So now we come down to it, the SEC Tournament final, which will feature the two most successful programs in modern SEC history -- the Kentucky Wildcats and the Florida Gators. Both teams have earned the right to play in this team by defeating some of the best competitors the SEC has to offer -- Florida knocked off the Vanderbilt Commodores yesterday 77-66, and Kentucky dispatched the Alabama Crimson Tide, 72-58. The Gators and 'Cats now face one another for the rubber match, each team having won the home game this year during the regular season.
For a statistical overview, check Statsheet.com.
This will be the third meeting of the Wildcats and Gators in the SEC Tournament final since the turn of the century, and the teams have split the first two meetings, Kentucky in 2004 and Florida in 2005. The two teams have consistently been the highest ranked teams this year for the SEC, and both have similar records against quality opponents.
The big question for this game, of course, is the health of the Wildcats. Terrence Jones suffered a mild ankle sprain versus the Mississippi Rebels in the quarterfinals, then yesterday versus Alabama in the semifinals, Doron Lamb and DeAndre Liggins both suffered ankle sprains in the waning minutes of the game, less than sixty seconds apart. Liggins' sprain looks to be mild, but Lamb's appears more severe, and he is currently listed as doubtful for the Florida game.
This game is pregnant with implications for both teams, because it likely will affect their NCAA seeding and location. Joe Lunardi has elevated the Wildcats to a 3 seed on the strength of yesterday's victory over the Crimson Tide with Florida also a 3. The loser of this game could very well drop a seed line to the 4, although the upside of that could be that it would move the loser to the East or Southeast.
Florida Game Plan
Just like they have done the first two times they played Kentucky, Florida will focus on getting the ball inside to Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus for short jumpers and hooks, while having Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker always looking for penetration off pick-and-rolls, or kick-outs to three point shooters.
The pick-and-roll is the main component of the Florida offense, and I doubt that Billy Donovan will go away from that in this game. Donovan has become particularly fond of side p&r action, and will often use the pick-and-pop when Eric Murphy comes in for Tyus or Macklin. Murphy is a particularly deadly 3-point shooter for a big man, and Kentucky has to always be aware of him when he comes in.
Florida did a great job on Vanderbilt with double-teams from the top on Festus Ezeli while shadowing John Jenkins on the perimeter, forcing Vandy into challenged three-point shots. With Doron Lamb out of the game, Florida can afford to gamble a bit more on post entries with double-teams out of a zone look, which will force players other than the deadly Lamb to make threes.
Kentucky Game Plan
Assuming that Liggins is ready and Lamb is not, Kentucky's offense will have to force the action a bit more than normal, and Calipari is going to have to give some minutes to Jon Hood and Eloy Vargas. Vargas has been particularly effective against his former team for some reason, so assuming that form holds, this might be his opportunity to shine.
Kentucky has been effective utilizing their superior size on Florida's small guards. With Lamb out, that will be even more pronounced since Liggins will be forced into duty at the 2 spot. If Liggins can shoot the ball as reliably as he did yesterday, and Brandon Knight can improve his just marginally, Kentucky may not be too disadvantaged by the loss of Lamb until later in the game when legs start to be a concern.
But Liggins has a streaky tendency, and UK is going to need to look to Darius Miller and Brandon Knight to pick up the scoring slack. Terrence Jones is also due for a good game, as he has had a couple of tough games in a row now, and he is just too talented to keep down for long.
Defensively, Lamb's absence will be more keenly felt. Lamb has really been playing well defensively lately, and even though Liggins is a better defender, the lack of relief will eventually tire him out. Calipari is unlikely to play Hood or Vargas for major minutes, given his history this year. Fouls are also a major concern, since Kentucky can ill-afford to have players in foul trouble when they are shorthanded.
The major defensive concern for Kentucky is of course going to be Chandler Parsons. Parsons is a formidable player that is too tall for most small forwards, too quick for most power forwards, the best offensive rebounder on the Florida squad and a great passer to boot. Liggins will undoubtedly start out on him, and how well he manages fouls will be the key to this game.
- Brandon Knight vs. Erving Walker: Walker is very good, but Knight could have been SEC player of the year. Advantage: Kentucky.
- Kenny Boynton vs. DeAndre Liggins: Liggins is a great defender, Boynton is a dangerous shooter and good penetrator. Advantage: Push
- Darius Miller vs. Chandler Parsons: Parsons is the SEC player of the year for a reason. Advantage: Florida.
- Alex Tyus vs. Terrence Jones: Jones is nominally better, but not by that much, and Tyus has been playing as well as anyone. The injury is the question mark. Advantage: Kentucky.
- Vernon Macklin vs. Josh Harrellson: The way Harrellson is playing, there is no better center in the SEC. Advantage: Kentucky.
- Bench: Kentucky's bench has a major drop-off immediately with Lamb likely out. Florida has a deep, talented bench. Advantage: Florida in a big way.
- Kentucky must very carefully manage fouls. In fact, Kentucky must avoid fouls like the plague.
- Brandon Knight must get out of his shooting slump and make open shots.
- Jones must get out of his scoring funk and play like the Freshman of the Year.
- Josh Harrellson has to make Macklin catch the ball as far away from the basket as possible. He is playing so well right now, though, nothing he does would surprise me.
- Lamb is the rock of the perimeter offense. How will UK's confidence be with him on the bench?
- Transition defense is absolutely critical versus Florida, who runs the break as well as Kentucky.
- UPDATE: Doron Lamb a game time decision.
- Chandler Parsons must be neutralized for Kentucky to win.