Third-ranked Florida travels to Lexington Kentucky to take on No. 14 Wildcats tonight at 9 pm. Since ESPN is dubbing this particular game the SEC’s game-of-the-year in college basketball, we thought it would be appropriate to talk with our friends at Wildcat Blue Nation to see their perspective on the game. We did the same with them. Jason Marcum was kind enough to answer our questions. Check out what he had to say:
Brett: Kentucky came in with possibly the best recruiting class in history. How has that group of freshman grown up?
Jason: They continue to improve and show glimpses of that “elite” team we thought UK would become fairly quickly with the amount of talent they have. But that’s not been the case, and their 19-5 record speaks to that. No one could have imagined this team would have five losses already, not to mention four of the five losses are to unranked teams on the NCAA tournament bubble.
Julius Randle is a beast in the post, and when he chooses to dominate, he’s nearly impossible to contain for any single big man and no one can box him out on rebounds. Early in the year against a likely first-round draft pick in Michigan State center Adreian Payne, Randle exploded for 27 points on 9-of-14 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds. But now he’s becoming the focus of opposing defenses, and he’s almost guaranteed to get immediately double-teamed when he catches the ball in the post now. This causes him to become passive at times and not put forth his best effort on both the defensive and offensive end. John Calipari can tolerate the offensive part since he faces so many double-teams, but he won’t tolerate Randle not going hard on defense and going for rebounds. He benched him for a short time against Auburn for that. so if Florida can hound Randle early and not let him get anything easy, he could become passive, but I don’t think he will in a game of this magnitude.
As for the rest of the Cats: A lot of UK’s scoring comes from their freshman backcourt of James Young, Andrew and Aaron Harrison. The book on them is to guard them straight-up and after a while, they’ll settle for long jumpers, especially Young. He’ll shoot 6-10 threes in one game if you don’t allow him to penetrate the lane. Most teams UK has faced don’t have the athletes to guard them hard for 40 minutes, but Florida does.
So to sum it up: Crash the paint when Randle catches the ball and don’t give up a lane to the basket with the guards and Florida can hold UK’s offense down.
Brett: You’ve seen more consistent play as of late. What factors have contributed to this?
Jason: As I said above, Randle is becoming a better passer out of the post, and the guards are getting better about not settling for jump-shots. This team is also becoming better on the defensive end and getting run-outs on turnovers and long misses on jump-shots, and you don’t want one of the Harrisons (6’5″ each) or Randle (6’9″, 230 lbs) coming at you with a head of steam.
And they’re turning the ball over less. They commit just 12 per game now, but they’ve faced a lot of weaker defenses as of late, and against teams like Arkansas, UK has really struggled to take care of the ball. How hard Florida presses and forces the issue will show how much this team has true improved its ball-handling.
Brett: Julius Randle gets all of the attention. Give me one difference maker Florida fans should look out for?
Jason: Andrew Harrison. The point guard battle between he and Scottie Wilbekin will be arguably the game’s biggest one-on-one matchup. Wilbekin is as crafty as any guard you’ll find in college basketball, and Harrison has never faced a PG like him. Can Andrew handle his ball-pressure while also containing him on the offensive end? If UK wins this game, I believe it will be because Andrew does just enough to cancel-out Wilbekin’s impact on this game.
Brett: The Wildcats are 81-2 at Rupp Arena under John Calipari. What’s the greatest factor that contributes to this success? Calipari? Fans? Mystique?
Jason: Fans bring it for games like this and it becomes one of the hardest arenas to play in. UK players in turn feed off of this energy and bring-it for every big home game they have. I think Cal does have a part to play in that he really sells it to his team that any home loss automatically cots you in NCAA tournament seeding when you’re aiming for a high seed. He also stresses the importance of winning at home because the better the seeding you get, the closer their NCAA tournament games are and the more they feel like home games with UK fans traveling well.
Brett: Who/what scares you most about the Florida Gators?
Jason: I said it before: Florida’s full-court press and just their on-ball defense in general could really cause some havoc for UK. Not to mention UK’s transition defense is pathetic at times and the Gators can get some easy fast break points if they can execute in transition.
Brett: Give me a final score prediction (obviously you’re going to go with Kentucky) and the difference maker.
Jason: UK wins 71-69. Centers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein will expose Florida’s lack of size down low and help UK beat Florida to the boards while also chipping in 10-12 points apiece. They’re ability to control the paint and alter the shots of Florida’s guards will also be big in this game, and I believe those two may not necessarily dominate the box score, but they’ll be the reason UK wins this game.
Special thanks to Jason Marcum (follow him @UK_Fans) and Wildcat Blue Nation (@WildcatBlueNatn) to see their side of things, worn with big blue-tinted glasses. Don’t forget to check out our preview for the game. ESPN starts coverage of the game at 9 pm. Tip-off will be shortly after that.