Previewing Florida’s Important Road Game At Kentucky

Saturday will see the start of a big series for the 17-9 (9-4) Gators against the 21-5 (11-2) Kentucky Wildcats as they have a major opportunity to launch up the SEC standings and maybe even compete for a regular season title. Kentucky is currently up two games on the Gators but Saturday is the first of two bouts between the teams and if the Gators were able to sweep the top of the league would look very, very interesting. Even if the Gators weren’t able to sweep, a split against Kentucky would keep them near the top of the league with a great seed in the SEC Tournament. This iteration of the Florida-Kentucky rivalry takes place at Rupp and although that means advantage-Wildcats the Gators have been playing some good basketball of late, albeit against lesser teams in the league and they’d love a chance to show they are a real deal against Big Blue Nation. Here are some storylines to note entering Saturday’s game.

Computers Do Not Love Kentucky

The Wildcats currently sit at #10 in the AP Poll and the vibe around the country is that they are one of the top teams in the country and one that can compete for a Final Four. However, none of the predictive metrics feel the same way.

For starters, you’ve got KenPom, the most popular metric out there to predict teams saying the Wildcats are only the 29th best team in the country.

How about Barttorvik, another extremely popular (and historically accurate) metric:

31st.

What about the Massey Composite, a number that encompasses a bunch of metrics:

21st.

And the most important number, the NET Rankings. Really the only one that actually matters since it’s the official metric of the NCAA Selection Committee:

22nd.

So, you can look at the #10 ranking in the AP Poll all you want but if you ask me, it’s pretty fishy that none of these metrics think Kentucky is anywhere near that good. This isn’t to diminish anything about the Wildcats, who are certainly a really good team, but it’s absolutely worth noting that they likely aren’t as good as the number that’s going to be next to their name on the TV broadcast would suggest.

Uncharacteristic Traits

Under Coach John Calipari the Wildcats have almost been known for their defense. Yes, they have had countless one-and-done studs and future NBA stars but it hasn’t been offense that has been the calling card—it has always been tough defense that has overwhelmed opponents with their speed and athleticism. This year that hasn’t been the case at all. They’re 55th in adjusted defensive efficiency and their inability to slow down their opposition has really hurt them in the metrics. This hasn’t stung them a ton in the loss column as it’s not like they have taken bad losses but a lot of their games against lesser competition haven’t been anywhere near as close as they should have been and it’s largely due to the defense.

That isn’t the only uncharacteristic take for the Wildcats. Always full of athleticism and length, Kentucky usually pounds their opponents on the glass. This year that isn’t the case, and the Wildcats are shocking 203rd in the country in defensive rebounding percentage. To contrast, they were 55th last year. They have been better on the offensive glass coming in at 80th in the country but that isn’t an overwhelming number, especially given the athleticism on the roster, and for that reason the Gators have a chance to really own the glass in this game. Considering the Gators have been undersized the last couple of seasons they haven’t had the chance to set the tone physically in a game against Kentucky but on Saturday they’ll have the chance to do so.

Backcourt Battle

A key matchup to watch in this game will be Ashton Hagans versus Andrew Nembhard in a battle of elite point guards. What makes this matchup interesting is that these are two extremely proficient lead guards but they play totally different than the other. As we all know, Nembhard is a cerebral guard who controls tempo and uses savvy and basketball IQ to get things done. He has been an effective defender but it has largely been due to his anticipation and ability to read plays. Hagans, on the other hand, is extremely physical and athletic and plays the game with speed and bounce. You mostly see that with the way he plays defense and his length at 6’3” as well as quick feet make him one of the best defensive players in the nation. This could definitely present a challenge for the Gators. A trend this season has been the fact that when Nembhard isn’t leading the way for the Gators, they haven’t played well. Florida lacks some secondary ball handling and auxiliary playmaking and if Hagans is able to force the ball out of Nembhard’s hands you can’t be super confident in the Gators generating great looks, at least if the sample size from this season is any indication. However, if there is anyone that can solve Hagans’ defense it’s Nembahrd who has faced some great adversaries this year and came out on top. This is going to be a great battle and whichever player wins the head to head competitions could very well win the game for their team.

Another Great Matchup To Watch

One of the biggest emergences of the season has been Nick Richards, a rare junior at Kentucky to be a prominent player. After not being particularly impactful for his first two years in college he looks to have really figured things out and has been playing great basketball on both sides of the floor. Offensively he is someone who is lethal around the rim, someone who at 6’11” doesn’t just go straight up and try to finish over people but also uses the dribble effectively to get by his man and finish with some creativity. On defense he’s one of the best shot blockers in the country, someone who can mop up mistakes by his teammates with his length to get a hand on the ball. It will be an interesting matchup between Richards, an elite athlete, and Blackshear, a below-the-rim banger. Both are pivotal players to the success of their respective teams, and this very well might turn into a race to see who can foul out the other player. By the numbers, Blackshear commits more fouls (4.6 per 40 minutes to 4.1 for Richards), but he also draws more fouls (6.9 fouls per 40 minutes to Richards’ 4.8) so it could be anyone’s game.

Keys To The Game

There has to be a great level of concern regarding Ashton Hagans’ ability to eliminate opposing guards from offensive actions and the Gators will need to have a game plan in place that allows other players to be productive. It isn’t a certainty that Nembhard is going to be completely neutralized and he could still have a successful game but if the Gators’ go into Saturday expecting Nembhard to initiate the same number of actions as normal they could be in for a rude awakening. Another element to watch is how Florida can play defense without fouling. Kentucky draws more fouls than just about anyone in the country and a lot of their offense comes from the free throw line. They aren’t a particularly good three-point shooting team and accomplish much of what they get offensively from inside the arc and the Gators will need to defend without fouling.

“Key” Gator

Ashton Hagans-Andrew Nembhard and Nick Richards-Kerry Blackshear Jr. are two major matchups but there isn’t anyone on Kentucky’s roster that’s particularly suited to handle Keyontae Johnson. He’s coming off one of the best games of his career but that wasn’t just a flash in the pan, he has been playing outstanding basketball of late that has seen him look tremendous when attacking the rim and well as when he’s shooting the three. With Kentucky lacking an obvious answer to Johnson he could very well have another big game and be the x-factor.

Matchup Outlook

This is a huge game for Florida. They’re likely on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble right now but they’re still just that—on or near the bubble. A road win against Kentucky would be a tremendous resume boost and one that would help them feel much more comfortable and they should be plenty motivated on the road at Rupp. For the Gators to stay alive in the race for an SEC regular season title they’ll need to steal a road win on Saturday and considering the way the lineups match up, it’s a definite possibility.

Eric Fawcett
Eric hails from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. His blend of sports and comedy has landed his words on ESPN, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports, Lindy's and others. He loves zone defenses, the extra pass, and a 30 second shot clock. Growing up in Canada, an American channel showing SEC basketball games was his first exposure to Gator hoops, and he has been hooked ever since. You can follow him on Twitter at @Efawcett7.