On this Saturday, in one of the most vaunted houses in college basketball, the Florida Gators are playing with house money.
Florida clinched the SEC's regular season title outright on Wednesday with a 66-40 win over Vanderbilt, and can't lose it even with a 50-point loss to Kentucky on Saturday at noon (CBS); the only things Florida is playing for in this game are pride, bragging rights, and NCAA Tournament positioning.
In the Florida-Kentucky rivalry, the pride and bragging rights have mostly belonged to Kentucky of late, and especially at Rupp Arena. Kentucky owns five straight wins over Florida in Lexington, and the margins of victory have been growing: Florida fell by five and three points in 2008 and 2009, but by eight in 2010 and 2011, and by 20 in 2012.
This, however, is the matchup most in Florida's favor since that last win in 2007, earned by a Gators team on its way to a repeat: The Gators skunked the Wildcats in Gainesville, and had a healthy lead even before Nerlens Noel left that game with a season-ending knee injury. Since then, Kentucky's defense has been horrendous, giving up more than a point per possession to every team it has seen except for moribund Mississippi State, and the Wildcats have been just 3-3, with losses to Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia — all on the road.
Kentucky did managed to knock off Missouri at home and in overtime without Noel, but needed brilliant offense to do that: Julius Mays had 24 points and Alex Poythress had 21 in that game, and four Kentucky starters had 14 or more points.
Florida does not permit brilliant offense, not usually: No team has managed the 1.16 points per possession Kentucky put up on Missouri against the Gators, and only two (Arizona and Arkansas) have gotten even 1.10 PPP. Florida's newly elite defense has carried the Gators, but Florida has been superb on offense, too, only dipping below 1.00 PPP in road losses to Kansas State, Arkansas, Missouri, and Tennessee — and only that Kansas State game came with Florida's full complement of players.
Florida will have its entire roster ready in Rupp, with Will Yeguete playing his third game since returning to the court following knee surgery and no other nicks and bruises to note. That's bad news for Kentucky, as Florida's been tremendous at full strength, putting up an 10-2 record with every Gator available.
Those losses came to Arizona and Kansas State, both better teams than a Kentucky squad that finds itself needing wins — plural, and not just over the SEC champions — to make the NCAA Tournament. If John Calipari can motivate a team that has driven him crazy all year, the Wildcats will be appropriately desperate on this Saturday.
But Florida's just better. And that may be enough.
I'll be taking this game in live from Rupp, so tweets will flow, and I'll have a recap shortly after. Go Gators, y'all.