Vanderbilt’s six seniors don’t need any motivation.
They’ve watched their predecessors swallow the sour taste of losing their last home game — and they don’t want any part of the bitter feeling.
“We’re going to try as hard as we can,” senior guard Brad Tinsley said. “We definitely won’t be talking about lack of effort or coming out flat at all, especially from our seniors. It just gives an extra aura to try to win on senior night just to send everyone else out on a good note.”
The Commodores wrap up the home portion of their schedule with a test against No. 16 Florida on Tuesday (8 p.m., ESPN). It will be the final home game for Tinsley, forwards Jeffery Taylor, Steve Tchiengang and Lance Goulbourne, center Festus Ezeli and walk-on Aaron Noll. Jordan Smart, a redshirt junior who graduates in May, also will be honored.
Senior night festivities will begin 15 minutes before tip-off — a change from recent years. Over the last four seasons, the seniors have been recognized after the game. The last two years, however, this has come on the heels of a loss and has dampened the moment.
In Kevin Stallings’ 12 seasons as head coach, the Commodores are 5-7 in the final home game.
“We’ve done [senior night] both ways and when you win it is great and when you lose it stinks,” Stallings said. “That really is the only thing that you figure out about senior night — it is great to win and it is not any fun at all to lose no matter how you do it.”
Last year, Florida spoiled senior night for reserves Joe Duffy and Chris Meriwether, now a graduate manager. The Gators (22-7, 10-4 in the SEC) have had Vanderbilt’s number lately, winning four straight. The Commodores (20-9, 9-5) dropped a 73-65 decision at Florida at the beginning of the month.
Vanderbilt is 4-2 in its last six games, with its only losses coming to top-ranked Kentucky. With a win, the Commodores would move into second-place with the Gators with just one regular-season game remaining — Saturday at Tennessee.
“We talked about the really trying to eliminate the emotion [of senior night],” Stallings said. “We’re not trying to look at this as the last opportunity or last game of anything. This is a game we really need to win and we really want to play well. We’ll worry about the emotions after the game hopefully and not before it or during it.”
The Gators are without forward Will Yeguete, who averaged 6.3 rebounds before breaking his foot last week. They lost their first game without him on Saturday, falling to Georgia.
Florida has plenty of other weapons, though — especially on the perimeter. The Gators are led by guards Kenny Boynton (15.1 ppg), Bradley Beal (14.9 ppg) and Erving Walker (11.1 ppg). That trio helped push the tempo with a suffocating full-court press defense. Vanderbilt committed 17 turnovers in the first meeting.
“I think they just fight harder than us usually,” guard John Jenkins said. “They outfought us. The press really hurt us last time. ... This game we’re going to try to be more ready for that.”
Tuesday could also be the last home game for Jenkins.
The junior averages a league-best 20 points and is closing in on his second straight SEC scoring crown. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder from Hendersonville leads the country with 3.9 3-pointers per game.
He has scored more than 1,500 points, sits second in school history in 3-point shooting percentage (44.7) and fourth in 3-pointers made (281).
If he leaves for the NBA Draft after this season, there is early speculation he could be a late first-round draft pick.
“I’m not thinking about it at all right now,” Jenkins said. “Out of respect for my teammates and coaches I am going to play this game just the way I always do. I’m just going to come out here and play hard.”
Jenkins has spent three years playing alongside a senior class that is perhaps Vanderbilt’s most decorated.
Taylor needs 73 points to pass Matt Freije (1,891) for second on the all-time scoring charts, The forward ranks in the top 10 in five categories. Tinsley, another 1,000-point scorer, is second in total assists (459) and fourth in assists per game (3.61). Ezeli, whose parents will be flying in from Nigeria for the game, holds the school record for blocks in a season (87) and career (194).
“They’ve been great,” Stallings said. “They’ve done amazing things for our program and hopefully will continue to do so as we finish the season.”