NASHVILLE, Tenn. | Unless the NCAA basketball tournament selection committee has a morbid sense of humor — and they sometimes do — the University of Florida may be done with playing Vanderbilt this season unless both wind up in the Final Four.
It may save Gators coach Mike White some sleep. He predicted at least one more night of second-guessing himself after yet another close loss to the Commodores on Friday in the SEC tournament, 72-62 in overtime at the Bridgestone Arena.
UF (24-8) has lost five in a row to Vanderbilt (19-14), which played Arkansas on Saturday in an SEC semifinal. Three of those losses have come this season (both games in the regular season were decided by two points) and Vandy remains the only SEC team Florida hasn’t beaten with White as coach.
The five losses have been by an average margin of 5.6 points.
The defeat also was Florida’s third in its last four games and dropped them to a fifth seed in the prospective tournament brackets by Joe Lunardi of ESPN and Jerry Palm of CBS Sports. Both still have Florida being assigned to Orlando, Lunardi in the West regional and playing UNC-Wilmington and Palm in the West to face Texas-Arlington.
Lunardi has Vanderbilt as a 10th seed and in the East regional and Palm has the Commodores as a 12th seed in the South.
The maddening aspect for Gator fans is the lack of success this season against a 14-loss team. Among Vandy’s defeats this season were a 20-point rout at the hands of Missouri (the last-place team in the SEC), plus Bucknell and Middle Tennessee. At one point, the Commodores were 8-10 overall and 2-4 in the SEC — but then handed the Gators their only home loss of the season on Jan. 21, 68-66.
“You go back after every [loss], especially when you go 0-3 against somebody … you wrack your brain,” White said after Vanderbilt outscored Florida 14-4 in overtime. “I’ll be wracking my brain here until Sunday night. Should we have done this? Could we have tried this or that?”
White didn’t stand pat, despite the fact that the first two games against Vandy could have gone either way. He threw a matchup zone and a press at the Commodores, to some success. Vanderbilt shot only .429 and the Gators’ defensive effort should have been good enough to win — had they not misfired at a season-low rate of .344.
“I though we defended them at a high level,” White said.
But Florida’s matchup problems against Vandy continued. When the Gators had stretches in which they locked down the Commodores perimeter shooters, Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Payton Willis, 7-foot-1 center Luke Kornet floated outside and drew UF’s big men out with him.
He didn’t hit many from beyond point-blank range — Kornet shot 5 of 13 and missed all four of his 3-point attempts — but he was enough of a threat to put additional pressure on Florida’s defense.
Kornet remained a threat inside where he was deadly with a hook shot — with either hand. He had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds and during the regular seson had a season-high 24 points at home and had 11 points on 4 of 6 shooting in Gainesville.
Last year, Kornet only scored 13 points in two games against the Gators but he blocked 10 shots and had 14 rebounds.
White said Kornet, who has averaged 12.0 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocked shots against Florida in the last two seasons, is the wild card.
“The credit goes to that guy … he is something else defensively and obviously offensively as well when your entire scouting report resolves around how to defend a 7-1 guy that shoots it like a 2 guard,” White said. “He is terrific. And obviously we have more reason to say that than anybody else.”
The issue for Florida with the loss is whether momentum has been halted entering the NCAA tournament. Senior point guard Kasey Hill and sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen didn’t think so.
“I don’t think we lost momentum,” Hill said. “We’ve got to get back to practicing and get better in practice.”
Allen said that started with stepping up the defensive intensity in practice.
But White begged to differ and said the practices between now and the opening NCAA tournament game will have to be geared towards getting the mojo back that helped the Gators win nine in a row at one point during the regular season and finished second in the SEC at 14-4.
“I disagree with my guys,” White said. “They’re young and they’re prideful and these guys, by the way, played really, really hard. We just didn’t play well enough.”
UF, FSU STILL ORLANDO-BOUND?
Despite being eliminated from their respective conference tournaments on Friday, the two major NCAA tournament bracket experts have Florida and Florida State playing their first-round games in Orlando this week:
Joe Lunardi, ESPN
Florida: Fifth seed vs. No. 12 UNC-Wilmington, West regional.
FSU: Third seed vs. No. 14 Winthrop, West regional.
Jerry Palm, CBS Sports
Florida: Fifth seed, vs. No. 12 UT-Arlington, Midwest regional.
FSU: Third seed, vs. No. 14 Florida Gulf Coast, West regional.