Since taking the reins at Kentucky in 2009, John Calipari has certainly had Florida’s number with his teams besting the Gators eight times in nine tries.
The slick-haired, slick-talking coach is one of the more polarizing figures in college basketball, but few have been able to argue with the results Calipari has been able to produce in Lexington, including a national championship last season.
This year, Calipari has endured arguably his toughest coaching challenge since becoming the face of Big Blue Nation, leading a young team which is still in the process of adjusting to the rigors of collegiate play.
However, after a turbulent conference start, the No. 25 Wildcats have begun to perform in line with preseason expectations, reeling off five straight victories.
On Tuesday, Calipari will again march his team into the O’Connell Center, but unlike last year, it is the No. 7 Gators who are the favorites this time around.
“You’ve got a top-five team on the road. They play well in their building. It will be a hard game for us to win,” Calipari said. “Let’s put it this way. They were an Elite Eight team last year, should have been in the Final Four, were one game short of that and they’ve got everybody back.”
Calipari said he expects the Gators to make up for injured forward Will Yeguete’s absence, and the real focus for his group will lie on defending Florida’s guards.
A week ago, the Gators suffered their first conference loss at the hands of a surprisingly hot Arkansas squad, which used nylon-scorching shooting to jump to an early lead.
When asked if Arkansas had laid a blueprint for beating Florida, Calipari quipped: “The best thing I can tell you, if you come out and you make nine out of your first 10 shots, you really have a chance of getting it.”
Calipari’s Kentucky teams have been unusually successful on the road during his tenure. However, even he’s not sure how his young group will respond in what could possibly be the most hostile environment his team will play in all season.
“Playing down (in Gainesville), these guys other than Kyle [Wiltjer], who probably if I look back probably played very few minutes down there, they haven’t felt this down there,” Calipari said. “They haven’t played a team that’s been there, done that, and a team that’s hungry to beat us.”
While Calipari may simply by offering coach-speak, Wiltjer, who has had his game compared to Florida’s Erik Murphy, believes his team is ready for both the Gators and their maniacal bunch of fans, aptly named the “Rowdy Reptiles.”
“We feel ready,” Wiltjer said. “We have had a lot of tests before, and I feel like we are improving every day. So it is going to be a great battle for u,s and hopefully we can learn from it.”