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SEC tournament notebook: Florida earns rematch with Tennessee, Vanderbilt's important offseason

 Blake Lovell   in Basketball

(Southeastern Conference)

Florida and Tennessee played less than a week ago in Knoxville, with the Vols clinching the double-bye with the win. 

However, this version of the Gators will look a little different.

Tre Mann didn't play in that game due to a migraine, but he'll be back on the court for Friday's clash at Bridgestone Arena. For Florida, that's certainly a good thing.

Mann filled the stat sheet in the Gators' 69-63 victory against Vanderbilt, posting 22 points, seven rebounds, and six assists. They also got good contributions from Noah Locke (13 points), Tyree Appleby (12 points and four assists), and Anthony Duruji (eight points and six rebounds).

But Mann was the star of the show, and having him on the court against the Vols could produce a different result this time around.

"He's an all-league player," Florida coach Mike White said after the game when asked about Mann's impact on the rematch with Tennessee. "It will definitely help us, I think give us a better chance. I don't think it guarantees anything. Tre has to play well. It's not like it's just a given that he's going to play great against a top-10 defense in the country. 

"His teammates have to play well, in addition. We've got to defend better, rebound better than we did in Knoxville. They're a very good team, well-balanced, playing really well. We've all got to do a better job than we did last week to have a chance really."

Mann was deservedly voted as an All-SEC First Team selection, and he's now scored 19 or more points in the last four games he's played in. 

Even better, Mann is producing that output in a more efficient manner. White thinks he knows why that is.

"I think maturity. I think more balance within our roster. We're executing just a little bit better than we were a month ago. We've slowed tempo just a little bit to where these guys are getting their wind back at times. So we've kind of found more of a productive identity for us here late.

"He's playing with great confidence. I think also Tyree's decisions over the course of the past two, three weeks have gotten a little bit better. That allows Tre to be more productive on the ball, off the ball, when those guys are playing together. Some of it's just simply maturity. Physical, mental toughness. He's just getting a little bit older."

Mann and the Gators will try to find some of the magic they had in the first meeting with the Vols this season, with Florida scoring a 26-point win in Gainesville back on Jan. 19.

But what's next for Vanderbilt?  

Honestly, Jerry Stackhouse's team was not that far away from having a dramatically different season. With the six-point loss to Florida, the Commodores finished the season at 9-16 overall and 4-14 in SEC games. 

But here's the thing: Of those 14 league losses, eight of them came by seven points or less. 

Why so many close losses? One theory is that Vanderbilt was simply unlucky. In KenPom's luck ratings, the Commodores finished 352nd nationally out of 357 teams.

What's even more interesting is that only one power conference team finished behind Vanderbilt in that category. Want to take a guess? Yep, it was fellow 9-16 squad Kentucky.

But while the Commodores didn't make much progress record-wise in Stackhouse's year on the job, there was noticeable improvement. Now, the question is, can his staff build on that and propel Vanderbilt back into the top half of the SEC as soon as next season?

"I got no problem with the effort, no problem with how our guys competed," Stackhouse said. "These guys really dealt with a lot this year with COVID, protocols. Every day they came to the gym, stayed together, tried to work hard, work on their game, with a lot of doubt, naysayers about who we were, what these kids were. They just kept going. Super proud of them."

Of course, for the Commodores to make a jump, it'll depend on their talented sophomore duo of Scotty Pippen Jr. and Dylan Disu.

Pippen, like Mann, earned All-SEC First Team honors and finished the season averaging 20.8 points and 4.9 assists per game. That could lead to Pippen exploring his options at the professional level after the season.

"I think I'm going to get all the information that I can for him," Stackhouse said. "We did the same thing with Aaron and Saben last year. I think the league, they send out this information, whenever you request it on these guys. Whatever we get back we're going to share with them. That's something that he and his family are going to have to make some decisions about. 

"Obviously, I hope that he comes back. I feel like he still has tremendous growth. Not like he has some family situation that he needs to sprint off for to get a check. I think they're doing okay. I think from the standpoint of just being in college, I mean, I think Scotty enjoys college, enjoys being here. Again, those are conversations we'll have a little bit later down the road."

Disu could have similar options after posting 15.0 points and 9.2 rebounds per game before missing the final seven games of the season due to injury.

"I think there's a chance with Dylan," Stackhouse said. "His recovery for that is going to take him probably well into the summer, so I don't think it would be the smartest thing for him to declare for the draft. I fully anticipate him coming back.

"Again, I could be surprised, too. Wouldn't be the first time I've had a surprise in that situation. Like I said, you don't know what these kids are thinking all the time. I think for the most part he's just trying to get his body healthy to come back and have a big year next year."

For a second straight season under Stackhouse, the Commodores found some momentum down the stretch. The key will be turning momentum into wins.

Vanderbilt hasn't won more than 12 games in a season since 2016-17, but next season could change that. If Pippen and Disu return, and if Stackhouse can add more experience and talent around them, the Commodores may turn those close losses into the elusive wins they've been looking for.

"There's no saviors," Stackhouse said. "I think my biggest message to our guys was we have -- really the trajectory of our team depends on us getting better internally.

"We got some nice pieces coming in, but what's really going to help us jump-start and really get ahead of the curve is for us to come back, put that work in, start to see that improvement on the current roster, then go from there."

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