If the Florida Gators and the Kentucky Wildcats were horses and you judged their rosters by NBA talent standards you would come to this conclusion: Kentucky is Secretariat; Florida is Mr. Ed.
On paper, Saturday’s matchup (ESPN, 9 p.m.) between the Gators and Kentucky at Rupp Arenas is a complete and total mismatch. Kentucky’s roster is so overflowing with talent that John Calipari has to ration minutes to guys like Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein, who would have been lottery picks last June when the NBA drafted. Those guys come off the bench now because Calipari starts five freshmen, all of whom are expected to go pro after one college season.
As for Florida, Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS says, “If you look at the Gators’ roster, it’s hard to find a sure-fire pro.”
Kentucky definitely wins the style points. The revolving door of one-and-dones that John Calipari touts in his recruiting pitch has made Lexington the sexy place to be. Recruits aren’t the only ones who bought into it. Nearly every preseason magazine or website had the Wildcats cutting down the nets the first Monday in April. Back in October Poythress said he and his teammates didn’t see any reason why the Wildcats couldn’t go 40-0 this year.
Well, here it is February and 40-0 is definitely out of the question. Kentucky (19-5, 9-2 SEC) has taken it on the chin five times including twice on the road in the SEC at Arkansas and LSU, which have a combined league record of 10-12. In most of their games, the Wildcats have looked like an NBA team warming up but except for rare dominating stretches, anything but the best team in the country once the whistle blows and the games start for real.
Now, because it’s just February and anything is still possible, Kentucky could certainly find that elusive team chemistry, get hot as a pistol and pillage and plunder everything in its path to a second national championship in three years. The “experts” could still crow that they got it right if Kentucky figures things out.
Anything is possible. Probable? Hardly.
The team that looks like it can cut down the nets is Florida (22-2, 11-0 SEC), which comes into Saturday night’s game ranked third nationally and riding the momentum of a 16-game winning streak. The last time the Gators took one on the chin was back on December 2 when Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier scored on a buzzer beater, a shot he might not have gotten off if lockdown defender Scottie Wilbekin had been on the floor. Wilbekin sprained an ankle a few minutes earlier and wasn’t there at the finish, otherwise the outcome might have been different.
Since then the Gators have taken out everything and everybody in their path including Kansas, Memphis and 11 SEC opponents including five on the road. The other 13 teams in the SEC – Kentucky included – have lost at least two roadies.
While Kentucky has struggled to play at a consistently high level this season, it’s the Gators who have almost grudgingly earned the national attention. The experts are just now starting to come around to the fact that Florida is very capable of winning a national championship. That might have something to do with the fact the Gators lack the high profile stars or one-and-done freshmen biding their time until they sign those multi-million dollar NBA contracts. Former Virginia Tech coach and now ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg says the Gators have no stars but instead are the perfect fit of role players who know and understand what they have to do to help the team win.
Kentucky starts five high profile rookies who were part of an eight-man recruiting class that the so-called experts said was the greatest in history.
Florida starts four seniors and a sophomore who was a top 100 recruit who didn’t rate anything more than a courtesy glance from the Kentucky coaching staff when he was in high school. There is and never has been a sense of entitlement with seniors Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather. Michael Frazier, the non-senior starter, began his Florida career the same as his senior brethren – on the bench waiting to hear his name called so Billy Donovan could steal a few minutes of rest for a veteran.
When asked Monday if having to work their way up from the bottom to their current starting roles has helped, Wilbekin replied, “Yeah, I think it has and it definitely makes you more hungry when you get to this position. It gives you more of an appreciation.”
The attitude of the starters, particularly the seniors, has rubbed off on the rest of the team. The Gators will head into Saturday’s game with the chip that’s been on their shoulders since the season began to go against Kentucky, which is 14-0 this season at Rupp.
No one will have to remind the Gators that nobody on the current roster has ever won at Rupp. Why, the last time Florida left Rupp with a win was February 10, 2007, which coincidentally was a national championship season. A win Saturday night could be the next big step for a Florida team that has its best chance to hoist the Waterford Crystal national championship trophy for the first time in six years.
This is just one game, but its importance can’t be overstated. A Florida win gives the Gators a three-game SEC lead over Kentucky with six games to go and could be the propellant that takes Florida to a conference championship and more. On paper and in warmups, Kentucky might look like a champion but not every champion looks like Secretariat. Sometimes champions look like Mr. Ed.