When the Florida Gators men’s basketball team takes the floor at Rupp Arena to face the Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday (2 p.m, CBS or CBSSports.com), they will do so with a truly rare opportunity: The chance to sweep one of college basketball’s greatest programs.
Florida has done that just a handful of times in its history. The Gators beat Kentucky twice in the 1966-67 season — the year after an all-white Kentucky team’s infamous NCAA Tournament final loss to an all-black Texas Western lineup, and a year in which Kentucky lost Pat Riley to injury and finished 13-13 — and again in 1987-88, then did so three times prior to making the Final Four under Billy Donovan, in 2005-06, 2006-07, and 2013-14.
Of those sweeps, though, only two — in 1966-67 and 2005-06 — came with Florida winning at home, then completing the sweep in Lexington. The Gators have gone begging in eight other attempts to sweep Kentucky at Rupp after wins in Gainesville in program history, most recently doing so in 2013 — when, after a dominant 69-52 win in the O’Connell Center, Florida faced a Nerlens Noel-less, NIT-bound Kentucky in Rupp, and proceeded to lose, 61-57, blowing a lead down the stretch.
I was there. I remember that well.
This team faces a different and more difficult task than those Gators did. Florida won’t have John Egbunu, who played a fine game of defense against Bam Adebayo in Gainesville, and may not have a full-strength Canyon Barry, with the swingman’s ankle injury having limited him to nine minutes of struggle against South Carolina on Tuesday. Kentucky is not NIT-bound this year, not nearly — the Wildcats are not the juggernaut past Kentucky teams have been, but De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk are each lottery-ready talents, and they have helped make this team No. 7 in KenPom’s efficiency rankings.
Kentucky also generally plays better defense at home, having yielded better than a point per possession to just four teams — two of them, Kansas and UCLA, national title contenders — in Rupp, compared with six such leaky performances on the road. But Kentucky’s other two such games of defensive struggles at home came at NIT-bound Georgia and moribund LSU, teams not in Florida’s league except in the technical sense of SEC membership.
And while Kentucky is on a five-game winning streak that has appeared on the surface to right its ship after what John Calipari sold as a “reboot” following Florida’s rout of the Wildcats in Gainesville, the only double-digit wins in that span came against Tennessee — in a game that delivered vengeance for a road loss, like Kentucky will gun for this afternoon — and over Missouri, which is terrible. The Wildcats also coughed up most of a huge lead against LSU, had to fight to beat Alabama by nine in Tuscaloosa, and survived Georgia in an 82-77 win in Athens last Saturday.
Florida is playing better basketball than Kentucky is right now, even sans Egbunu — and, arguably, without Barry, given its rout of South Carolina — and playing with the confidence to go into Rupp and emerge with a win.
It hasn’t happened often. But that might happen today.