This is a game many Kentucky fans have looked forward to for a long time. Suffering an six-game losing streak to any team is unsatisfying to say the least for Wildcat fans. Florida coming off back to back national championships also rankles Kentucky fans, who are used to being in the position of dominating the boys from Gainesville. But times have changed.
But times may be changing back, as the Gators have lost virtually their entire national championship team to graduation. In their place is a group of talented freshmen and sophomores. Unfortunately, they are not even in the same universe of talent as Ohio State's freshmen last year.
Unlike Florida, Kentucky has the benefit of senior leadership, however flawed and inconsistent. The Gators start two true freshmen, two sophomores and a junior. Their primary sub off the bench is a freshman as well.
To say that this season has been difficult for the Cats is an is an understatement, but Kentucky has played its usual difficult pre-conference schedule and has faced numerous very good and even one great team, and has played a couple of them very tough. Kentucky is battle hardened and seems to have turned a corner against Vanderbilt, and even Mississippi State in a tough loss earlier in the week.
In other words, the Cats are ready for the Gators.
The top players for the Gators are as follows:
Per Game Averages
More Player Stats
The normal starting rotation is highlighted above. Dan Werner has a foot injury that may/may not affect his playing time. The key subs are also listed just below. Mitchell started for Werner in a recent game.
In reality, this game for Kentucky is relatively simple -- if Kentucky can stop Calathes, they are highly likely to win the game. If UK can deny Calathes the ball, the Gators are likely to fall like a string of dominoes. Florida State and Ohio State held Calathes to 7 and 4 points respectively, and both teams easily defeated the Gators.
It is important for Kentucky to guard Calathes on the perimeter, but unlike many teams Florida has faced, UK is able to put tall, athletic 2- and 3-men on the Gators' star freshman. If Joe Crawford defends Calathes like he did Shan Foster, the Gators will almost surely lose this game no matter what. Calathes is responsible, with his scoring, rebounding and passing, for about 25% of the Gator offense, and their offense does not operate well at all without him as is attested by his team high 32 minute average. Speights, Lucas, Hodge and Werner are all complimentary players to Calathes, who is the primary ballhandler, scorer, and passer.
This fact makes Florida very vulnerable to more athletic teams, of which Kentucky is most assuredly one. The Gators are athletic on the blocks, but none of their bigs are as skilled as Patrick Patterson. Calathes has tremendous basketball IQ and floor presence, but his athleticism is only average.
Florida is an efficient offensive team, which is also their weakness. Florida's success appears to hinge exclusively on a high eFG%, a .88 correlation to their offensive efficiency. They don't do it with defense or turnovers, they do it with getting good shots. Offensive rebounding also contributes significantly to their OE, but Gator fans should be concerned that the statistical juggernaut they have amassed is largely due to their extraordinarily weak schedule. They have lost to every one of the good teams they have faced, and even though UK couldn't be rationally classified as "good" at this moment, there is far more potential for that designation with UK than with Florida A&M, Charleston Southern, Georgia Southern or High Point.
Still, you have to respect the Gators' skill. Nick Calathes is a very skilled freshman wing, and is an even better passer than Jai Lucas, the putative point guard of the team, more than doubling his assist output. In fact, Calathes is the linchpin upon which Florida turns, offensively.
This Florida team is adequate but unimpressive defensively. Kentucky, according to Pomeroy, is significantly better on defense.
Compared to Mississippi State, Florida has a relatively weak defense. Florida is only 69th in eFG% allowed, 120th in 2-point FG defense, and 206th in steals. Given that Kentucky's 2-point FG% is pretty high, it looks to me as though Patterson & Co. will be a real challenge for the Gators on the low block.
Intangibles and injuries:
Intangibles favor Florida. They are at home coming off a loss, and are bound to be psyched for this game. Kentucky is coming off a very tough loss at Ole Miss, but it has sometimes been the UK modus operandi to sulk a bit after tough losses, and give less effort than they otherwise might.
Kentucky is also likely without the services of Derrick Jasper and Jody Meeks again this game. That makes UK's bench very shallow and its quality significantly degraded.
Kentucky wins if:
- Patterson plays well in the post.
- Calathes scores under 10 points.
- Kentucky wins on the glass.
- the Cats have 15 turnovers or less.
- Calathes is in foul trouble.
Florida wins if:
- Patterson has 5 rebounds or less.
- Calathes isn't well defended.
- Speights outplays Patterson.
- UK turns the ball over 20 times.
- Patterson, Crawford or Bradley is in foul trouble.
Florida is very much a vulnerable team. Their shiny, impressive record is largely built on the backs of inferior competition, and they have yet to prove that they can beat any school without a "Southern" after their name. Kentucky matches up very favorably with Florida in every spot, and the Cats are just as big in the post and bigger on the perimeter.
If either Jasper and Meeks are able to play significant minutes effectively, Kentucky will very likely win this game convincingly. If they don't play at all, or are unable to be effective, this could be a very close game, but very winnable for the Cats.
If the Gators win, it will be because they get very hot or UK throws in a clunker. No matter what Gillispie says, we are not at a significant talent deficit against Florida, and several key matchups favor the Wildcats.