After what seems like an eternity in conference play, defending SEC and NCAA tournament champion Kentucky rolls into town on Tuesday to take on the Florida Gators. Let the hate begin.
An odd twist to the conference expansion is that they removed the divisional breakdown used previously and so the Gators have yet to oppose traditional “East” powers Kentucky, Tennessee, or Vanderbilt. Half of their remaining eight games, however, are against these three teams starting tomorrow night against Kentucky, the first of two scheduled games against their bitter basketball rival.
The two teams come into the game at the top of the conference with the Gators leading at 9-1 and Kentucky second with an 8-2 conference mark. Funny how conference play tends to restore the natural order of things.
Earlier in the year, preseason number two Kentucky dropped out of the AP top twenty five after three early losses had people scratching their heads wondering what was happening in Lexington. Sure the Wildcats had to replace their entire starting five, but don’t they do that every year? This year seemed a little different, however.
After Texas A&M’s Elston Turner dropped 40 points on the Wildcats in Rupp Arena, it appeared that the dynasty that is Kentucky basketball may have slipped from their place atop SEC basketball. But in the words of the inimitable Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend”.
The Wildcats have run off five consecutive conference wins since losing a close one at Alabama on January 22nd and here they are right back where they’re supposed to be. A win in Gainesville and they are tied at the top with a tie breaker to boot and the rubber match at home on March 9 to close out the regular season.
So it would appear at this point that the pressure might just be on the favored Gators playing at home especially when you consider that Kentucky has won the last five consecutive games in the series.
“I don’t know (if the pressure’s on Florida),” Donovan said. “I just know there are certain things and that stuff really doesn’t make a difference because our team is different from a year ago. Their team is different from a year ago so the faces for them have changed. Clearly last year they were the best team in the country. I think they lost two games the whole year. It’s not even necessarily against us, it’s against everybody. More importantly for me, the game is right now, (and we’re in the middle of) playing for a league championship.”
And right now, or more correctly, this season the Gators have been one of the class teams in the NCAA running in the top three in scoring defense and scoring margin all season before the hiccup a week ago at Arkansas. They hadn’t given up over 70 to any team until the Hogs dropped 83 on them.
Arkansas had a once in a lifetime scoring effort dropping 7 or their first 9 three point shots, a perfect storm of a team that plays energized at home playing a team due for a letdown and caught flat-footed. It didn’t help that the Gators leading rebounder Will Yeguete played only 65 seconds before hitting the bench with a knee injury and their two big men Patrick Young and Erik Murphy got into early foul trouble something they’ve done well at avoiding this season.
Regardless, they did rebound nicely on Saturday at home against Mississippi State getting back to their usual effort of stout defense, patient offense, and high percentage shooting dominating the league’s last place team.
Kentucky, though, is a much different beast. While still young and not nearly as dominating as last year’s team, this team is good and getting better by the game. The Gators will certainly have their hands full.
Kentucky is ranked 28th in the country in scoring offense averaging 76 points per game and have a balanced offense with five players averaging in double figures led by freshman guard Archie Goodwin with a 14.2 ppg average. The Gators, on the other hand come in at 41st in scoring averaging 74.1 points per game but 1st in the nation in scoring margin at plus 21.5 ppg largely on the strength of their suffocating fourth ranked scoring defense giving up only 52.7 ppg.
The Gators also possess a balanced scoring lineup with four players averaging in double figures led by Kenny Boynton’s 13.1 average. Not far behind are Erik Murphy at 12.9 and Mike Rosario at 12.5 ppg.
The Gators have been surprisingly good on the boards this season considering they have only three guys 6-7 or taller, and are currently ranked 14th nationally in rebounding margin at plus 7.9 rebounds per game. Kentucky, however, may present problems for the Gators as they have great length along the front line and with the Gators leading rebounder Will Yeguete out for the rest of the regular season, the Gators will need to be prepared for a battle on the boards in this one.
“It’s something (Kentucky’s size) we’re going to have to deal with,” Muschamp said. “They’ve got really good length. Across the front line, they’ve got a lot of different lineups they can play. They’re getting (Willie) Cauley-Stein back and then you add (Kyle) Wiltjer and add (Alex) Poythress and (Nerlens) Noel. They have a lot of length up there. Our hand is what it is, in terms of our front court. We know we collectively have to do a good job as a group. I’ve always been a big believer that it’s not one guy’s responsibility to take care of another guy. We’ve got to do it and have done it this year as a team and we’ll need to continue to do a good job there as a team.”
One of Kentucky’s biggest weapons is center Nerlens Noel who is a matchup concern and is averaging over 4 blocks per game. He’s a long-armed guy who has great reaction speed and when he isn’t blocking shots he’s altering them making it difficult for guys driving into the lane. Unfortunately that is a staple of Donovan’s motion offense and will be even more important with Yeguete out as the Gators offense looks to create open perimeter shots.
It will be imperative that Patric Young and Erik Murphy play effectively in the low post without getting into foul trouble. The Gators are short on depth in the frontcourt. Casey Prather who played much better against Mississippi State has to provide solid, active defense down low as he will be key on switches on the pick and roll much like Yeguete was for the Gators.
In spite of their lack of post depth, the Gators have to understand that to be effective they have to work the ball effectively into the lane whether by forcing it into the post or driving the lane which forces the opponent to double down freeing perimeter shooters for open looks. Kentucky will try to focus on guarding the three point line so if the Gators simply try to pass the ball around the perimeter like they did against Arkansas without pushing it inside they could get themselves into trouble again.
With so much length on the Kentucky frontcourt the Gators will also have to communicate effectively on the help defense particularly when they get into smaller three and four guard rotations as they will be vulnerable to matchup issues.
“It (guarding Kentucky’s length) doesn’t really fall on one person’s shoulders,” Donovan said. “It is everybody having an awareness, being conscientious of having a little more sense of urgency being able to do that. If we are in the game small tomorrow with (Casey) Prather and he gets stuck on Nerlens Noel, we need to understand that he is going to need some help. Whereas maybe with a guy like Will he wouldn’t need as much help, maybe he would, any player for that matter. You’ve got to be conscientious of who is out there on the floor, what the matchup looks like, and where a guy needs potential help. For us, with our size, we have been fortunate a guy like Patric (Young) has been able to play the post one-on-one, (Erik) Murphy has been able to do that, Will has been able to do that. If we ever get into a situation with four guards and (Michael) Frazier has to guard maybe a Kyle Wiltjer, we got to have awareness in the game of what’s going on right now. We can’t leave that guy on an island; he’s probably going to need some help when he’s inside.”
The Gators will also need some good shot selection from the perimeter. Mike Rosario has been the Gators most consistent perimeter shooter of late with Kenny Boynton suffering through a shooting slump from three point range. He has picked the Gators up at times when other guys have struggled. Erik Murphy, of course, leads the conference in three point shooting percentage at slightly under 50% and the Gators will need him and Rosario to shoot a high percentage. Freshman Michael Frazier has been shooting well too in limited action averaging 47% from outside the arc.
The main guy the Gators will count on to step up, though, will be point guard Scottie Wilbekin who was benched for the start of the Mississippi State game for his less than stellar response in practice to the Arkansas loss. While he is a good shooter, averaging 46.5 % from the field overall, the Gators need him moreso to set up the offense, put pressure on the interior of the Kentucky defense, then find the open shooters and get them the ball, and, of course, take care of the ball. The Gators are undefeated when they have more than 15 assists with a positive assist to turnover ratio. In the Arkansas loss they had only 15 assists and 16 turnovers. Against Mississippi State the Gators had 21 assists to only 8 turnovers, numbers Donovan would surely like to see repeated against Kentucky.
The game will be broadcast live on ESPN as part of their Rivalry Week series and to the victor go the spoils. First place in the SEC and control of their own destiny. For the Gators, it will certainly be an opportunity to increase their RPI in hopes of winning out and a possible top seed heading into the NCAA tournament. Of course, there is still a lot of basketball to be played between now and the tournament but a win tonight will certainly go a long way for both teams. Tip off is scheduled for 7 pm eastern time.
Rowdy Reptiles, national ESPN audience, undisputed SEC lead, and Kentucky.
Let the hate begin!