, guys don’t handle success, guys lose confidence, guys can’t handle a bad performance, there is always some type of effects. Whether you win or lose, you’re trying to move your team forward.”

» Donovan on Florida enjoying the success it has achieved thus far: “Every time we win, we celebrate. We celebrate hard in the locker room and we have a great time going back on the bus or on the flight coming home after the game. We are going to enjoy that moment, without question. I never, ever want to in the position where we go into a game and we put our heart and soul in to preparing and in to playing and then we walk off the court. Even if we didn’t play great, if we win, we’re going to celebrate it. We’re going to enjoy it. Where that ends is when the sun gets up the next morning. That’s behind us now. It’s a new day, new challenges, and do you have the ability to start back off at the bottom? Without question, I think it’s very, very important when you’ve got a group of young kids that are working as hard as these guys are and are putting their heart and soul in it that they should have a moment together and some time together to really enjoy that moment and celebrate that moment with each other.”

» Stallings on Florida being No. 1: “They’re good at everything. They’re good at defense, they’re good at offense, they’re good at rebounding. They’re experienced and tough, and you can tell they have great leadership. There’s absolutely nothing that would make them not good. They have great guard play, they have tough physical guys up front, they have depth. I think everybody knows Billy is a great coach but he has done a phenomenal job with their team. People forget they had all kinds of adversity at the beginning of the season with injuries and suspensions and guys out, things like that. They found ways to win anyway. Just an unbelievable job he’s done with that team.”

» Stallings on why the Gators are playing so well: “It’s just everything you look at with their team: they’re together, they play together. You can tell they hold each other accountable. The name on the front of their jersey is the only thing that they’re playing for; nobody is playing for the name on the back of their jersey. They share the ball. They play for each other on defense as well as any team I’ve seen in the 15 years that I’ve been in the league. It’s one thing to share and be unselfish on offense – which is very obvious because the ball is involved – they’re very unselfish on defense. How they cover for each other and how they play for each other. It just, again, you just see their seniors all the time, getting everybody together. ‘Hey, we need a stop’ and you can see it. It’s a real delightful thing to see because that’s what we, all of us coaches, aspire to have our teams be like. It’s inspiring to me to watch them play and to have watched them on film. The game is being played on both ends exactly the way you’d want to coach it.”

» Frazier on the team not letting its new ranking change anything: “We have a good group of guys, guys that are level-headed for the most part, especially our seniors. They do a good job of trying to keep everything in perspective and the coaches as well. So, all in all as a group, I think we understand that there’s a lot we can get better at. I personally think we just want to be the number one team in the nation at the end of the season. So right now, it’s all good but we have to continue to get better and fall in love with the process every day.”

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