Some rivalries are born out of regional proximity, with schools being forced into an arranged marriage simply due to location.
For Florida and Kentucky however, their increasingly fierce rivalry features two schools which sit more than 700 miles apart. The No. 7 Gators have recently emerged as the most legitimate threat to No. 25 Kentucky’s SEC reign, a run which went unchallenged for years.
The two programs have participated in a decade-long battle of tug-of-war for conference supremacy, with neither school eager to relinquish its grip of the frail rope that is the SEC. Rather, both teams have continually changed positions atop the SEC, with Kentucky recently emerging as the conference’s best.
Since John Calipari’s arrival in Lexington, UK has become the premier destination for the nation’s top high school basketball talent. Calipari has managed to rope in one stud recruit after another, while simultaneously sending off young stars to the NBA.
In previous seasons, the assembled pool of stars at Kentucky possessed raw talent great enough to trump their youth and inexperience. While this year’s crop has yet to blossom as speedily as the teams of years past, Florida coach Billy Donovan still holds the Wildcats in high regard.
“I think every school in this conference looks at Kentucky as being the program to try to become,” Donovan said. “Obviously, it’s hard to do because they’ve done it for such a long period of time, not just here recently. … Since John has been there, he’s done a terrific job.”
What this year’s Kentucky team lacks in experience, they more than make up for in size and length. The Wildcats feature two players who stand over 6-foot-10 and have one who stands at 7-foot.
With the Gators’ recent loss of versatile forward Will Yeguete, the squad is shorthanded in the frontcourt and will undoubtedly be tested in guarding Kentucky’s oversized bigs.
Donovan said Florida will have to guard Kentucky as “a team” without Yegeute’s defensive prowess.
While the Gators will have plenty to worry about on the defensive end of the floor, UF’s offense will also be tested on Tuesday night. One of the aforementioned 6-foot-10 players also happens to be the reigning high school player of the year in former No. 1 recruit Nerlens Noel.
Noel had big shoes to fill upon his arrival in Lexington, as he was looked at as the heir apparent to the departed Anthony Davis, who was the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Davis made a name for himself at UK by sending opponents’ shot attempts into the caliginous corners of various arena rafters in the country.
OK, that may have been a bit of hyperbole, but the point is Davis was a feared shot blocker who made opposing players think twice before entering in the lane. Donovan said Noel’s ability to swat balls away rivals that of the player he replaced.
“He is just as good as Anthony Davis as a shot blocker,” Donovan said. “I don’t think there is any question about that. He has unbelievable length, has unbelievable timing, he is very gifted at it for a skill guy.
“I think driving in there and trying to shoot over top of him is probably not a wise choice, but I still think we are a team that needs to attack.”
The Gators will certainly need to be the aggressors on Tuesday if they wish to beat Kentucky for the first time in six tries. Although the Wildcats have had Florida’s number as of late, Donovan refuses to buy in to the notion that this game means retaking control of the conference.
“I don’t know if I necessarily look at it that way,” Donovan said. “Clearly, last year they were the best team in the country. I always think playing against teams like that, you look at Kentucky, and I think ultimately it makes you better. We get the chance to play against them twice.”