When the Florida Gators played steely basketball in a game for bricklayers at Rupp Arena to beat the Kentucky Wildcats in January, it felt like ... something. Maybe we didn’t know exactly what, but the combination of the rarity of a win over Kentucky at Kentucky and the way the Gators got it — by gritting their teeth and grinding out a victory on defense — seemed like a good portent.
Life didn’t quite work out that way.
The winding roads both teams have taken to Saturday’s SEC regular season finale (noon, CBS or CBS Sports) have been pitched up and down, though both the Gators and Wildcats seem to be riding high at the moment.
Florida followed its win over the Wildcats by immediately losing to South Carolina at home — and then losing at Georgia and to Alabama, and dropping six of its next nine games in total. But the Gators have looked as good as they have all year of late by going toe-to-toe with Auburn last Saturday night and then suffocating Alabama in forbidding Coleman Coliseum this Tuesday, and all the hysterics about the Gators’ NCAA Tournament chances — never nearly as jeopardized as some charged — have been banished by Florida’s fine play.
Kentucky, meanwhile, rebounded strongly from its loss to the Gators, winning three straight — including a stirring comeback victory at West Virginia in which the Wildcats stormed back from a 17-point deficit in the second half. And then the ‘Cats lost four straight, including a rare home loss to Tennessee and a road killing at previously somnolent Texas A&M, and sparked hysterical and misplaced worries about NCAA Tournament chances of their own.
Those, too, have been vanquished by improvement: Kentucky comes to Gainesville having won four straight by double figures, including impressive throttlings of Arkansas and Missouri, and has seemingly fixed its offense after a season of inconsistency. The Wildcats have scored 1.16 points per trip or better over all four recent wins, and can credit the emergence of Jarred Vanderbilt, an energetic forward who has scored 11 points in three of those four contests, for a lot of that improvement.
It hasn’t hurt that Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is playing some of his best basketball of the year, sure, or that Kevin Knox has topped 20 points in three straight games. But Vanderbilt has essentially usurped Nick Richards in the starter’s role despite not actually starting in any of those games: Richards has taken one shot in the last three games, and played 23 minutes in them; Vanderbilt got 24 minutes in Kentucky’s midweek win over Ole Miss, and had 11 boards to compensate for scoring just five points.
It’s clear that John Calipari’s new preferred floor crew is a little faster and smaller than the one with the hulking Richards in it — he’s been playing Knox at power forward, even — and that Kentucky has taken to the change.
Yet Florida has been nettlesome to smaller lineups all year, and it’s very difficult to outrun the well-conditioned Gators. And while former Florida commit Gilgeous-Alexander is generally a careful steward of the ball and a judicious shooter, the Gators harassed him into four turnovers and a 4-for-12 day from the field in their trip to Rupp.
The saving grace for Kentucky against Florida might be that its perimeter defense is about as good as it gets in terms of preventing shots from going in — opponents shoot under 30 percent from three against the Wildcats — even if teams allocate more than 40 percent of their shots against Kentucky to behind-the-arc tries.
But this is also Chris Chiozza’s Senior Day, and Egor Koulechov’s, and believing that either or both of those Gators will be anything but hungry to leave their last game at the O’Dome without a win would be foolish.
Expect the Gators to take their cues from those two, and to fight hard for a third straight win and the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament.