On Saturday the Gators are home for what, in a strange way, is going to be one of their most important games of the season.
On paper, this might not exactly look to be the case. They’re playing a 3-6 squad that’s currently way on the outside looking in of the NCAA Tournament picture, and that team’s best win was a double overtime squeaker over a poor Mississippi State team who earlier put up a double digit loss to Liberty.
However…this is no normal 3-6 basketball team. It’s the Kentucky Wildcats.
Well, it might say Kentucky across their chests, but this isn’t exactly your normal Kentucky team. They recruited well as always, yes, but it’s not their normal class that brings in multiple top-15 players. This year’s class is more like plays ranked 30th-60th versus 1st-15th, and we’re seeing that this difference is a cavernous one.
They’re also relying heavily on Davion Mintz, a graduate transfer from Creighton. He was a solid player there, a starter, but not exactly the kind of player you normally see leading the way for Kentucky. Jacob Toppin, a bench player for Rhode Island last year, is also playing a significant bench role.
An Atlantic 10 bench player suddenly cracking the rotation for Kentucky? As if 2020 and 2021 wasn’t already bizarre enough.
The NBA caliber talent that Coach Calipari was banking on being leaders has been off to a slow start. Brandon Boston, a player the Gators recruited, looks the part of modern basketball superstar. 6’7”, long, and an offensive skill set and shot making ability you normally only see from smaller guards. However, he has struggled immensely to hit shots hitting only 15% of his threes so far this season and, like most freshmen do, found himself lost on the defensive end.
Wing Terrance Clarke was also struggling from deep (22%) but starting to come into his own in other elements of his offensive game but then got sidelined for the last two contests with an ankle injury. His status against Florida is currently up in the air.
Analytics service EvanMiya has Kentucky as the 72nd best team in the country, one spot ahead of UAB. Barttorvik, another popular tool, has them 66th right in front of Davidson.
According to the NET ratings, the official evaluation and sorting tool of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, Kentucky is 129th.
That is not a typo, they are 129th.
Everyone knows the quadrant system, right? The way that the NCAA Selection Committee sorts wins and losses based on the quality of the game? Because of Kentucky’s NET ranking, this will be a Quadrant 3 game for Gators. Some examples of Florida’s Quadrant 3 games from last season were Towson, Marshall, and North Florida, if that puts things into perspective.
For that reason, you can tell this is far from a normal Kentucky team, and is closer to a basement SEC team or, I suppose as the rankings would suggest, a mediocre Atlantic 10 or Conference USA team.
However, that doesn’t make the game any less important for Florida. In fact, it might make the game even more important. Losing to Kentucky when Kentucky is good, sucks.
Losing to them when they’re as bad as they have ever been would suck even more.
Whether it’s SEC standings where the Gators don’t want to take a home loss to a team trending towards the bottom, their NCAA Tournament resume where the Gators don’t want to take a bad loss, or recruiting where the Gators don’t need to have Kentucky telling recruits “even at our worst we beat Florida,” they desperately need to take care of business against the Wildcats.
Considering the Gators had a bad showing against Alabama on Tuesday night a lowly opponent like Kentucky could be just what the doctor ordered, but it could also provide a recipe for disaster if the poor play continues and they suffer a loss against a team they should be able to handle.
For Florida, that starts with improving their defense. Whether it was matching up in transition, guarding the pick and roll, or stopping straight line drives in isolation attacks the Gators have had problems in multiple facets and they’ll be desperately trying to improve that starting on Saturday. Luckily for the Gators, most of Kentucky’s problems have stemmed from the fact that they have struggled so much to score.
It starts at the three-point line where Kentucky has been largely unable to hit shots. This is normally a problem at Kentucky where their young, athletic talent hasn’t yet learned to shoot the ball at an appropriate level. However, this year is another level with the Wildcats only hitting 29% of their attempts on one of the lowest volumes of three-point shots in the country. They avoid shooting the deep ball unless they are entirely left open, and even when those shots fly they aren’t falling at a very high rate.
Instead of trying to do damage from deep, the Wildcats hammer the ball inside and look to use size and athleticism to get layups. Often they’re successful with a few wings like Brandon Boston and Terrance Clarke as well as the size and leaping ability of Wake Forest transfer Olivier Sarr at center, but they’re so reliant on those players scoring inside that the Gators can send as many players as they need to try to protect the hoop.
One thing that will be interesting from a Florida schematic standpoint is how much they choose to switch defensively. Kentucky has size and they’ll look to attack switches, so if Florida ends up getting their smalls like Tyree Appleby or Noah Locke guarding Brandon Boston or Olivier Sarr, Kentucky will take advantage. Oftentimes teams switch because they don’t want to have to fight through screens and potentially give up three point attempts in the process. However, the Gators don’t have to be worried about losing Wildcats for open threes so working through screens and not switching could be an effective strategy.
The only shooter that Florida really needs to be aware of is Dontaie Allen, a high school basketball legend in the state of Kentucky that Calipari hardly used in the first seven games of the season. However, he has finally gotten run in their last two games and in each contest he has shown his ability to shoot hitting 9 of his 16 three-point attempts. He was known as a shooter in high school and Kentucky fans were begging for Calipari to play him to bring that shooting and when he finally did, there were results. Allen stands about 6’6” and looks to be able to get his shot off against just about anybody so he’ll be a player to watch out for.
If there is one area that Kentucky has looked pretty good, it’s on the defensive end. As usual they have plenty of length and athleticism and while that hasn’t translated to success on the offensive end it has worked pretty well defensively.
For the Gators, this could present a challenge. So far this season they have loved going one one, isolating more than any team in the country up to this point this season. Against Alabama this strategy backfired as the Crimson Tide had defenders capable of locking down Florida’s individual attacks, and Kentucky could likely have the same success. Their defense hasn’t been the usual quality you’d expect from the Wildcats but they are still top 25, largely due to their physical gifts.
One player the Gators could attack is Brandon Boston, whose defense has sent Coach Calipari into fits on multiple occasions so far this season. He’s long, but doesn’t move his feet particularly well and he’s extremely slim making it difficult for him to body up more physical perimeter players on drives. If the Gators are looking to continue to isolate, Boston is the guy they need to go after.
A player the Gators will be looking to step up is Anthony Duruji, a player who had perhaps the roughest night of any against the Crimson Tide. He took bad shots offensively and on the defensive end was never able to use his incredible athletic gifts to get many stops. Kentucky will try and force him to take the tough midrange jumpers he has loved to take so far this season, and their dribble drive offense will go at him relentlessly on the other end. The Gators have depth at pretty much every position–except for power forward. Mike White seems to not trust Osayi Osifo to take many minutes so far and that means Duruji is going to have to play big minutes, regardless of how good or bad he looks, so he’ll be an important player.
Even though the Wildcats aren’t the Kentucky teams we’re used to, the Gators would love nothing more than to get a big win over them. As much as a win would be great, a loss to the Wildcats at home would be extremely detrimental to Florida’s NET ranking and therefore their NCAA Tournament resume. Calling this a must win game for the Gators would be a gross exaggeration, but it’s certainly one they would hate to lose.