Ah, College Game Day. There isn’t anything better than that. Well, actually it would be better if it was in Gainesville instead of Lexington but still, when the Gators go to take on Kentucky on January 20th it will be on one of college basketball’s brightest stages. Currently sitting atop the SEC standings with a 5-1 record, the Gators will be looking to send Kentucky to 4-3 and the create some distance between the two teams many predicted would be battling for the SEC crown, particularly now that Texas A&M has had their shocking 1-5 beginning. Let’s take a look at the scouting report.
Gorjok Gak is still in concussion protocol so his status is unconfirmed. Kentucky’s biggest strength is by far their frontcourt so having as many available bodies in those positions would be ideal for the Gators. Speaking of frontcourt bodies, John Egbunu, Isaiah Stokes, and Chase Johnson are still looking like they’ll be held out. Best of luck to all these players in their recoveries.
Season to Date
As much as Kentucky started the season with a lot of hype and have maintained a position in the top 15 throughout the year, their resume doesn’t actually have a lot to it. Their strength of schedule and RPI looks pretty good, but this is a team that has yet to pick up a signature win. Their best victories are currently over Texas A&M (by 1 point at home, and we know Texas A&M wasn’t themselves in that same stretch Florida pumped them), Louisville (back in December when they were still struggling) and Virginia Tech who is, well, a lower end ACC school. The only top 25 KenPom games they have had were against Kansas where they lost by 4 in a good effort and a 10 point loss to Tennessee where they weren’t ever in the game. Though Florida has a home loss to Loyola-Chicago far worse then anything the Wildcats have, their win category trounces Kentucky’s when comparing resumes which could indicate this Kentucky team isn’t as good as many people think.
Kentucky’s Best Player
This hurts to type, but through the agony of every keystroke I will tell you that Kentucky’s best player this season has been…wait for it… former Florida commit Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The player who Florida offered and got a commitment from when he a low 3-star and watched elevate to a high 4-star only to have him de-commit and flip to Kentucky right after. That guy. Averaging 12 points, 4.2 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.9 steals per game he has been providing the most consistent 2-way game for Kentucky all season and Coach Calipari made a point in a press conference last week to say that Gilgeous-Alexander was his team’s best player. He is particularly effective on defense using his long arms to play passing lanes and at 6’6” playing the point could make for a tough matchup for Chris Chiozza. Keep an eye on how Florida tries to neutralize him.
Kentucky is a team that has struggled to score within the flow of their normal offense at times but have used their size and athleticism to get hustle points in transition and off offensive rebound put-backs. Young players often struggle to shoot the ball and Kentucky is the youngest team in all of college basketball (something I will bet you $5 Calipari will point out in the post game press conference if Florida is able to win), meaning the jump shot is not always kind to them. Shooting 35% (161st nationally) from beyond the arc isn’t horrendous, but their struggles from three are more indicated by the fact that they are reluctant to take those shots. Only 24.8% of their shots come from three (348th) nationally and 19.1% of their points comes from three (349th in the country) so the long ball shouldn’t be an area of concern for the Gators. The concern for the Gators should come from the fact that all these missed shots means offensive rebound opportunities, and offensive rebounds are what Kentucky does best. The Wildcats are a long, physical team and players like PJ Washington, Wenyen Gabriel, Nick Richards, Kevin Knox, and Jarred Vanderbilt (one of the highest rated recruits in 2017 who just played his first game against South Carolina) are all players who feast on the offensive glass and could give Florida’s injury ridden frontcourt fits. Kentucky gets offensive rebounds on 34.5% of their shots and the extra possessions they generate make up for their inability to hit jump shots. Particularly if Gorjok Gak remains out, Kevarrius Hayes, Keith Stone, and Egor Koulechov will be tasked with gigantic minute loads and staying in the game for upwards of 33 minutes each could be a big problem for another reason. Kentucky draws a ton of fouls. Going to the line the 7th most in the country and with this game being at Rupp Arena, fouls could be a huge concern for the Gators. The frontcourt size of Kentucky also means that Hayes, Stone, and Koulechov will be undersized in pretty much every matchup they will have and that can lead to necessary fouling. Could we see some zone for the Gators to limit fouls for their big men? I think it could be a good idea as Kentucky’s struggles to shoot means that they won’t exploit the perimeter of the zone and Florida could also do some trapping that could force turnovers. Kentucky’s freshmen guards have really struggled with turning the ball giving it away on 19.8% of Wildcat possessions so that could be something Florida tries to key on. Kentucky has shot 47.7% against man defenses this year and only 40.6% when playing against zone which would be another reason to go in that direction. However Florida decides to defend they’ll need to keep Kentucky away from the rim as much as possible and try to make them shoot contested jump shots. After those shots go up if Florida can rebound the ball than things could go very well for the Gators.
With size, length, and athleticism all over the roster, this is a Kentucky team that can defend at a high level. Pressuring guards, closing out on shooters, and blocking shots at the rim there isn’t an area of weakness that leaves this Wildcat team vulnerable. The way that modern basketball is played, the most used shot is the spot up jump shot where a player catches and shoots without taking a dribble. With great team speed to get to shooters, Kentucky has been one of the best spot-up defending teams in the country holding teams to 33.3% on these attempts. They do particularly well when closing out on three point shooters as they have kept their opponents to only 29% from beyond the arc (6th in the nation). Florida is a team that has thrived on spot-up jump shots so something will have to give between the great shooting team and the great defending team. The ability to get out to shooters with their speed and length has made Kentucky a really good zone playing team. In the past Coach Calipari has been incredibly reluctant to play zone defense (likely because he thinks it doesn’t look good to NBA scouts) but this year he has his team play a 2-3 zone with super-athletes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo at the top frustrating guards by taking away passing angles. Florida has been able to shoot their way out of zones this year when guys like Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen have been on their game but if Kentucky can limit them then Florida could really struggle against that defense. Keith Stone has been a good zone offensive player when he gets the ball in the high post but passing the ball into that area will be made extremely difficult with 5 long defenders on the floor. If there is one thing that I think is paramount to Florida’s preparation for this one, it will be to prepare for that zone defense.
Keys For The Gators
Not getting pounded on the glass would go a long way in this one. Kentucky is going to try to play in transition off defensive rebounds and get a lot of their points off offensive rebound put-backs so if the Gators can rebound on both sides of the floor then both those gravy trains would be cut off. They also will need to find a way to attack the 2-3 zone if Kentucky decides to play it. That zone could really slow done the game to a pace Florida does not want it at, but some quick threes from Hudson or Koulechov could chase them from it quickly.
KeVaughn Allen needs to keep it going after a big-time performance against Arkansas. Him being back in offensive form entirely changes the way Florida can attack and they’ll need him to be a threat against Kentucky. Not only would a great performance against the Wildcats help the Gators win but two good performances in a row would be a lot better for Allen’s confidence as opposed to just a flash in the pan against the Razorbacks.
What are you expecting from this huge College Game Day matchup? Leave a comment here or post on the Gator Country forums.