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Florida vs. Kentucky, Game Thread: Gators welcome Wildcats, hoping to poach

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Florida isn’t going to play a bigger home game for the remainder of the year. Here’s hoping the Gators play hard.

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Florida Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Gators are perched right at the edge of the NCAA Tournament bubble at the moment, with no true bad losses and precious little resembling a good win on a résumé that could very easily end up getting scrutinized heavily in February and March or get discarded out of hand.

If they want the former fate, they should probably consider doing their best to beat the Kentucky Wildcats on this Saturday afternoon (4 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN).

That will not be easy. It never is with Kentucky, really, unless the Wildcats are being coached by Billy Gillespie or something. Florida sweeping the ‘Cats a year ago was a rarity that has only happened a handful of times in a rivalry that spans decades; more often, Florida does well to split a home-and-home season series with Kentucky, keeping its historical win rate in the rivalry headed toward 30 percent.

Those two wins Florida claimed last year? Its 39th and 40th against Kentucky all time.

Kentucky has 100 over the Gators.

And this year finds John Calipari’s bunch poised to add Nos. 101 and 102 to the list. The Wildcats have really rounded into form after a non-conference schedule with several shaky performances — a stomping by Duke, a loss to Seton Hall — and seem to have learned the lesson taught by falling to Alabama after beating North Carolina and Louisville in the span of seven days, following every win since with another one.

Tyler Herro, Keldon Johnson, and P.J. Washington provide much of the scoring punch for the Wildcats, with Johnson and Washington capable of operating both inside and outside the paint and Herro leading Kentucky in threes made (though not percentage). Ashton Hagans is Calipari’s newest cat-quick point guard, and is a tremendous defender who might prey on the slower Andrew Nembhard. Kevarrius Hayes is going to have his hands full with Stanford transfer Reid Travis — who had 23 points against Florida a year ago — inside, and then have his hands full and then some when Nick Richards comes off the bench.

To combat all that, Florida has ... KeVaughn Allen and Noah Locke, I guess? Both guards have proven to be somewhat streaky shooters, but their brilliant and timely shooting has become Florida’s most potent offensive tactic. And Florida cannot rely on the bedraggled Jalen Hudson (who averaged 19.5 points per game against Kentucky a year ago) or the injured Keith Stone (who averaged 13 points per game against the Wildcats in 2018-19) to help supplement Allen and Locke, so it will need as much as Keyontae Johnson and Hayes and Nembhard and Deaundrae Ballard can give to supplement those scoring guards — and might still need to get something from Hudson to win.

If Florida loses this game to Kentucky, it would not be a “bad” loss — Kentucky is Final Four good, and has looked like it often of late, and Florida is not and has not. But Florida losing this game would be Florida missing its best opportunity to put a big win on its c.v. as the season turns to its home stretch — and if the Gators want a taste of March Madness this year, they would do well to play like madmen on this first Saturday in February.