Florida Gators take Vandy’s best shot, conquer demons in Nashville

If you have a heart condition and are a Florida Gators fan, Tuesday night’s game at Memorial Gym against the Vanderbilt Commodores probably wasn’t what the doctor ordered. The Gators played incredibly tough, and for the most part, incredibly smart basketball. But, in what has become the screenplay for most of this season, the Commodores brought their best game and pushed the Gators to the brink – ultimately losing, like every other SEC team.

Vanderbilt beat Florida, 83-70, the last time the Gators came rolling into Nashville as a No. 1 team, back on Feb. 17, 2007. This night, though, was a different story. Florida’s swarming, oppressive defense forced 11 of Vanderbilt’s 16 turnovers in the first half, and gave the Gators a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. Vanderbilt wouldn’t go quietly into the night, and came close to overtaking Florida numerous times. However, Patric Young’s 12 points, and a somewhat head-turning (in a good way) performance by the Gator bench – only four fewer points than the starting five – helped keep the Dores at bay.

Much like the game at Ole Miss, it wasn’t that the Gators played beneath themselves or played badly. No, they rose to the occasion when their opponent played its absolute best game. The bell had been rung by the Commodores; the Gators answered it and headed back to Gainesville with a win. Florida has now won 20 straight and owns 15 SEC wins for the first time in school history. The “Memorial Magic,” to which Brad Nessler and ESPN kept alluding, just wouldn’t happen – seemingly despite their continued wishes.

Beyond the second half adjustments and the NBA-level screens Florida executes, the pure, raw talent these players routinely demonstrate is the team’s most eye-catching feature. There is no “star” or “go to guy” in games; rather it is a team effort where all members wearing orange and blue combine their best efforts to do whatever task is necessary for victory.

We all know the troubles Scottie Wilbekin faced to start the season, when he was suspended for the first few games. Since then, however, he’s played like a man who has finally grown up and seen the light. Not a major scoring threat for his first three years in Gainesville, Wilbekin now leads by example and is scoring almost 14 points a game – including clutch game performances against Florida State, at Auburn, and at Kentucky. He is also the exception to what has been somewhat of an Achilles’ heel for the Gators this year, hitting over 75% from the line. Not to mention he’s a defensive menace, forcing a team high in both steals and turnovers.

Offensively, Michael Frazier II is the “gunsligner” on this squad. He shoots and scores. A lot. Frazier has said in interviews that he takes almost 200 three-pointers every day in shootaround or practice until he is comfortable. One would think, as Florida’s only reliable long-range shooter, it wouldn’t be as easy as he makes it seem to get open and drain the shot. But somehow it is, and somehow he does.

When looking back on this team, I believe history will see that the most overlooked player is Young. While he does get some coverage on highlight reels, and an occasional drop-in on “SportsCenter,” Young doesn’t nearly get the credit I feel he is due. The heart this young man plays with night in and night out is not something that belongs simply on local news sports segments; but rather, it should be an inspiration to us all. Be it the two three-point plays that iced the pivotal game at Rupp Arena versus Kentucky; blocking a shot at one end of the court against Florida State, and then rushing to the other end to dunk a missed layup; or physical hustle for a tremendous momentum shift that sealed the game at Tennessee, Young demonstrates his quiet brand of leadership every time he is on the floor.

Not only is Young a highly efficient low-post defender, he has become one of the most intimidating centers in the nation, with his physical style of play and above the rim approach. Due to his incredible focus on an opponent’s “next move,” sheer strength, lateral quickness, and dominant post defense, Young is an integral part of this team – and a strong first round draft choice for some lucky NBA team this June. I’d also be remiss to not point out that his free throw shooting has improved tremendously over the past five games.

In order to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, a team must adapt to every opponent it plays in a very short amount of time. The successful teams are able to play many different types of basketball. Florida not only shoots a high percentage at 47.8%, it finds strength in stifling defense. The Gators have been holding teams to around 58 points per game all season (58!). This means that no matter if the Gators face an up-tempo offense like North Carolina, or a team with a slower and more deliberate style, like San Diego State or Southern Mississippi, they can adapt. They can play their opponent’s style of basketball and win the game.

What I worry about most with this team is them looking ahead (as I so often do). It’s not Kentucky I am worried about right now; it’s the dangerous LSU ball club rolling into the O’Connell Center this Saturday. Florida just needs to keep playing it one game at a time, as it has done since that December heartbreaker in Storrs.

My late grandfather used to say to me before a swim meet (in which I was the anchor on the relay team), “Cas, there may be no ‘I’ in team, but there sure as hell is in win,” and I like to think Coach Billy Donovan has instilled that spirit in this Gator team. Gator fans just have to hope this team closes out the year on a winning note with these last 3 games.

It’s not enough to win a share of the SEC title (which happened as a result of the win at Vanderbilt). It’s not enough to win the regular season SEC title. It’s not enough to make it to the SEC championship game. It’s not enough to get to the Elite Eight. It’s time for more, and this veteran group of players is doing everything in its power to ensure that the Final Four in Dallas is the goal. Stay tuned Gator fans; this could be a very special ride.