On the heels of their beatdown of Vanderbilt in Nashville, the No. 7 Kentucky Wildcats continue their SEC road swing with a visit to Gainesville and the Florida Gators. Game time is Saturday at 4:00 pm, and the game will be televised by ESPN.
For the Wildcats (17-3, 6-1 SEC), it’s another opportunity to show the country that they are indeed not only a conference threat but have returned to their place as a national power. No team in the country is as hot as the Cats right now. UK is rolling along, beating three consecutive top 25 foes and winning by 20 and 35 at traditionally tough places for the Cats in Georgia and Vanderbilt.
For the Gators (12-8, 4-3 SEC), the game with UK gives them a chance to make a step out of the middle of the SEC standings and an opportunity to notch a huge conference and national win at home.
Make no mistake, though, this game historically is a barn burner with the final score usually in question until the final seconds. We all have our memories of UK’s success and failures in Gainesville, so do the Cats. Without question, coach John Calipari will have the Cats locked in and ready to compete Saturday afternoon.
With another SEC road test ahead, the staff of A Sea of Blue assemble again at the virtual roundtable to discuss this match-up and offer their picks.
I think no team in the country is playing better than the Cats right now. They have found their identity as a juggernaut on defense and a balanced offensive team as well. PJ Washington has stepped up as a double-double machine and the UK perimeter guys (Keldon Johnson, Tyler Herro, and Ashton Hagans) are holding it down scoring and defending.
But the most exciting thing for UK right now is the depth of this team. The Cats are getting production nearly 10 deep, an almost unheard of proposition in major college basketball. Heady times in the LEX indeed.
Florida is a good team, though, and should not be slept on. The Gators are lurking outside the top 25 right now and have a really nice player in guard KeVaughn Allen. However, I think the Cats have too much of everything right now going for them, and in a relatively close affair I see the Cats winning the game.
Prediction: Kentucky 80, Florida 68
This year, Tennessee is the big dog and will be the toughest SEC opponent Kentucky will face, but Florida on the road is the second-toughest remaining test for UK. This game represents a near-perfect mid-season exam for Kentucky. Win this one, and the Wildcats will have everyone’s full attention to the extent they don’t now. Lose, and it is a relatively minor setback in the overall season that will provide a good learning opportunity.
The Gators this season suffer from significant size problems due to injury and transfer. Keith Stone, their last true power forward, went down to a season-ending ACL tear during the Georgia game last week, and although freshman Keyontae Johnson has stepped into Stone’s starting role, he’s undersized for the position and will be facing a long, thick Kentucky front line.
Florida’s lack of size clearly hurt them in their most recent loss to TCU on the road in the Big 12-SEC challenge. The Horned Frogs dominated the Gators on the glass and downed Florida in a 55-50 defensive slugfest.
Florida’s guard play has been solid with senior combo guard KeVaughn Allen, freshman point Andrew Nembhard, and freshman guard Noah Locke putting up respectable numbers. Florida will be deliberate, hoping to keep possessions low, turn Kentucky over, and keep the Wildcats out of transition.
The Gators have enough athleticism to compete with Kentucky early and an enviable defense that currently ranks #4 in the SEC, but their depth is likely to be a problem if they don’t get a big lead on the Wildcats early.
If Kentucky can get the ball inside consistently for point-blank looks, this one could get ugly, but I expect a lot of quick double-teams out of Florida, and despite the great shooting last night, Kentucky still has yet to convince me they are a consistent shooting team from distance.
Prediction: Kentucky 68, Florida 60
The Cats have been on one of the best rolls in recent seasons as they have won seven games in a row. After clobbering Vandy in Nashville, UK seems to have a confidence level that we haven’t seen since the Bahamas.
Mike White and the Florida Gators aren’t at the same level that they have been in recent seasons. They are 4-3 in their last six games and they have few quality wins in league play. KeVaughn Allen is still on the team, but he doesn’t have much help this year. The talent level took a big dip after losing Chris Chiozza and his fellow seniors.
Usually the Swamp is rocking when UK comes to town, and I am sure it will be for about the first 10 minutes. But Kentucky is too big, too deep, too talented, and too confident for Florida right now.
Prediction: Kentucky 77, Florida 66
Kentucky is hot as anyone in the nation as they’ve won seven straight and are coming off their most dominating win of the year as they took down Vanderbilt by 35 on the road Tuesday night. Their hot streak, however, may be running straight into a trap.
Normally, when Kentucky visits the swamp to take on the Gators it is a match-up of two ranked teams with championship aspirations. That’s not the case for the Gators this year. It’s been a rough year in Gainesville as Florida comes into the match-up right around .500 in both conference and overall play. This is the definition of a trap.
The swamp hasn’t been kind to the Wildcats as their last win in Florida came back in 2016. In each of Kentucky’s last two trips to the swamp, they have lost by double digits. In fact, Kentucky hasn’t defeated Florida since February 25th of 2017 at Rupp Arena.
There’s a lot to prove despite the fact the Cats are red hot and heavy favorites. Despite the opposite paths of these two teams, this game feels scarier and scarier as it gets closer. Kentucky needs to bring the same attitude against a lesser team that they brought Tuesday in Nashville and then some to win this game. I believe they do, but it won’t be easy like many may think.
Prediction: Kentucky 80, Florida 70
Kentucky is playing as well as any team in the country through their last seven games. The Wildcats will get another test as they travel to play the Gators in Gainesville this weekend. Even with Kentucky on a high note and Mike White’s group disappointing to this point, Florida has always been a respectable SEC basketball program and are always a tough game in the Swamp.
On a streak where they’ve beaten three ranked teams in Auburn, Mississippi State and Kansas and won three road games in Georgia, Auburn and Vanderbilt, the Wildcats are showing flashes off being a legitimate contender in the SEC and for March. PJ Washington has been physical and determined in his last three games, having scored 22.3 points and grabbing 10.3 rebounds.
Coach Cal has made it a must to get Nick Richards going on both sides of the ball, and he looked really strong with 14 points and 4 blocks against Vanderbilt after a 5 block game against Kansas. Everyone on this team is trending and growing up before our eyes at the right pace and the right time.
Florida is 12-8 for the season and 4-3 in the SEC, but they are no pushover. In a conference where the coaching is at an all time level, Mike White is right near the top. KeVaughn Allen has been one of the better scorers in the SEC in his time at Florida, but is only averaging 12.7 ppg.
Jalen Hudson, another guard who’s had good games in the conference and against Kentucky, is only averaging 6.2 ppg. Even with these questions, Florida is a good team and the Swamp is one of the toughest environments in the SEC.
I think this is another good road test for Kentucky as their conference schedule continues. With so many tests left on the schedule, the Wildcats, just like every other team in the country, are due for another valley or two before the postseason begins.
With that said, I don’t think one of those will be this weekend at Florida. I think the Cats win to make it eight straight before they come back to Lexington.
Prediction: Kentucky 75, Florida 61
The Florida Gators have had a bit of a rough season so far. Despite returning a ton of talent from last year’s team, this year’s squad has struggled to find its footing.
The Gators defend very well, but they have a hard time scoring. They jack a ton of threes, second in the SEC in makes and attempts to be exact. If they get hot, they can be dangerous. But they’ve struggled to do so against quality opponents this season. They really don’t have any bad losses other than the last-second controversial loss to South Carolina, but they haven’t been able to get that signature win. That means the O’Connell Center is going to be rocking on Saturday.
Everyone remembers KeVaughn Allen. The 6-2 guard is the Gators’ best player. He’s averaging 12.7 points per game and shooting nearly 40% from deep. He’s also very good at forcing turnovers. This is a great matchup for Ashton Hagans on defense, but he’ll have to take care of the ball.
Andrew Nembhard and Noah Locke are two dynamite freshmen. Nembhard is an excellent distributor and defender. Locke, on the other hand, is an explosive scorer. He’s shooting 42% from three on the season. He can be extremely dangerous if he gets hot, just ask Texas A&M.
The last player I want to mention is Jalen Hudson. The senior guard/forward was awesome last season. He averaged 15.5 ppg, while shooting over 40% from three. He could absolutely fill it up. He could’ve gone pro, but instead he opted to return to school for his senior season.
That’s proven to be a huge mistake for the Virginia Tech transfer. This season, Hudson’s only averaging 6.2 ppg and shooting a miserable 24% from three. He’s playing less than 20 minutes per game, and I have no idea what happened to him.
The environment will be tough for the Cats. Gator chomps will be aplenty, as fans will lavish the opportunity to take down a streaking Kentucky team. But I can’t bet against UK right now. They’re just too good. Even if they struggle offensively, I’m confident their defense will keep them in it. It might be ugly, but the Cats will escape with the win.
Prediction: Kentucky 69, Florida 61
Kentucky and Florida are on opposite trajectories right now. The Cats are peaking while the Gators are suffering through what is a miserable season by their standards.
It’s hard to imagine UF being able to keep pace with Kentucky based off what we’ve seen over the past few weeks. But the O Dome will present a tough environment, so the Cats will need to come out focused. It would be awful to let this momentum slip away by playing poorly against an average team like Florida.
I expect Kentucky to run their offense through Reid Travis and PJ Washington. Both will have a big game. As long as Florida doesn’t go berserk from behind the arc, there really isn’t much hope for the Gators.
However, this won’t be a complete domination like the Vandy game.
Predictions: Kentucky 74, Florida 67
Kentucky has been rolling of late, but a visit to Gainesville on Saturday should be a big time test for this ever-changing Wildcats team. The Cats have gotten solid production from almost every player on their team at one time or another during their SEC win streak, which has now hit six games.
If PJ Washington continues to dominate the way he has recently, there might not be another loss until the Cats go toe to toe with No. 1 Tennessee two weeks from Saturday. Washington had 21 points against Mississippi State, 20 against Kansas, and 26 the other night against Vanderbilt.
Kentucky is knocking down the outside shot, they’re playing ferocious defense, and they’re consistently out-rebounding their opponents. That’s a recipe for a lot of wins.
However, the Gators will not go away quietly and Mike White’s squad, while not what we might’ve expected before the season started, is still dangerous. Provided the Cats keep KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke in check, I think UK wins by double digits.
I think it’ll be close early, but the Cats will pull away with about 10 minutes left in the second half and stretch their SEC win streak to 7 and their overall win streak to 8.
Prediction: Kentucky 75, Florida 62
Growing up in southeastern Kentucky, the team that I always hated the most (even more than Louisville) was Tennessee. However, as I have gotten older, the Florida Gators have crept up on that list, specifically for basketball. I think it’s all Joakim Noah’s fault.
Florida is not very good this year. Mike White was supposed to be the guy to get Gator basketball back on track, but in year three with the program they seem to be on somewhat of a decline. Besides playing Michigan State close back in December, there really has not been an impressive outing from this group all season.
The game is in Gainesville, though, and that does count for something. This certainly will not be a route like we saw in Nashville earlier this week, but the Wildcats will improve to 7-1 in the SEC on Saturday.
Prediction: Kentucky 79, Florida 69