Vanderbilt’s starting lineup — and its legs — could get a serious test on Tuesday.
Not because of Florida’s guard play — though the Gators’ backcourt of Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker is nothing to scoff at. It's due to the Commodores’ ongoing battle with injury.
In Saturday's stunning 89-78 loss to Arkansas, starting forward Lance Goulbourne hurt his left ankle in the first half. He returned and played 17 minutes, but was held scoreless and had just three rebounds after three straight games of 10 boards or more.
If Goulbourne can’t play at Florida (16-5, 5-2) at 8 p.m. on ESPN on Tuesday — and Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings didn’t sound too sure before practice on Monday — it will add to an already depleted lineup.
Center Festus Ezeli (knee) and forward Steve Tchiengang (ankle) have been nursing injuries, and starting forward Andre Walker, for whom Goulbourne had been starting, is expected to miss his ninth straight game with a high ankle sprain.
With Walker out, No. 23 Vanderbilt (15-5, 3-3) has had to stick with just an eight-man rotation over the last eight games. Senior walk-ons Chris Meriwether and Joe Duffy and sophomore Jordan Smart are also on the bench but have played a combined one minute in six Southeastern Conference games.
Thus, minutes have started to increase the last two games. Vanderbilt had four players log at least 32 minutes on both occasions.
“It is a challenge, for sure,” Stallings said. “We can’t use it as a crutch and we can’t use it as an excuse. Nobody is going to feel sorry for us. Florida would be happy if we came down there with four players and we would be happy if they came up here with four. You have to deal with it the best we can.
"Whatever we have, we have and we’ll play with and do the best we can with.”
If Goulbourne can’t go, freshman guard Rod Odom most likely would get the start — he has made three already this season. That would leave Tchiengang and freshman guard Kyle Fuller to come off the bench.
“At a point, it changes the way you can coach and things you want to do. It changes your margin for error. It changes maybe how you have to play a little bit. It changes a lot of things. We’ll just see what we have [Tuesday] night when 9 p.m. Eastern rolls around and do the best we can.”
On the other side, Florida is trying to bounce back from a road loss to Mississippi State that dropped the Gators out of the AP poll.
They are still atop the SEC East standings but a loss to Vanderbilt would leave things open for Kentucky and Tennessee, which are both in second with 4-2 conference marks.
Florida is led by Walker and Boynton who average a combined 27 points. The Commodores are well aware of what the duo is capable of as Boynton scored 28 and Walker had 22 in Florida’s 95-87 loss at Vanderbilt last year.
“They are just very experienced, very poised,” Stallings said. “They are very clear cut on what they are trying to accomplish. [Florida coach Billy Donovan’s] system is perfect for them and they execute it very, very well. They both can hurt you with the outside shot and the drive and they are excellent passers and good defenders. They apply pressure on you in every way and I think that is what makes them good.”
The Commodores will try to turn up the pressure against Florida, something they didn’t do against Arkansas. The Razorbacks shot 57.4 percent from the field and Rotnei Clarke dropped 36 points on 6-of-8 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc as he earned the SEC’s player of the week honors.
Despite the poor defensive night, Vanderbilt still leads the conference in 3-point defense. Opposing teams are shooting 29 percent from outside.
“I think it was one of those nights where nothing was going right for us,” guard John Jenkins said. “Our defense has been solid most of the year so we are not going to panic about it now.”
Just like the Commodores won’t push the panic button if they are down a man or two either.
“We've still got guys. You can’t count us out unless we have under five guys,” Vanderbilt guard Brad Tinsley said. “We will find a way — we have in the past. We haven’t had a full roster in a long time. We have some tough guys who are willing to play through some pain.”
And they might have to if they want to avoid dropping two straight in the SEC.