No one is saying that Saturday’s contest between Vanderbilt and Florida is not important.
“Every game’s huge at this point,” Commodores guard Brad Tinsley said.
Even so, there is slightly less at stake than in recent seasons when the teams take the court at the O’Connell Center (noon, CBS).
Thanks to the change from a two-division format to a single set of conference standings in 2011-12, this matchup will have a direct effect on the race for the regular-season championship. However, it will not necessarily lessen either team’s opportunity for the conference tournament crown when the time comes.
Florida (18-4, 6-1 in the SEC) and Vanderbilt (16-, 5-2) are in second and third place, respectively, behind Kentucky. The Commodores are a game ahead of three teams tied for fourth.
Under the two-division alignment, the battle for second place in the Eastern Division would be even more important than the opportunity to stay within range of first. That’s because the top two teams in each division earned a first-round bye for the conference tournament while all others were faced with the challenge of trying to win four games in four days in order to win that event.
This season, the top four overall teams get the bye and the three-game path to the title.
“I wouldn’t say it’s made a huge difference,” Tinsley said. “It’s pretty interesting that they’re doing that. It’s probably good for the league going down the stretch. … It kind of makes everything more equal. The better teams will get rewarded at the end with first-round byes and stuff.”
At worst, therefore, Saturday’s loser reaches the midpoint of the conference season tied for fourth and still in control of its own destiny in pursuit of a day off at the start of the conference tournament.
“Hopefully it will get us away from appearing like we’re two separate leagues – the East and the West – and we’re just one league, and a good league,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “And it will help us get more teams in the [NCAA] tournament.”
It remains to be seen how the second part of that (the NCAA invitations) pans out, but if they lose to No. 12 Florida, the 25th-ranked Commodores potentially will find themselves in the thick of one very sizable pack.
Vanderbilt lost 82-74 at Arkansas on Tuesday. Its only other conference defeat was against Mississippi State.
The Razorbacks and Bulldogs are two of the three teams – Ole Miss is the other – that start the weekend at 4-3 in SEC play. Alabama is another game back at 3-4.
“I haven’t looked at the standings,” Stallings said. “It’s the next game on the schedule, and as a coach, that’s just the most important thing you’ve got going. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s a divisional game or a non-divisional game or a conference game or a non-conference game.
“It becomes a much bigger game because it’s the next one and it’s coming right after a loss.”
With only one conference championship instead of two division titles at stake, each defeat makes the opportunity to add to the trophy case a little less likely. Vanderbilt, already two behind Kentucky in the loss column, does not want to lose any more ground.
“We pay attention,” senior forward Jeffery Taylor said. “We came into this year wanting to win an SEC championship. So we know where the other teams are.
“… Every game in the SEC is a big game. If you don’t play your best on any given night, any team can beat you.”