The #8 Florida Gators came into Rupp Arena tonight to challenge the Kentucky Wildcats' #1 national ranking. They left very much as the other 47 consecutive teams who have attempted the same feat left -- with an "L", and a bad memory.
This was not the best game that the Gators have managed this year. Yes, Kentucky's defense was typically incredible, but in fairness to the Gators, they missed numerous open looks from outside that could have changed the game early and made it a completely different contest.
With that said, the Gators simply could not respond to the relentless Kentucky offensive efficiency. Florida tried to speed up the game -- a good strategy for them, since transition is where they get a lot of open looks -- but it didn't work. Every time the Wildcats would get sped up, John Calipari would call time out and remind them that Florida cannot defeat the Wildcats in a half-court game, they are simply too small and have too few options outside the three.
Worse, Florida, as other guard-oriented teams before them, discovered that there is simply no dealing with the insane length and defensive skill of Anthony Davis -- you can't drive on him and make him foul, he simply will not allow it. You can't throw the ball inside and dominate him with superior strength, he's just too long and will defend without fouling post players. Davis creates problems that no team has solved, and Florida was just as confounded as every other team has been when Davis has been able to see extended minutes.
But kudos to the Gators for doing what they could. They played the only game plan that could possibly have worked, they just couldn't get their shots to fall when it mattered, and the result was a lopsided Wildcat victory. To their credit, their press and pressure did force 13 Kentucky miscues. A victory of a sort, I suppose. But the Gators are a very good team that will be there in March, and their great guard play will serve them well in the NCAA Tournament.
This game serves as a reminder that the Wildcats have reached where they should be right now. This is the team I have been waiting for all year, and as I have said in a few posts over the last couple of days, this team has in no way reached it's potential -- it still has a long way to go. But at this point in the season, they still should have room for improvement.
- Kentucky's defensive play. It was magnificent in most aspects, although I thought UK yielded too many open looks from three in the first half. Kentucky harassed, annoyed, and worried the Gators into some loathsome shooting -- so bad, in fact, that the game was never competitive after the first 15 minutes.
- Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He wasn't perfect -- some of his shots were poorly selected and he made a couple of errors handling the ball -- but overall, he was simply indomitable. 13 rebounds, 13 points, and 3 assists to go along with peerless defense and a one-man fast break. Magnificent game, and worthy of the game ball.
- Anthony Davis is also worthy of the game ball...nearly, anyway. He was offensively and defensively dominant, although he didn't rebound well enough for me with only six boards. But 16 points and 4 blocks, along with innumerable altered shots, is very not bad.
- Marquis Teague may have played his best game tonight, and but for a few turnovers and bad decisions, was as close to his potential as he has been able to reach. 12 points, 10 assists, are highlights, but marred with 5 turnovers.
- Darius Miller was just what I expected him to be -- a nightmare for Florida. They had trouble with him all night long, and if he had wanted, he could have scored 30 in this game. 9 points, one rebound and 2 assists may not sound like much, but he was a major factor in many more plays than show up on the scoreboard.
- Doron Lamb was a scoring machine, and it was he who repeatedly crushed Florida's spirit by making the open looks he is supposed to make. He played about as well as he ever has, at any time -- 18 points, 3 rebounds and 1 assist.
- I thought Kyle Wiltjer played well, as did Eloy Vargas. Wiltjer didn't shoot a great percentage from anywhere but three, but he got three rebounds and a block also. Vargas defended Patric Young very well when he was in, and even though he didn't impact the stat line, he did some good things in very few minutes.
- 11-11 shooting free throws. That's 100%, and it works for me.
Not so superlative:
- I thought Kentucky turned the ball over too much tonight. 13 turnovers is about three more than I would have liked, and Teague had far too many for my liking. The pressure still bothers him some, and that needs to improve.
- Terrence Jones was not aggressive enough. He was a bit limited by fouls, and he did get 7 rebounds, but we need more out of him.
- If Doron Lamb can get three rebounds at 6'4:", why can't Miller at 6'7"? Just askin'.
- Kentucky had a couple of brain-dead stretches that national champions can't afford, mostly due to a loss of focus. They can do much better.
- We didn't shoot nearly enough free throws, even though we made them all.
Yes, I know, these nits are tiny, and Kentucky was ... well, let's face it, they were awesome. This game was a message sent to the college basketball world, and you can believe me when I say that it was received throughout the land.
There is really no doubt at all right now who the best team in the nation is. I don't say that with hubris, but with honesty. There are three or four others who are capable, but Kentucky, right now, is not just beating teams, they are choking the life out of them and beating the corpse into protoplasm. Killer instinct? Right now, it's more than that, it is an appetite for destruction.
Trust me when I tell you that the Gators are not the only team in America shaking their head right now. They have a lot of company.