For Florida's basketball program, built from mediocrity to massive success under Billy Donovan, it is a rite of passage to match up against Kentucky.
Kentucky is a basketball blue-blood in every figurative sense — and maybe some literal ones. John Calipari harvests talent; he doesn't recruit it, not really, at this point, with a national title in his trophy case and majorities of his recruiting classes playing in this or that NBA city. The history Kentucky has is the foundation for the support it enjoys, and the support it enjoys is the foundation for things like the exorbitant renovation coming for Rupp Arena, which only helps it make more history.
I was at Florida's 61-57 loss to Kentucky last year, and it was basically as intense as I imagined, and then some. Rupp is a cathedral for the hundreds of thousands who worship the team that plays there, and it sounded like a Sunday service when "My Old Kentucky Home" was sung — like a Big Blue hymnal — before tipoff. The masses were petrified — "Is God dead?" — when Florida staked itself to a 57-50 lead, but roared — "Mine eyes have seen the glory!" — when Kentucky made its stop-and-go 11-0 closing run.
It's not like that at Florida, and may never be — hell, Florida is probably going to renovate the O'Connell Center and remove seating, and it will be the right decision; hinting at removing seats would be an excommunicable offense for Kentucky — but that's fine; Florida's story isn't about fervor or history or support as much as it excellence, execution, and passion — the players' passion. Gators fans love those Oh-Fours dearly for their consecutive national titles, but almost as much for their fire, flair, and flippancy; who but Joakim Noah could have been the crown prince of a two-year reign in Gainesville?
This Florida team, the one that hasn't lost since December, and hasn't lost, period, with its full complement of players, has the excellence and execution down, and is a different kind of flippant, the one that involves insouciance toward the belief big-time teams need five-star players to compete for conference and national titles. No one in Florida's primary rotation is headed to the NBA Draft's first round next year — Chris Walker isn't in the primary rotation, and probably isn't headed to the NBA next year anyway — and only Patric Young seems likely to merit a pick in the second round. He, Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, and Will Yeguete are the scarred hearts and old souls this team relies on — they've stayed four years and stayed together, despite reasons for all four not to stick it out.
It doesn't come as easy for this Florida team as last year's, not with only Michael Frazier II looking to rain down the threes those Gators got from him, Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, and Mike Rosario, not with Billy Donovan's offensive approach tweaked to get easy twos before all else and his players weaned off the shots that are easy to jack up. These Gators have to play defense hard for 35 seconds every possession — and do — because they're not the tall, impossibly athletic players who dot, say, Kentucky's roster, but they can play smart defense, too, because they're not the young, green kids they once were.
And yet this team is the one on top of the SEC, not Kentucky, loaded with talent, and even a loss tonight won't change that.
When this Florida team makes its shots — rarer, especially of late, than you might think — it seems unbeatable. When it doesn't, it often takes games late in the proceedings by clamping down on defense and grinding out its offense. Barring those two methods, Florida's capable of making its foes take wins for their own as a last resort; other than Wisconsin, which took a win over a Gators team without Wilbekin or Dorian Finney-Smith, or UConn, which took a win because Shabazz Napier is Shabazz Napier, no team has been able to do that.
And I do not think Kentucky will do that tonight.