Everyone in the Big Blue Nation remembers back in the middle of the last decade when the Florida Gators won back-to-back NCAA titles, right? Well, Florida has been working it's way back to national relevance for the last six years, getting as far along as the Elite Eight the last three years, but failing to get all the way to the last weekend of the season.
This year, the Gators seem to have their best shot ever. Earlier in the season, this game looked like just another in a long line of Gator victories as they cruised over most of the conference. Unfortunately for Billy Donovan & Co., recent developments have conspired to make this game much more important for them than it might otherwise be.
First, they lost a game on the road at Arkansas by a significant margin, and got thoroughly outclassed by the road-phobic Arkansas Razorbacks. Shortly after that game, it was discovered that junior reserve Will Yeguete, the team's best defender and second-best rebounder, would need season-ending surgery to remove debris from his knee.
Second, Erik Murphy, the Gators' second leading scorer, tweaked an ankle against Mississippi St. It's better now, but there is some suspicion that it may not be quite 100%.
Finally, the Kentucky Wildcats themselves have been improving at a steady rate, and despite some early struggles, have begun to find some consistency, at least insofar as the final results are concerned. Kentucky is not the kind of team that blows out opponents with technical brilliance and sharp execution like Florida, but rather a team that can dig in defensively and cause big momentum swings at any time in a game. It's tough to get into a rhythm against this UK squad, and at any given moment, they can turn the game around, as Louisville discovered earlier this year.
So let's see how the teams compare, from the 50,000 foot view, courtesy of Statsheet.com
|Rank and Records||UK||UF|
|Strength of Schedule||#72||#12|
|RPI Top 50||0-4||4-2|
It may come as a surprise to many not paying close attention to the SEC this year, but Kentucky is actually a big underdog in this game, as much as 12 points on some lines, and that is something nobody in this conference is used to seeing.
|20||Michael Frazier II||MR||G||6-4||200||FR||6.0||46.1||3.6||1.0||0.5||0.0|
|-I||Injured but available|
Florida has a stellar starting five, all mature upperclassmen who have been in the Gator system for years, and execute it very well. Florida is the perfect example of a fully grown, mature team reaching their peak performance exactly when they should.
The Gators' backcourt of Wilbiken, Boynton, Rosario and Frazier have been excellent this year. Last game, Frazier started in place of Wilbiken, but that could change back at any time. Since Wilbiken has been the more frequent starter, I assume it will be him. These four guys give the Gators one of, if not the very best, backcourts in the nation.
Kentucky's starting guards of Ryan Harrow, Archie Goodwin, Julius Mays and Jarrod Polson match up reasonably well with Florida. Kentucky is taller and longer, and Goodwin has an athletic advantage over all of them, but the Wildcats reserves are less talented than the Gators'. Overall, Florida has a solid advantage in the backcourt.
In the frontcourt, the Gators have stretch 4-man Murphy along with Patric Young, and explosive, physical player with a body chiseled out of stone. Murphy is a major scoring threat inside and out, but Young will not leave the basket area except to set screens and has no face-up game worth mentioning. But Young does have a solid post game, and combined with his size, strength and athleticism is a very dangerous player for Kentucky's front line. Young is a good offensive rebounder, defender, and loves to run the floor. Casey Prather is the only reliable front-court reserve available for Florida with Yeguete out.
Kentucky has an answer for every Florida player in the front court with Nerlens Noel, Willie Cauley-Stein, Kyle Wiltjer and Alex Poythress. Poythress and Wiltjer are both stretch 4-men, Cauley-Stein and Noel have the size and athleticism to offset Young and Murphy. Florida has not faced a front line this skilled and this deep all year.
An interesting point that many may miss: Kentucky is the deeper team in this matchup. Even with Yeguete, the Gators only go eight deep, and with him out, they have little to fill that eighth spot. If Murphy isn't 100%, Kentucky could have a substantial front-court advantage. Even if not, Kentucky has at least a nominal advantage there.
This game is interesting more from who is missing than who is in it. Yeguete is a major and important part of Florida's success, and with him down, Florida is going to have to be very careful. The Gators are very good, as always, at avoiding fouls, but with Kentucky's attacking style, they will be much harder to avoid tonight. Any significant foul trouble for Florida puts Kentucky at a decided advantage.
Kentucky, on the other hand, can absorb a few fouls with Noel and Cauley-Stein both available. With that said, they cannot go on a hack-fest against the Gators, and that would be unwise in any case, since Florida makes free throws at a respectable rate.
Kentucky, conversely, is very inconsistent at the line. We have seen some improvement, but to be honest, it's difficult to have confidence in what improvement we've seen. The Wildcats have no choice, however, they are not the kind of team that can out-execute the Gators.
The Wildcats must attack the basket and draw fouls, or get layups. Offensively, they will see zone defense, so they must execute against both zone and man-to-man well enough to keep from going on a long drought. Florida is extremely consistent in their execution, and although they like fast games, they are happy to make teams like UK, who do well in quick-shot situations, defend them for 35 seconds.
Defensively, the Wildcats cannot allow the Gators to get 15 good looks from three. Kentucky is second in the conference in 3-point defense, and that's because they keep the opponents from getting many looks from there. Against Florida, that's really important, because they are the best 3-point percentage team in the conference, and among the best in the nation. UK's guards must force Florida to put the ball on the floor and drive it into the paint, where the best shot blocker in the SEC awaits like a hungry spider.
Kentucky prefers to play at a faster pace than Florida, and speeding up the Gators is a good idea for two reasons -- when Florida gets set defensively, they are a very good defensive team. When they are in transition a lot, they are very much less effective defensively. It's important, however, to keep Florida out of transition on offense, where they are extremely efficient.
Florida will also try to press from time to time, and if the Wildcats continue to turn the ball over at 20% or more of possessions, they are going to have to find some other way to make up the shot deficit. You cannot give Florida, who shoots an eFG of almost 60%, 10 or 12 more shots than you. If so, the Wildcats will lose.
This is a big test for Kentucky, although failing it won't hurt them too much unless they get drilled. But to actually pass this one on the road could move Kentucky up into 5-seed territory if they can reprise it with another win over Tennessee on the road Saturday and finish the regular season strong.