Florida vs. Kentucky: Can the Gators' excellence continue against 'Cats?

USA TODAY Sports

Florida's been on a savage run through the SEC, especially at home. But Kentucky's not quite the rest of the SEC.

Kentucky hasn't had the profile of an NCAA Tournament team until very recently, when the Wildcats rattled off five straight wins, including road victories over Mississippi and Texas A&M. But the 'Cats have looked good according to advanced statistics all season, something that's worth remembering as Kentucky visits Florida tonight (7 p.m., ESPN).

Kentucky didn't get wins against Duke, or Notre Dame, or Baylor, or Louisville, but Kentucky also didn't get blown out of any of those games, with only the Notre Dame loss coming by more than seven points. Of those losses, only the one to Baylor came at home, and it came on a horrific shooting day for Kentucky, which made just 21 of 71 shots in the defeat — and still stayed within range for much of the day, thanks to an excellent defensive performance. Kentucky's only other home loss came to Texas A&M, which was less a Kentucky loss than the best game of basketball A&M's Elston Turner will ever play.

But playing well and valiantly away from Rupp against Duke, Notre Dame, and Louisville didn't get Kentucky wins in any of those games, and statistics indicate Florida is better than all of those teams. Only Duke (40.9 percent) is better at shooting threes than Florida (38.8 percent), and Florida makes up for that deficit with much better shooting on twos; only Louisville is better at defense (and only half a point per 100 possessions better) and offensive rebounding, and Louisville's really only better at recording offensive rebounds, while Florida's far better at preventing them. Duke and Notre Dame are each better at avoiding turnovers than Florida, but Kentucky does a poor job of creating turnovers anyway, and Kentucky's shot-blocking strength matches up evenly against Florida's skill at avoiding blocks.

Even though the numbers like Kentucky a lot, they like Florida a lot more, and the advantages that Kentucky has to reach for are more visual and physical than statistical.

Height is one of them: Kentucky should be taller than Florida at every starting position, unless Scottie Wilbekin is a little taller than Ryan Harrow and/or Julius Mays, and is much taller underneath, where Nerlens Noel and Willie Cauley-Stein are each less than two inches shy of seven feet. Erik Murphy usually has a height advantage on the forwards he sees, but that won't be the case tonight, and Patric Young's frequent height disadvantage likely won't be as pronounced against any other team Florida sees this year. Having to deal with trees in the paint affects how Kentucky's foes approach offense against the 'Cats, and it stung the Gators repeatedly last year, as Kentucky blocked 19 of 178 Florida shots in their three meetings, including nine of 63 in Gainesville. (While Erving Walker is not part of this Florida team, his presence on that team didn't make it more block-prone, given that he was only blocked once in the three meetings.)

Kentucky's sheer athleticism, as usual, is another. Florida likes to play very slowly, maximizing efficiency by running its very good offense as often as possible and picking its spots wisely in transition. But Florida isn't exactly great on defense in transition, with only one guy, Young, big and fast enough to do more than challenge shots, and Young's chasedown blocks, though wonderful, are infrequent; preventing transition opportunities by taking good shots in the flow of offense and protecting the ball is likely to help Florida a lot.

And, frankly, it's going to help Florida that Kentucky's just not great at shooting. Mays and Kyle Wiltjer are the Wildcats' only two players above 30 percent from three with more than 25 attempts on the year, and Alex Poythress, who has made 10 of 23 threes, is far more likely to slash than spot up, because he's very good at the former. Noel and Cauley-Stein are both efficient scorers when fed inside, and pose as big of a threat on offense as defense, but neither has range extending beyond about 10 feet.

The teams that have given Florida the most trouble this season — Arizona, Kansas State, and Arkansas, in victories, and UCF, in a November loss — have had excellent shooting nights, and recorded four of Florida's six highest effective field goal percentages allowed. (The other two belong to Georgia in Athens and Air Force in Sunrise, both teams that hung with the Gators for about a half.)

That UCF game was the only of those six that took place in the O'Connell Center, however, and, on the day after Thanksgiving, UCF forward Kasey Wilson, who's made 50 percent of his threes on the season, made five of his six on the day. UCF recovered from a 25-point deficit in the final five minutes for a more respectable 13-point loss, but the Gators' 42-24 first half knocked the Knights flat.

Florida is 11-0 at home this season, and that UCF game was its closest; only UCF and Mississippi, which also used late threes to narrow a huge margin, have been within 15 points of the Gators in their O'Dome. And Florida probably hasn't been as revved up for a game as it will be tonight.

The numbers suggest Florida should win fairly comfortably — by double digits, likely — tonight. History and instinct tell me that it will be closer than we Gators want.

But I think we'll win, and I'll be more surprised by a loss than a blowout.

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