Ever since the arrival of former Kentucky assistant Billy Dononvan to Gainesville in 1996, the Florida-Kentucky rivalry has had special meaning. It was the storied tradition of UK against the upstart Gators. The flashy new kids on the block vs. the battle-tested veterans. Jason Williams, Mike Miller, David Lee, Anthony Roberson and Joakim Noah against Scott Padgett, Tayshaun Prince, Keith Bogans, Gerald Fitch and Ramel Bradley. Orange and blue against the Big Blue.
There was Tayshaun’s game-winning jumper in the lane in 2001 that sent Rupp Arena into a frenzy. There was the plastering of then-number one Florida in 2003, a game which UK fans sent the Gators home to chants of “Over-rated!”. There was Florida’s stunning Senior Day victory in 2005 in which Roberson delivered game-winning free throws with 10 seconds left. There was the dust-up between Bradley and Noah in 2007 on Florida’s way to their second consecutive national title.
So high stakes are nothing new for this rivalry. Both teams have a healthy respect for each other, but there is no love lost between the two. Which makes this year’s game all the more entertaining.
Kentucky stumbles into Tuesday’s matchup, having lost three consecutive SEC games, including home losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State. The Cats have struggled mightily to find a consistent third scorer to help Jodie Meek and Patrick Patterson, who have scored 57% of UK’s points over the three losses. The Cats have also been hurt by the three-pointer, giving up 31 in their last three games, including 14 against Mississippi State.
Meanwhile, Florida is coming off a draining victory over South Carolina, surviving a fury of Devan Downey baskets in the final minute to hang on for the win. The game before that, the Gators’ lack of athleticism and interior strength was exposed in a blowout at the hands of Tennessee. The Gators struggled with the pressure in that one also, turning the ball over 17 times and allowing the Vols to build a huge advantage.
The Gators come into the game with a one-game edge on UK in the SEC East standings, a half-game behind South Carolina. Although neither team enters the game ranked, both teams need a marquee win to pad their resumes for March. The Cats desperately need to pull out of their three-game skid, while Florida needs to demonstrate some toughness that hasn’t been evident when they’ve been challenged this year.
Here’s a breakdown:
When Florida has the ball
Everything the Gators do goes through super sophomore PG Nick Calathes, who has deceptive speed and strength, and make great decisions with the ball. The Gators lack a true post presence, so their offense is predicated on spreading the floor and trying to create open shots or driving lanes. Forwards Chandler Parsons and Dan Werner can create mismatches with their size and ability to shoot outside, but they’ve been inconsistent this year. Alex Tyus is active down low, but he gets most of his baskets from crashing the glass, and he lacks any real post moves. As has been the case all season, the Gators’ offense will come down to Calathes’ ability to penetrate and find shooters. If he’s unable to get into the lane and create shots for himself and his teammates, the Gators will struggle. Kentucky also is terrific at blocking shots, so look for the Gators to try to make their living behind the three-point line, drawing Perry Stevenson and Patrick Patterson away from the basket.
When Kentucky has the ball
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out UK’s offense – get the ball to Meeks and Patterson. With Florida lacking size and bulk up front, look for the Cats to pound it in to Patterson early and often. If the Gators collapse, Patterson will look to find Meeks, who should be able to exploit any defender the Gators throw at him. The Gators will probably play mostly zone defense, trying to put a lot of bodies around Patterson and take their chances with the UK perimeter players, Outside of Meeks, no Wildcat has seemed ready to step up and take shots, which could play right into Florida’s hands. Look for Erving Walker, the pint-sized freshman who played a key role in the South Carolina victory, to be very aggressive in trapping UK’s guards and trying to force turnovers, which have been plentiful for the Cats this season.
This should be a fun game between two teams who can’t yet feel comfortable about their NCAA resumes, and therefore need a victory. UK should come out fired-up, having had a week since the embarrassing home loss to Mississippi State, and playing in front of the home crowd should give them a big boost. The Cats own a significant size and athleticism advantage over the Gators. Florida on the other hand, is going to try to force someone other than Meeks or Patterson to beat them. They’ll try to create turnovers and they’ll spread the floor to try to neutralize Patterson down low. But when it’s all said and done, I think they’ll struggle defensively to contain Patterson, who should have his way down low. Look for UK to snap their three-game losing streak with a big win here. UK 72, Florida 64.
Editor's Early Preview
*Made on 02/06. Full preview by the GameNight staff coming soon!
Kentucky has been a mixed bag all season, rising and falling depending on whether Jodie Meeks is hot or cold. Florida meanwhile has largely avoided the national spotlight, but is almost certain to make the Big Dance.
Early Prediction: Kentucky