Variety has lifted Vanderbilt to the Southeastern Conference’s longest active win streak.
The Commodores have won big (a 72-31 blowout over Mississippi State). They’ve won from behind (rallying from a 17-point deficit to beat Georgia). And they’ve won ugly (shooting 32.7 percent in edging out Auburn).
On Wednesday, that versatility and a three-game win streak will be put to the test.
After they took advantage of playing two of the league’s worst teams (Auburn and Mississippi State) and eking out a home win over sub-par Georgia, the Commodores will get to see how much they’ve improved. They hit the road for the final time in the regular season to play No. 11 Florida (7 p.m., SEC Network). The Gators (23-5, 13-3) can clinch the outright regular-season championship with a win.
“We are a new team right now, we’re playing good and now is the challenge against Florida to see how good we really are,” freshman guard Kevin Bright said. “We really want [a signature win]. We really want it bad because we have to prove it to ourselves.”
Determined not to throw in the towel on 2012-13, the young Commodores followed a four-game losing streak with five victories in their last seven games.
Buoyed by defense most of the season, offensive consistency arrived recently for the SEC’s second-lowest scoring team (60.2 points per game). At least three players have scored in double figures in each of the last five games. Plus, leading scorer Kedren Johnson has received help from Bright, forward Rod Odom and center Josh Henderson.
“We’re starting to compete on offense and are executing how coach wants us to and that’s the key to success, especially for us,” Bright said. “I think we came to the point to where we got used to each other, playing naturally.”
Florida will offer perspective for how much Vanderbilt has improved on offense.
The Gators allow just 53.4 points a game — the third-fewest in the country — and particularly excel at defending the perimeter. Opponents shoot just 29.9 from 3-point range. That could be a telling statistic considering Vanderbilt ranks eighth in the country as 43.6 of its shot attempts are from beyond the arc.
“They’re a great team so it will provide a great challenge for us,” Odom said. “Going on the road against a great team like that is a good way to test how much progress we’ve made.”
The Commodores’ current win streak matches their longest of the season. The hot streak has catapulted them into a tie with Texas A&M for 10th place in the SEC with two games left.
Vanderbilt (13-15, 7-9) holds the tiebreaker over the Aggies thanks to a win last month. If they can avoid falling below 10th place, the Commodores won’t be one of four teams to play on the first day of the SEC Tournament, which begins next Wednesday at Bridgestone Arena.
“Every game is a barometer for sure,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “But we just want to finish up strong. I think that is the big thing for us. We want to finish up the season on a good note — whatever that means and whatever that takes.”
The Gators are a perfect 14-0 at the O’Connell Center. Plus, they’re arguably the healthiest they’ve been all season, which is scary considering they won 20 of their first 22 games and 10 straight between late December and early February.
Six players have missed games due to injury. But reserves Will Yeguete and Michael Frazier have returned, not long after sixth man Casey Prather recovered from an ankle injury. With a healthy eight-man rotation for the first time in more than a month, Florida will offer the Commodores another chance to prove their growth.
“It will be everything and more that we can handle,” Stallings said. “I’ve been really impressed with the way they’ve performed all season long, how they’ve played through injuries. I really admire what their team has been able to do thus far. I think if they can get healthy and can get their stride back like they had a little bit earlier I think they are maybe the one team in our league that can end up in the Final Four.”