As ever, Saturday’s men’s basketball matchup between the Florida Gators and Kentucky Wildcats (6 p.m., ESPN or WatchESPN) — the first of two meetings between the teams this season — carries with it plenty of substantial ramifications.
But this is a rare one in which one team — and that’s Florida this time — seems like it has nothing to lose.
For the Gators, this trip to Rupp Arena represents surely their hardest remaining game: Kentucky’s the top-ranked team in the SEC in KenPom and the SEC leader at present, and this game’s at the Wildcats’ formidable and cavernous arena. Florida isn’t favored and isn’t expected to win, and the Gators pulling an upset would be a huge help to their NCAA Tournament chances, but a loss won’t hurt them much at all.
That should make the Gators more dangerous. And their form of late has been pretty damn good: Three straight double-digit wins, albeit over SEC cellar-dwellers Texas A&M and Vanderbilt and reeling Arkansas, have seen Florida play a better combination of offense and defense than the Gators mustered for much of the season prior to the last fortnight. In particular, Noah Locke’s explosion — he’s made 14 threes on just 22 attempts in those last three games, and is currently tops in the SEC in Offensive Rating in conference-only games — has propelled the Gators offense to a higher level, and one was surprising for this team to reach after its dreary loss at Ole Miss.
But Kentucky is plenty good, too — if in a slightly new and unusual way. Sure, the framework for an athletic team that can play great defense at multiple levels is there, with superb defender Ashton Hagans running point and the powerful Nick Richards in the paint, but Kentucky isn’t forcing turnovers to get into transition like it often has, and the Wildcats aren’t particularly great shooters from inside or outside the arc.
Given that and decades of watching Kentucky get favorable calls, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Kentucky does a lot of damage at the foul line — but the way these Wildcats churn out free throws and make them is unusual. Kentucky is eighth nationally in free throw-to-field goal ratio, and third in percentage of points coming from free throws, but the poor foul shooting that has haunted John Calipari teams for much of his career isn’t an issue here, with the ‘Cats ranking eighth nationally in free throw percentage at just a touch under 79 percent. Basically, giving this Kentucky team two free throws is giving it a point and a half, a very scary prospect for defenses that have to defend slashers like Hagans and Immanuel Quickley and the bruising Richards.
Of course, it’s actually Florida that has this game’s best player at drawing fouls in Kerry Blackshear Jr. And the graduate transfer has been quiet of late, with a mere 11 shots in his last three games.
If Florida can keep its form from those three games while also getting more from the ballyhooed player the Gators landed to the astonishment of many Kentucky fans, they’ll have a chance to do something big in the Bluegrass State this evening.