Florida's senior class — Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete, and Patric Young — has done so much in its four years in orange and blue that very little remains for them to accomplish anew.
That quartet has won the SEC championship twice, in 2011 as freshmen just along for the ride with seniors Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons, and Alex Tyus and in 2013 as the second line behind seniors Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, and Mike Rosario. It went undefeated at home in 2012-13 — hasn't lost at home except to Kentucky and Tennessee since January 15, 2011, as a matter of fact — and made three straight Elite Eights. (Obviously, the Final Four and a national title would still be new.)
And it has won in every SEC arena except for Missouri's — one it will not return to — and Rupp Arena, one it has visited three times. Tonight, the Gators get another chance at the Bluegrass State's greatest fortress.
Florida was not all that close to prevailing in Rupp in 2011, which produced a 76-68 loss, or 2012, which produced a 78-58 beatdown. In 2011, Darius Miller led a sniping party that poached the Gators with a career-high 24 points, as Brandon Knight (16 points) and Doron Lamb (14 points) chipped in from range and Erving Walker struggled against longer Kentucky guards; Parsons had 15 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists, while Boynton put up 21 points and made five of his nine threes, but Kentucky controlled the game for most of the last 10 minutes, and controlled the paint all afternoon.
Walker's struggles reached a nadir (zero points on 0-for-7 shooting) in 2012, but the rest of Florida's shooters struggled in lockstep with him, as Bradley Beal made one of seven threes and Murphy made one of five. Boynton, who had 18 points and made four of his eight threes, was the lone guy keeping Florida in the realm of respectability on that night, as the taller, faster, more talented Wildcats — who were in the midst of a 24-game winning streak that would span almost three full months, and a national title campaign as the obvious best team in the country — ran roughshod, blowing the game open with an 11-4 run into halftime and shutting the door early in the second period.
2013 was different, even if it ended the same way — but the loss came with the same easy narrative all of 2012-13 Florida's mystifying single-digit losses seemed to have. Florida held a 57-50 lead late in that game, then just stopped scoring, as the Wildcats rubbed away the Gators' edge at the line and came out with a 61-57 victory.
That loss arguably belonged to these seniors (and Boynton and Rosario) in their last regular season game as juniors: Young went 5-for-11, Wilbekin went 2-for-8, Prather made two of his six shots, and Yeguete was quiet, going 1-for-2 in his third game back from a knee injury. Wilbekin missed Young on an alley-oop with minutes to go, and was unable to stop Archie Goodwin from saving Kentucky time and again on defense; Prather wasn't the guy who helped spark Florida in the Gators' awesome 74-71 loss to the 'Cats in the 2012 SEC Tournament; Young missed a couple of bunnies late that might have stemmed the tide. None of those players played their best game in that game, and Florida lost a game that it could probably have won if even one of them had. (To be fair, the same is true of both Boynton and Rosario.)
But all four of those players are better this year than they were in that game.
Young has gotten smoother and smarter on offense, and is the same fierce and athletic post defender he's been for about 18 months. Prather's made the most dramatic improvement, as increased usage has turned him from an efficient super-sub into a feared starter. Wilbekin's improvements have been subtle, and largely intangible, as he's matured into the leader of this team on offense and defense. And Yeguete, cruelly robbed of the boundless energy that made his bounding, athletic game so fun in his sophomore year, has not found that form, but has figured out how to contribute despite that, and still pesters players of all kinds as a defender.
Florida's arguably better now than it was then, too, with the Gators having proven their mettle in games other than spectacular blowouts of mediocre SEC teams and won repeatedly away from home. The advanced metrics don't back this up, obviously — Florida was No. 1 in KenPom's Pythagorean rating coming into that loss to Kentucky, and No. 1 coming out of it, and didn't lose that belt until Michigan torched the Gators in the Elite Eight1 — but there's a sense that this team has hard-coded desperation into every ounce of its being, and it certainly felt like that was the case on Tuesday night in Tennessee, especially when Young dove for a rebound and produced the perfect snapshot of that mentality.
Those Gators, last year's, wilted when the heat was turned up. These Gators have been tempered by heat all year, and done nothing but turn to steel.
And Kentucky's different than it was, even different from the rudderless, NIT-bound team that Florida should really have beaten in Rupp last year. These Wildcats let teams hang around between flashes of awesomeness, and struggle to close out games; that "Can't win close games" albatross that hung low on 2012-13 Florida's neck ought to be looped around 2013-14 Kentucky's, thanks to the Wildcats' 1-5 record in games decided by five points or fewer. Kentucky may be 81-2 at Rupp Arena under John Calipari, but this team's best win at Rupp came over Louisville, similarly afflicted by aclutchmia, way back in December.
There's no killer point guard on this team, either, with Andrew Harrison lacking the quickness of Calipari floor generals past, and though Julius Randle is a tremendous player who will assuredly get his against the Gators, there's no matchup nightmare presented by these taller, faster, "better" Wildcats, just the problems of a 6'6" point guard who will loom over Wilbekin and a front line consisting of Randle and either seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein or seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein at all times.
Florida probably shouldn't be favored to win this game, not like it should have been against that Nerlens Noel-less, NIT-bound Kentucky team last year, but it should really be no less than an underdog than tails is to heads. That alone is a moral victory of sorts for these senior Gators, whose years at Florida have been spent dealing with Kentucky ruling ESPN and other media despite having had more consistent success than the 'Cats.
They'll have to earn a real one tonight.
Florida's final 2012-13 rating, meanwhile, was better than any team's rating currently is this season. Those Gators were better than you think.