Vanderbilt’s hopes for its first SEC title in 18 seasons are still alive. Winning at Florida for the first time in nine years would help the cause.
Winners of five of their last six overall, the 13th-ranked Commodores can also clinch a bye in the conference tournament Tuesday night when they visit the Gators.
Vanderbilt (22-6, 11-3) moved within a game of No. 3 Kentucky in the SEC’s East Division on Saturday with an 89-72 win at Arkansas and the Wildcats’ 74-65 defeat at Tennessee.
The Commodores pushed two games in front of the Volunteers and Florida - which fell 78-76 at Georgia - in the race to secure one of the East’s two tournament byes.
To clinch one of those spots, Vanderbilt needs to beat either the Gators (20-9, 9-5) or South Carolina at home Saturday. Winning could be a tall order in Gainesville, where the Commodores have lost eight straight since winning Jan. 20, 2001.
At home Jan. 9, Vanderbilt outscored Florida 95-87 in the SEC opener for both schools. The Commodores are also 5-2 in conference road games this season, their best record since a 6-2 mark in their title-winning 1992-93 campaign.
They enter Tuesday’s matchup after one of their better shooting performances of the season (53.3 percent) in the win over Arkansas. Jeffrey Taylor hit six of his 10 attempts against the Razorbacks and finished with 18 points to lead five Commodores in double figures.
“I have as much confidence as I’ve ever have had coaching a team at Vanderbilt right now,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “(Our players are) going to compete. They’re going to be physical. They’ve shown time and time again that they’ve got toughness. These guys have something to them that’s sort of fun and you believe in them.”
Stallings’ club faces a Gators team with two opportunities this week to impress the NCAA tournament selection committee. After hosting Vanderbilt, Florida travels to No. 3 Kentucky on Sunday.
“This team has played hard all year, and they’ve responded well,” coach Billy Donovan said. “I anticipate that they’ll respond and play as hard as they can. Our guys understand we have to play well to put ourselves in a good position.”
The Gators didn’t help their cause Saturday by falling to Georgia, one of the SEC East’s worst teams. Florida came back from a 15-point deficit behind Chandler Parsons’ career-best 29 points, but the rally fell short when a last-second pass got knocked out of bounds.
Kenny Boynton, who added 22 points versus the Bulldogs, set a career high with 28 in the January loss to the Commodores. The freshman guard leads the Gators with 13.8 points per game.
Sophomore guard Erving Walker had 22 points against Vanderbilt. A.J. Ogilvy paced the Commodores with 24 points in that matchup, while leading scorer Jermaine Beal (14.6 ppg) added 22.
Vanderbilt leads the all-time series 62-56, but Florida has won 15 of the past 19 overall meetings.