Just once this decade. Just once since winning back-to-back national titles.
That’s how rare it is for the Florida Gators, recently one of college basketball’s preeminent programs, to win over the Kentucky Wildcats in cavernous Rupp Arena, as they will try to do this Saturday night (8:15 p.m., ESPN): It’s only happened once in the last 10 years, 10 seasons, 10 tries.
That victory, a rousing triumph in the midst of an unbeaten SEC campaign in 2014, was remarkable — but it also points out just how difficult it has been for the Gators to grab wins over Kentucky in the maw of Big Blue Nation.
Often, that has been because Florida has been facing Final Four-caliber squads assembled by John Calipari — or by his predecessors not named Billy Gillespie — when it visits Rupp. But Florida, too, has taken good teams to Lexington — and it’s only the eventual Final Four participants that have emerged with Ws.
One can point to any number of reasons for that. Kentucky has recruited bigs and individual scorers well under Calipari, often giving the Wildcats players the usually more undersized and team-oriented Gators struggle to handle. The always partisan Rupp has a way of getting referees’ whistles to be slightly more favorable to the home team. Calipari is a genuinely masterful collector of talent, and a good coach; the teams he has built, typically with mere months to mold raw talents into skilled players and to coax those players into playing as a team, are, as a rule, quite good — and occasionally excellent.
But it’s also fair to note this is more like your infant sister’s Kentucky team than your older brother’s, given its extreme youth and relative lack of stars.
These Wildcats don’t have a singular talent on par with Malik Monk, Karl-Anthony Towns, or Anthony Davis, and instead have a host of good players who might well stick around for another year, led by big wings Kevin Knox and Hamido Diallo and complemented by smaller guards Quade Green — a game-time decision this evening — and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander, a one-time Florida commit. P.J. Washington is an effective scorer inside; Wenyen Gabriel, a collection of skills that is dying to become a complete player, is a big man who blocks shots and makes threes.
No one on the roster averages more than Knox’s 14.6 points per game, but five of the six current players in the above paragraph are averaging double figures (Gabriel is the exception), and all of them have the ability to be NBA players — it’s just that these ‘Cats will more likely get there eventually than immediately.
And that’s been the difference between this being an overwhelming Kentucky outfit and a somewhat underachieving one. Kentucky is 14-4 and 4-2 in SEC play, neither mark a blight, but the ‘Cats went to Tennessee and South Carolina and lost, had to really fight to earn their four wins — over Georgia, LSU, Vanderbilt, and Texas A&M — and have yet to win an SEC game by more than seven points. Obliterating Louisville by 29 points to cap non-conference play seems like something that happened long, long ago.
Of course, Florida’s most recent road mishap was just a week ago, as the Gators’ leaky defense helped end a six-game winning streak at the hands of Ole Miss. And while Florida has beaten Gonzaga and Cincinnati, teams at or beyond Kentucky’s level, and have won road games at Texas A&M and Missouri, the Gators have also been beaten by Loyola of Chicago, and threatened by New Hampshire.
This is a Florida team that can beat Kentucky at Rupp with its best game — it’s just not one that an observer can project to play its best game with full confidence, given how streaky the trio of wing shooters (KeVaughn Allen, Jalen Hudson, and Egor Koulechov) that fuels Florida’s attack can be, and how the makeshift frontcourt of Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone ebbs and flows from night to night.
Florida has risen to the challenge this season more often than not, a spanking at the hands of Florida State aside, and the Gators know well that they could score no greater win on the rest of their schedule than the one that is up for grabs tonight. One hopes that this will be the rare night when Florida enters Rupp and exits victorious.
If not, the same old story gets another sad chapter.