Oh how the tables have turned. In early March 2014, the Florida Gators basketball team was preparing for the final game of the regular season.
They sat undefeated in the SEC save for one final game; a matchup with what was considered a struggling Kentucky team (22-8, 12-5 going into the game). The Gators won the game 84-65, giving Florida a perfect SEC season, one which they extended into the SEC Tournament to finish 21-0 overall in league play.
It was an improbable feat which caused head coach Billy Donovan to comment; “It’s an incredible, unbelievable accomplishment for these guys. It’s never been done before and it’s a record that won’t ever be broken. It might be tied, but it won’t ever be broken.”
Well he was right. Only even Donovan probably couldn’t have predicted how soon someone would crouch up to tie that record…like only a year.
Now the Wildcats (30-0, 17-0 SEC) are putting the final touches on their own Senior Day with a chance to go undefeated in league play and the regular season.
Being so close to the same achievement, Donovan can respect that much more what Kentucky has been able to do this season.
“They’ve had obviously a terrific year,” Donovan said while previewing the matchup. “Going through it last year, it’s so difficult to do because certainly you’re getting everybody’s best shot. And I’ve always said this; Kentucky in the history of our league has always been the gold standard with their success. So they’re playing against teams that are obviously playing at a very very high level against them… it’s been amazing what they’ve done.”
What they’ve done has been undeterred by routs or close games or home games or away games. They’ve been focused, and Donovan knows that to beat them, his team will need to be even more so.
“We’ve got to try to play as close to our fullest potential as we possibly can. That’s going to require getting good shots on offense against them, which is hard to do. It’s going to require defensively being able to battle to the best of our ability up front.”
The Gators have the chance to get those good shots on offense though with the possible return of junior Michael Frazier II.
The 6’4” shooting guard was Florida’s leading scorer (13.2 ppg, 40.1% from 3) along with Dorian Finney-Smith before suffering a high ankle sprain that has sidelined Frazier for the last seven games. That Gators have gone 3-4 in his absence.
He hasn’t been able to make it through most practices or shoot around without limping until Thursday. Donovan said Fraizer was in fact able to practice most of Thursday and would make the trip to Kentucky.
“How much he will be able to play, I don’t know.” Donovan said. “I wasn’t really looking at his timing, shooting, rhythm those kind of things. I was more interested to see how he was moving and I thought he moved pretty well in practice … I believe he’ll be available to play.”
It will take more than Fraizer setting up camp downtown though to beat the Cats.
Kentucky, which Donovan calls the best offensive rebounding team in the country, was able to outscore the Gators 12-6 on second chance points during the teams first meeting this season. The Cats won that game 68-61.
The energy that Donovan says you have to have to play against Kentucky, seemed to actually be present during that game back on February 7 (exactly one month prior to Saturdays matchup). The Gators were able to beat Kentucky in the paint that game, where the Cats normally dominate with forward Willie Cauley-Stein, with the Gators outscoring them 32-22. Florida led scoring the majority of the game; including a nine point lead midway through the first half and a halftime lead of 30-28.
It wouldn’t last though and Kentucky outscored Florida 40-31 in the second half and Aaron Harrison leading all scorers with 23.
Harrison is just one weapon in the Cats arsenal though, and Donovan understands there’s a laundry list of talent he’ll have to prepare his team to guard.
“They can beat people from the low post, they can beat people on the perimeter with [Devin] Booker and [Tyler] Ulis and the Harrisons shooting the ball. They can beat you in terms of rim protection, shot blocking ability, they can beat you with their defense. And then the thing they do better than maybe anybody in the country is their offensive rebound. Even if they’re not shooting the ball particularly well on any given night, they’ve got a great ability to rebound the ball.”
But now the Gators will have to add new name to their game plan in Trey Lyles.
The star freshman forward missed his teams’ first rendezvous with the Gators with an illness.
Donovan says Lyles versatility is going to be his squads biggest concern. Lyles has been utilized at both the small and power forward spots, with most action lately coming in at the small forward position. Chris Walker is the only Gator forward period who matches that height. Being able to stop Lyles will be one area the Gators will have to be creative.
“At least the last couple of games they’ve started him at the small forward spot,” Donovan explains, “and at 6’10” that’s obviously a significant match up problem for any team. I think any team going in against him is not gonna have a small forward with that kind of size and strength and ability to shoot and post up; and then there’s the versatility to move him back over to the power forward spot and provide a lot of skill at that spot. So when we [last] played them, I made the comment after that the game that we probably didn’t see the full Kentucky team in terms of the magnitude and the roll that he could play in the game.”
On this day though, Donovan and the Florida Gators will get the full Kentucky team. A Kentucky team that is in pursuit of perfection and have stepped on anyone in their way so far; much like a certain other team only a year ago and now the Gators have one last chance to spoil their fun, this time in Lexington.
Tip off is at 2pm on CBS.