If Florida is going to make the 2019 NCAA Tournament against all odds — after squandering chance after chance to get a big win, after struggling to put together wins, after losing players to injury and seeing others struggle with baffling poor performance — it is going to have to win games like Wednesday night’s against Vanderbilt (9 p.m., SEC Network or ESPNU) down the stretch of this season.
And this game is a must-win because it’s more accurately a can’t-lose.
In Vandy, the Gators are facing their first opponent in about three weeks that can be reliably considered an NCAA Tournament impossibility. Bryce Drew’s Commodores have not weathered the loss of freshman point guard and 2019 NBA Draft entrant Darius Garland to injury well at all: Vandy was 4-0 with a healthy Garland, lost him early their fifth game and fourth loss, and is just 5-15 since, with one win against a team in the KenPom top 250. (And that win came against an Arizona State squad would go on to defeat Kansas and then drop a home game to Princeton in its next two contests, perhaps the most baffling three-game stretch in college basketball this year.)
Vandy is also 0-10 in SEC play, and has lost just three of those games by single digits. The Commodores are only truly bad at a few things — they rank outside the top 300 in turnover percentage on defense, and get a lot of shots blocked — but are also just not good at much of anything, with the exception of using Saben Lee and Simi Shittu to get them to the line. Vandy gets 23 percent of its points from free throws despite not shooting 70 percent from the stripe as a team, and Lee and Shittu are prodigious and excellent at drawing fouls, respectively. If Florida can keep its hands off Lee, a talented driver, then it will give itself a fine chance of winning on this night.
But if the Gators can’t, and have one of their typically frustrating nights on offense, Florida might yet see its NCAA hopes short-circuit before Valentine’s Day.
And there would be nothing to love about that.