After defeating a No. 10 ranked Tennessee Volunteer team over the weekend, the Kentucky Wildcats have given themselves some cushion and are off the bubble for the time being. With an away game against Florida on Wednesday, the Wildcats will have the opportunity to add another Quad 1 win to their resume.
With a win, the Cats would not only solidify themselves into the tournament even further but could start climbing up the seed list. This is in part to a weak bubble that the Wildcats can take advantage of.
On the other hand, Wednesday’s game is a must-win for Florida, as it is their last remaining Quad 1 game, and their last chance to keep their tournament hopes alive.
Given what is at stake for each team, let’s take a closer look at the game.
The Wildcats have some familiarity with the Gators as they played them once before this season, back in early February, beating them 72-67 at Rupp Arena. In the weeks since that game, both teams have changed, primarily due to injuries.
Since their first meeting, Kentucky has lost CJ Fredrick (cracked rib) and Sahvir Wheeler (ankle sprain). Little information has been given regarding their injuries, nor has a timetable been set for either. While Fredrick and Wheeler are impactful, that is nothing compared to Florida’s loss.
In a win against Ole Miss, Gator big man Colin Castleton broke his hand, likely ending his season. Castleton’s 16 points and 7.7 boards will be difficult to replace, but his impact on the floor will be impossible to replicate.
The Florida offense and defense were anchored by Castleton, with him no longer there, they will have to rely on the combination of small-ball and backup fives.
Classic Oscar Tshiebwe Performance
As mentioned above, Colin Castleton is the biggest piece of this Florida team, and now without him, the whole complexion of the team has changed.
In three previous head-to-head matchups against Oscar Tshiebwe, Castleton averaged 22 and 8.7 rebounds, effectively having his way against the Wildcats. Maybe even more importantly, he was able to limit Tshiebwe with his length. Case in point, in their most recent matchup in early February, Tshiebwe shot just 2/14 from the field.
Without Castleton, the Gators still have size, but will have to rely on reserve big men Jason Jitoboh and Aleks Szymczyk. It should be noted they have played just one game without Castleton, but there is quite a bit of dropoff, as his replacements combined for 12 points and eight rebounds in 44 total minutes.
This could mean a big game for Oscar Tshiebwe, who has scored 15+ points in three-straight games. While he has performed well, it would be promising to see a vintage performance from the reigning National Player of the Year as the end of the regular season nears.
Ball-Screen Defense & Defensive Communication
For much of the season, Kentucky’s ball-screen defense has been their biggest weakness. This has been no secret and every opponent the Wildcats have played against has attempted to exploit it, with most having success.
On the season, about 20% of the Florida Gators' offense is ball-screen based, which ranks amongst the highest in the SEC. One of the biggest things to watch for ‘2-man side’ and ‘3-man side’ action, which Florida will use to create movement toward the basket.
Despite being without their most versatile weapon, it is too late to change the offense significantly, so Kentucky should expect a lot of dribble hand-offs and ball-screens. With that said, they have shown slight improvements as of late - due to better communication and Livingston making a difference - and they must continue that trend to take care of business against Florida.
Kentucky Basketball (18-9) vs. Florida Gators (14-13)
Time/Date: 7:00 pm ET on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2023
Location: Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, FL
TV Channel: ESPN
Online Stream: WatchESPN, ESPN+, SEC Network+ or ESPN app
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 as a 3-point favorite. ESPN’s matchup predictor gives Kentucky an edge in a near toss-up, at 54.9%. Bart Torvik gives Kentucky a few more percentage points at 58%, while KenPom is down at 45%.
Predictions: Bart Torvik picks the Wildcats to win in a thrilling battle, 72-70. KenPom picked the Gators to come away with a 72-70 win. TeamRankings (via ESPN) is predicting a 71-69 victory, Kentucky!