Now, with the Wildcats returning the favor by coming to Gainesville for Florida’s Senior Day (1 p.m., CBS or CBS All-Access) — albeit one with just a graduate transfer and a walk-on being honored — it is for a game with plenty on the line.
For the Gators, at least.
Kentucky? Kentucky can’t do much on this Saturday. The Wildcats have clinched the SEC’s regular-season championship and the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament. They’ll be a No. 3 or No. 4 or No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the SEC’s best by far. Beating Florida and sweeping their slate in Nashville? That might be worth a seed line. Losing this game and a quarterfinal debut at the SEC Tournament. Again, maybe a seed line’s worth of results.
But John Calipari’s bunch has basically maxed out its season results. It secured two really good wins — Michigan State and Louisville — in non-conference play to raise its floor and lost to Evansville to set its ceiling. A strong but not awe-inspiring SEC campaign did nothing to restructure the Wildcats’ season. Tuesday’s bizarre blown lead at home against Tennessee — in which the ‘Cats led by 17 in the second half ... and then lost by eight after allowing 50 second-half points — was one of the strangest losses of the Calipari era, but probably doesn’t represent anything other than Kentucky being pretty good and not great, Tennessee being better than its record, and the Vols getting very hot for a half.
Florida, by contrast, has room to move up.
The Gators have good wins — over Auburn and LSU in SEC play, over Xavier and Providence prior to it — but no great one; topping Kentucky would be that. Winning today would also lock Florida in as the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament, and assure that it would not meet Kentucky until the final, granting more chances for wins to bolster an NCAA Tournament resume that is currently probably only worth a No. 8 or No. 9 seed.
And if Florida can get a win over Kentucky and add victories over some bubble-or-better SEC teams in Nashville, it might sneak up to the No. 7 line — where it would, naturally, not have to play a No. 1 seed in a hypothetical NCAA Tournament second round.
Yes, Kentucky is probably the most talented team to come to the O’Connell Center this year — even more so than No. 1 seed-to-be Baylor and the Auburn and LSU teams that have multiple future pros on their rosters. Nick Richards is the probably SEC Player of the Year; Immanuel Quickley has turned into both a plus defender and a dangerous scorer, and his 26 points against Florida were a career-high for just three days, as he went for 30 against Texas A&M on the subsequent Tuesday.
But Florida pushed that team in Rupp, with a sensational stretch from Quickley and some bad calls helping to erase a second-half lead for the Gators and a furious push by them in the final minutes making the six-point margin of victory deceptive. If home-court advantage helps the Gators on this Saturday, they could well earn a big win and the advantages that come with it.
And if they don’t? It’ll be another unfortunate loss for a young team in a season full of them.