This is it, ladies and gentlemen of the Big Blue Nation. Your Kentucky Wildcats head down to the land of
milk and honey swamp and palm trees to take on the Florida Gators in the final game of both teams' regular season. This is the game that will most likely define Kentucky's post season, and quite possibly their entire season.
Had you asked me about this game in November, I would have assured you that the roles of these two teams would have been reversed — I would have said top-ranked Kentucky was coming down to play the 25th ranked Gators in a game the Gators desperately needed. Life, sometimes, likes to pull tricks on us, and this is a beautiful case of existential Jujitsu; a.k.a. one of life's unpleasant little surprises.
We're departing a bit from our usual routine in this one, and will be combining the Live Game Thread and preview into one post. I think this game is important enough to do that. As is our custom with teams we have played before, we are incorporating the prior preview we did for the first matchup with the Gators about three weeks ago by hyperlink, and updating it with what has happened since.
Florida since the last game with Kentucky
|03/04/14||South Carolina||W, 72-46||A||64||113.2||51.7||18.9||43.2||32.2||72.4||36||29.9||37.1||30|
Courtesy of KenPom.com
Florida has done nothing since defeating Kentucky in Rupp Arena on February 15th except win every single game they have played, but only the last two have been impressive. The Gators had single-digit victories against Auburn, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt, but to be fair, two out of the three were away. In their last two victories over LSU and South Carolina, they have been most impressive, particularly against the Gamecocks.
Theoretically, if Auburn can give the Gators a tough time in the O'Connell Center, so can Kentucky. Theoretically.
Four Factors from last time UK played Florida
Four Factors for both teams now
No known injuries for either team.
Kentucky's problem is simple, and recent — they aren't shooting the ball well, and they haven't shot the ball well since early last month. Florida's offense, on the other hand, has been getting better and better as the season wears on. When we started SEC play, Kentucky was one of the best offenses in the country. Right now, it's only 4th best in the SEC.
Make no mistake, at this moment, statistically, Kentucky is only an above average SEC team in terms off offense and defense. The Wildcats are 4th in offensive efficiency and 5th in defensive efficiency in what is widely considered the weakest BCS conference in America, and I don't count the American Athletic Conference as a true BCS conference. If I were honest with you, and I must needs be, Kentucky is a marginal NCAA team at the moment, and probably deserves no better than a 7 seed if they don't defeat Florida, or give them a rousing game.
I take no joy in the fact that Kentucky is going to be a huge underdog in this game, but it is reality. Nobody is going to expect Kentucky to win, and most experts will tell you based on recent play, Kentucky is unlikely even to be terribly competitive. The truth is that, as of late, Kentucky cannot throw the ball in the ocean from a rowboat in the middle of the pacific. Their best offensive efficiency in the last 8 games is barely better than Florida's average, and their worst is a number so loathsome that Florida hasn't even approached since November 12th.
Optimism is one of those things that rarely survives contact with reality, but having said that, we know that this Kentucky team is capable of much greater than they've produced lately. Kentucky's best offensive performances have been vastly superior to Florida's best, and that gives me some reason for hope. What Kentucky must do is remember who they were against the likes of Providence, Mississippi, and Belmont when it comes to offense, and then find the kind of suffocating defense they deployed against Alabama, Texas A&M, and Georgia. In other words, they have to play their best game of the season both offensively and defensively.
That's asking a lot of young guys like this, suddenly cast in the role of overrated prima donnas by the media and many opposing fans. Of course, that's unfair, but then again, as Coach Cal never fails to remind us, playing at Kentucky isn't for everyone. These nascent adults have to put their big-boy pants on and face the fact that from whom much is given, much is expected, and unfortunately, as a team, this group has overpromised and underdelivered.
So we go in here expecting defeat, if we are rational. I, however, think that this group of greenhorns who has been so feckless of late on the basketball court are due for a correction. Slumps have a way of ending, often spectacularly, and this one is way past it's due date. We know that Kentucky has been inconsistent all year, often requiring good offense to play well due to a lack of commitment on defense. But lately, I have seen improvement in the defensive fundamentals, even if it seems to come in fits and starts. What has been mostly lacking is confidence.
It's pretty much now or never for that. Kentucky has to be able to make shots both from two and three to beat the Gators, and play defense for more than 20 seconds. If they can do that, this game will at least be interesting, and although I barely hold out a hope for actual victory, it is certainly something that this team can achieve if only because they are so big and so skilled. Yes, I know the detractors will gainsay the "skilled" part, but purely out of either spite or frustration, depending on their partisan lean.
My hopes are simply for a good, competitive game that Kentucky has a chance to win. A victory would be great, but honestly, Florida is a better team right now unless Kentucky wakes up tomorrow markedly different from how they woke up before the last game. We've hoped to see that all season, and all season long, we've been disappointed by varying degrees. Alas, that is often the lot of the sports fan.
To win this game, Kentucky must convincingly outrebound the Gators, get to the line a lot, and make a good percentage of free throws. They have to make three-point shots, which will open up the middle for Randle to attack as well as drives from the top and from the wing. The Dribble Drive Fling and Hope must be a thing of the past, and the Wildcats must think pass first, instead of just hoping to hit the rim. They must make their 3-foot shots as well as their 20-footers.
Defensively, the Wildcats have to deny Michael Frazier II any open 3-point looks. They must force Scottie Wilbekin to beat them off the dribble and shoot over Kentucky's shot blocking. They have to keep Patric Young from getting the ball deep, and force Will Yeguete and Casey Prather to shoot jump shots outside of ten feet.
All of this will be very difficult — perhaps even impossible for this young team. But that is the lot they have drawn. Calipari said playing at Kentucky was hard. Today, they find out just exactly what he means by that.