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Kentucky Wildcat Basketball: Looking ahead, while glancing back

The Kentucky Wildcats, winners of five straight, have two huge road match-ups this week. The first, tonight, against Billy Donovan's Florida Gator squad, then on Saturday versus the Tennessee Volunteers. Here's a snap-shot look at both opponents, and the importance of each game to the 'Cats.

The 'Cats face their toughest league test tonight as they travel to Gainesville to take on the Gators.
The 'Cats face their toughest league test tonight as they travel to Gainesville to take on the Gators.

With the Kentucky Wildcats (17-6, 8-2) having successfully navigated a four-game stretch in which the 'Cats could ill-afford to lose even one game, it's the next two league contests which should now have the full attention of the Big Blue Nation. As UK will continue its fight to lower its RPI number (currently in the mid-40s per ESPN) in an effort to secure an NCAA tournament bid, and a single -digit seed line.

Of course, tonight the Wildcats have an outstanding opportunity to gain what the NCAA selection committee considers to be a great win as the 'Cats take on the No. 6 Florida Gators (No. 5 RPI) in a match-up of the SEC's top two ball clubs. Following the Florida game is another Wildcat road test, this one taking place Saturday in Knoxville against the Tennessee Volunteers.

We'll take a snapshot look at each of the two ball games this week, with my thoughts on how important each game is to Kentucky's under-construction NCAA tourney resume.

The Gators

For the first time since back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007, Billy Donovan's Florida Gators are actually (and shockingly) playing some semblance of defense, which is the primary reason UF is 19-3 overall and a league-leading 9-1 in SEC action.

Surprising as it may be, the Gators lead the league in field goal percentage defense (37.0 percent), resulting in Florida giving up a stingy 52.7 points per game, also tops in the conference. Couple the Gators impressive defensive performance with the fact that they lead the SEC in field goal percentage (49.3 percent), 3-point shooting percentage (38.3 percent), and made treys per game (8.8), and one can easily ascertain how Florida is winning each of its contests by an average margin of 21.5 points (which also leads the SEC).

Led by 6-foot-2 senior guard Kenny Boynton (13.1 points and 3.4 rebounds per game), and 6-foot-2 junior Scottie Wilbekin (5.1 assists per game), the Gators also take very good care of the basketball, evidenced by their +3.14 turnover margin, and league-leading 1.4 assist/turnover ratio.

Another senior guard, 6-foot-3 Mike Rosario (a Rutgers transfer), is second on the team in scoring, averaging 12.5 points per contest.

The Gators, rallied on the low blocks by 6-foot-9 junior Patric Young (6.6 rebounds per game), also hit the glass like few other UF teams, as they lead the SEC in defensive rebound percentage, snagging 74.1 percent of their opponents' misses. The SEC's most versatile player, 6-foot-10 senior forward Erik Murphy, makes life tough on the opposition with both his inside play, and his ability to make the trey at a very high rate, as he has connected on 49.5 percent of his 3-point attempts (47-95).

Unfortunately for Florida, the team's top (and most versatile) defender and second leading board crasher, 6-foot-7 junior Will Yeguete, will miss at least the remainder of the regular season after undergoing surgery to remove "bone chips" from his knee. Six-foot-six junior swing Casey Prather (5.9 points per game, 3.0 rebounds per game) has been earning more playing time in Yeguete's absence.

While the 'Cats winning tonight in Gainesville against an experienced and talented Gator team would be sweet indeed, it isn't necessary in the context of UK's battle to raise its RPI. In fact, just taking on a team with a five RPI, on the road, will probably help UK's index standing regardless of the outcome.

The Volunteers

The Tennessee Vols (12-10, 4-6) season to this point has been defined by the mid-October season-ending knee injury to 6-foot-7 forward Jeronne Maymonn. A preseason second team All-SEC selection, Maymonn averaged 12.7 points and 8.1 rebounds for UT last season after transferring from Marquette. Maymonn underwent surgery on his knee in the summer of 2012, and suffered what was described as a "set-back" just after the start of practice in the fall.

The result, Cuonzo Martin's club has struggled to score this year, averaging only 63.9 points per game, while making a conference worst 28.6 percent of its 3-point shots (UT makes 4.5 shots from distance per game), 42.9 percent of its overall shots. Defensively, the Vols are also last in the SEC in steals per game, averaging a mere 3.9 thefts, but conversely, UT only allows opponents to make 31.3 percent of shots from beyond the arc, 41.6 percent overall.

Not unlike Florida, UT rebounds the opposition's misfires with aplomb, as the Volunteers boast a 72.5 defensive rebound percentage, good for second in the SEC. Perhaps offsetting the solid board work, though, is UT's -2.27 turnover margin.

Tennessee is led in scoring by 6-foot-2 junior point guard Trae Golden, who puts up 13.8 points per game and has a 2.1 assist/turnover ratio. Fellow guard Jordan McCrae, a 6-foot-5 junior, is second on the team with a 13.7 points per contest average. McCrae is one of the league's top free throw shooters, making 77.5 percent of his charity stripe attempts (79-102).

The Volunteers have two space eaters down low as Jarnell Stokes, a 6-foot-8, 270 pound forward, and 6-foot-9 senior forward Kenny Hall, work to replace the production lost because of the injury to Maymonn. Stokes leads the team with 8.5 rebounds per game and is one of the SEC's top offensive rebounders, averaging 3.4 offensive boards per contest. Hall, who plays just over 22 minutes per game, shoots 54.3 percent from the field and averages 6.3 points and 4.9 rebounds per contest.

UT's current RPI of 80 dictates that Kentucky's weekend trip to Knoxville result in a "W" for the 'Cats. Lose, and although it would be a road loss to a top 100 RPI team, UK's index rating would very possibly drop below the 50 range, with very few remaining opportunities (read: games against top 40 RPI competition) in which to propel the Wildcats' RPI to "firmly off the bubble" status.

A glance back: Four games, four wins

Here's a quick statistical look at how the 'Cats performed in their last four games against Ole Miss, Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Auburn. Contests I deemed "must-wins" if the Wildcats harbored hopes of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday:

  • Field goal % - UK 50.5 (96-190), Opp. 35.5 (91-256)
  • 3-point field goal % - UK 38.8 (26-67), Opp. 29.7 (19-64)
  • Free throw % - UK 65.7 (90-137), Opp. 72.5 (58-80)
  • Offensive rebound % - UK 38.3, Opp. 33.3
  • Turnovers per game - UK 13.8, Opp. 8.3
  • Assists per game - UK 13.8, Opp. 8.3
  • Assist % - UK 57.3, Opp. 36.3
  • Steals per game - UK 3.8, Opp. 5.3
  • Blocks per game - UK 6.8, Opp. 3.5
  • Points per game - UK 77.0, Opp. 64.8

Thanks for reading and Go 'Cats, beat the Gators!

To follow me on Twitter: @KenHowlett