Sitting on the NCAA Tournament bubble but leaning in, the Kentucky Wildcats must keep winning. After gritting out a victory over Ole Miss, they turn their focus to a Florida Gator team that also finds themselves on the bubble, but on the outside looking in.
Led by first-year head coach, Todd Golden, the Gators are a team mostly made up of transfers, so expectations are not what they have been in the past. This was seen in their 7-6 record in the non-conference schedule.
However, they have figured some things out in conference play, sitting at 6-3 and tied with Kentucky for third place in the SEC. This is not due to playing a tough schedule, as they have collected wins over Missouri and Tennessee, and only lost by three to Auburn.
Given where both teams stand, Saturday is going to be a dogfight. Let’s take a closer look at the matchup.
Health of Cason Wallace
Kentucky was able to win at Ole Miss with relative ease Tuesday, despite starting point guard Cason Wallace being out with what John Calipari is calling a knee contusion. Wallace suffered the injury against Kansas by banging his knee during the contest, though he was able to finish the game.
The injury got worse during Tuesday’s shootaround, so Wallace was held out for precautionary measures.
During his Wednesday call-in show, Calipari said that while this isn’t a long-term issue, Wallace is uncertain to play vs. Florida.
“I don’t know,” Calipari said of Wallace’s status for Saturday. “He went and got checked out. He banged knees, so it’s painful, but there’s no structural (damage). That’s all good, but we’ll see.”
If Wallace can’t go, that would be a major loss against a Florida team that suddenly looks very dangerous, even if UK has a full roster.
The good news is Sahvir Wheeler is a capable backup who did well vs. the Gators last year. In those two matchups, Wheeler shot a combined 10/17 for 22 points with 11 assists vs. three turnovers.
Still, there’s no question Wallace is the superior player. His availability may very well decide who wins Round 1 of this series.
While Florida ranks 144th in offensive efficiency, they rank 10th in defensive efficiency. A large part of this is due to their interior defense, ranked third in the country in blocked shots with an average of six per game.
Colin Castleton specifically is the star of the Florida defense, accounting for over half (3.2 bpg) of Florida’s blocked shots. What is more impressive, is that he’s doing it without fouling, averaging 1.48 blocks for every foul. The Gators also do well at stealing entry passes, an area where the Wildcats have struggled.
With that being said, it is not going to be easy for Oscar Tshiebwe in the paint and Kentucky will need to hit some three-pointers to help space the floor, making Antonio Reeves a very important piece yet again. And hopefully, CJ Fredrick can see a couple go down.
Given Florida’s stout defense, it is likely Kentucky will find it difficult to score and one way to counter that is with offensive rebounds and extra possessions. Which has been a large part of Kentucky’s offensive game plan.
After recording double-digit offensive rebounds in 17 of their first 19 games, Kentucky has failed to gather more than seven in their past three games. In two of those contests, the Wildcats shot well enough from the field to win, but that was not the case against Kansas, shooting just 15% from three.
Fortunately, Florida is a team that tends to give up offensive rebounds, rankings in the lower half of the country in that category. In all but one of their nine losses, Florida has lost the rebound battle. This is an area Kentucky will need to capitalize on.
Capture and Hold the Momentum
While the Kentucky offense has improved, it is still difficult for them to make runs in short spurts. Plagued by poor starts for much of the season, this has put them in early holes that take time to dig themselves out of.
Against Kansas, Kentucky got off to a better start, but they allowed the Jayhawks to end the first half on an 11-4 run. For the rest of the game, that lead stayed at around 6-7 points and gave Kansas a cushion to answer any attempt at a Kentucky run.
As mentioned earlier, this is an important game that Kentucky cannot afford to lose. Capturing the momentum early and holding it will make winning a much easier task.
Bonus: Mike Pratt Jersey Retirement
The late Mike Pratt will have his jersey raised to the Rupp Arena rafters on Saturday. A long overdue moment, the former All-SEC Wildcat and longtime broadcaster will be honored for his accomplishments and service to the program.
Pratt’s jersey retirement will be just the second in the last two decades and the first since Tony Delk’s in 2015. One thing that would make Pratt proud is a win over Florida.
"I hope we have the same crowd that we had for Kansas" @UKCoachCalipari wants a big crowd for the Mike Pratt jersey retirement.— UK Sports Network (@UKSportsNetwork) February 2, 2023
Cal also says there could be special guest at the game!@UK_HealthCare John Calipari Show podcast: https://t.co/C4gexd43pk pic.twitter.com/EVT8o1dDdW
Kentucky Basketball (15-7) vs. Florida Gators (13-9)
Time/Date: 8:30 pm ET on Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Location: Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY
TV Channel: ESPN
Radio: Tom Leach and Jack Givens have the UK radio network call on the UK Sports Radio Network.
Replay: WatchESPN and SEC Network (check local listings).
Odds: DraftKings Sportsbook has Kentucky -5.5 points. ESPN’s matchup predictor is very confident in Kentucky’s chances, giving the Wildcats a 75.2% chance to win, though that’s obviously assuming Cason Wallace plays. Bart Torvik has it closer, giving Kentucky a 58% chance, while KenPom has it at 63%.