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Florida vs. Kentucky, Game Thread: Gators seek signature win over Wildcats

The SEC’s measuring stick comes to town just as the Gators are running hot.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Florida Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators have never before been as hot under Mike White as they are right now, entering Saturday night’s showdown (8:15 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN) with the Kentucky Wildcats.

The Gators have run their last three opponents off the court — almost literally. Florida’s wins of 32, 35, and 39 points over LSU, Oklahoma, and Missouri constitute just the third streak of three straight 30-point wins in program history, and the Gators’ first in more than a decade, since the defending national champions crushed three teams by 30-plus in non-conference play.

Those teams, though, were Chattanooga, Prairie View A&M, and Western Kentucky — and Florida played all of those games at home.

Florida 30-piecing any three teams in sequence would be impressive, but the Gators did their damage — 1.27 points per possession on offense, and just 0.80 points per possession allowed on defense — despite spending last week on the road and facing major-conference foes. And even though none of those foes is likely to make the NCAA Tournament at this juncture, neither are Tennessee or Georgia — teams that Kentucky has lost to and gone to overtime with while Florida has been heating up.

The Wildcats being stuck in a rut isn’t that surprising: Only three of John Calipari’s Kentucky teams have gone the entire season without consecutive losses, and those three teams went a combined 111-6, making two Final Fours and winning one national title. Every other band of Big Blue brothers Calipari has coached had at least one two-game losing streak — like the one the Wildcats were on before escaping Georgia on Tuesday — and two of those teams made the Final Four, too.

Inconsistency is simply part of the gig when dealing with the incandescent talents and irrepressible youth that Calipari brings to Lexington year after year.

But this Kentucky team has also broken from the Calipari mold by turning up the tempo. After six straight seasons of averaging 68 or fewer possessions per game, these Wildcats are up around 74 trips per contest, a sky-high number that has them just outside the national top 10 in tempo.

Much of that has to do with this Kentucky team having De’Aaron Fox, maybe the fastest Calipari point guard ever — but Fox missed the Georgia game, and is not starting in Gainesville. That may leave these ‘Cats in the capable hands of Malik Monk, who is capable of both winning games nearly by himself with explosive scoring performances and of being merely a good scoring guard whose middling efficiency doesn’t help much.

Florida, for its part, doesn’t have anyone quite like Monk — not even KeVaughn Allen and Devin Robinson, whose scoring talents are ample but not prodigious — nor anything to approximate Bam Adebayo, the raging bull Kentucky positions as close to the basket as possible. The Gators are deeper than Kentucky, though, and far older, with only one true freshman cracking White’s rotation.

And if what should be one of the closest and best games remaining on Florida’s schedule comes down to execution, the experience edge is with the Gators.