The Florida Gators basketball team heads to Kentucky to face its most difficult test of the season on Saturday. Florida already got its most impressive win to this point in the season against Kentucky at home a few weeks back, but a win in this game would mean so much more.
With both teams sitting at the top of the SEC with identical records at 23-5 overall and 13-2 in conference play, the battle for the SEC regular season title is coming down to the wire. Barring any losses next week for either team, Saturday’s game will be the decider for the title.
Mike White knows all of the implications this game holds, but he has not mentioned any of those implications to his team. While a possible title is not a point of focus for the Gators right now, it is still a huge accomplishment to be competing for it for the first time in two seasons and to be competing for it in what is just White’s second year at the helm.
“It’s great,” said White. “Our guys have done their jobs. They’ve been terrific. Our culture has really taken a turn for the good. Again, our guys really enjoy each other. They’ve worked extremely hard all year. They’ve been consistent with their attitude and effort. We’ve got talent. We’ve got depth. We’ve had to overcome our adversity, and we’ve done that. That’s what you want to do at Florida in all sports, to be in contention to win championships. I’m proud of where we are, but we’ve got a ways to go. Tomorrow’s going to be very difficult and then the next two are going to be very difficult as well. It’s just, we’re not talking about that now. We’re talking about the scouting report, playing at Rupp, competing against coach Calipari’s team. That’s the focus right now. Everything else will take care of itself. We have to focus on playing well tomorrow.”
While the Gators already proved they are more than capable of handling the Wildcats, in a signature 22-point margin of victory last time, things likely won’t be quite so easy on the road.
Florida didn’t exactly handle the environment well the last time it made the trip to Lexington, suffering an 80-61 loss last season. The Wildcats were dominant from start to finish, as they went up by as many as 26 points and held a double-digit lead the entirety of the game after less than four minutes of play.
“They took it to us,” White said, recalling the embarrassing loss. “We weren’t very competitive. We didn’t play with much poise. We were a different team, of course. We hope to have a very different experience tomorrow, but we’ll have to get off to a good start and we’ll have to play well for that to happen. It’s a great environment, it’s a great environment, and they’re a very, very good team.”
To this point, Florida was one of the only teams all season to keep Kentucky’s potent offense in check. The Gators held the Wildcats’ offense, that averages an SEC-leading 88.2 points per game, to just 66. It still holds as the lowest scoring total for Kentucky all year.
The Gators did so by holding Kentucky’s leading scorer, Malik Monk, to just 11 points in the game and no points in the first half. Florida had a 54-29 advantage in boards over the conference’s best rebounding team.
Excluding the Auburn game, Florida has played its best defense of the season over the current stretch of nine consecutive wins. The Gators will need to bring in the same defensive mentality they have had lately to have more success against a hungry Kentucky team.
“They’re just so difficult to defend,” said White. “We can’t say, ‘We’re going to take this away’. I’m not even sure if you can go into a game and know you’re going to take one thing away from them. We’ve got to be good at everything. We have to be solid. We understand that they’re going to hit some difficult shots. They have the capability to do that. They’re going to go on some runs, of course. They have really good players. They run good stuff. They’re just really good. They’re a really good basketball team. We have our hands full.”
The electric environment on the road on Saturday will bring a whole new set of challenges for Florida to handle, but the players are looking back to their previous win over the Wildcats for a confidence boost and some inspiration going into the game.
“That gave us a lot of confidence going into the rest of the season,” said sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen. “Knowing that just playing hard and just staying together, we could accomplish anything and beat one of the best teams in the country.”