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Florida vs. Kentucky, Game Thread: Can Gators start rolling toward postseason in Rupp?

Kentucky’s fortress is less formidable this year — as are the ‘Cats. But Florida knows better than any team that this team can still bite.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

It was nearly two months ago now that Florida’s men’s basketball team had a chance to shovel some dirt on Kentucky’s 2020-21 season, one marked by the WIldcats flailing to a 3-6 mark at that point in time.

Instead, the Wildcats surged from their shallow grave for their most impressive win of the year at that point, throttling Florida, 76-58, on January 7, and showing a bit of the form expected out of a preseason top-10 outfit.

John Calipari’s crew was genuinely excellent on that Saturday afternoon, posting what is still its best Effective Field Goal Percentage of the season on the strength of going 6-for-13 from distance and dominating inside to make 23 of 39 two-pointers. Keion Brooks Jr. made all six of his shots in his season debut, and the ‘Cats held Florida to 12 makes on 36 twos, frustrating Colin Castleton in particular, while also harassing the Gators into 16 turnovers.

As good a game as it was for Kentucky, it may have also been Florida’s low point, as the Gators fell to 5-3 and 2-2 in SEC play that Saturday.

And yet neither team has continued on a straight line from that juncture, which now leads back to their Saturday showdown in Rupp Arena (4 p.m., CBS or CBS Sports Online).

Kentucky is just 4-6 since, even with a recent resurgence that has led to three straight wins and a rout of Tennessee a week ago. Florida, on the other hand, has won seven of its 10 contests since, ripping off a four-game winning streak that included a thumping of Tennessee and a very impressive comeback win at West Virginia, but also a shocking upset by South Carolina and an uneven return from a COVID-induced break that has seen the Gators gamely hang with red-hot Arkansas and handle Georgia and Auburn without playing anything close to perfect games.

Florida usually needs something close to perfection to win at Rupp, where it has prevailed just 10 times in program history — but the cavernous home of Big Blue Nation hasn’t been as formidable a fortress in 2020-21. With capacity limited to a mere few thousand fans rather than the more than 20,000 who usually pack the place to the rafters, Kentucky has gone 4-5 at home, losing to Notre Dame and Tennessee and getting smoked by 20 by SEC leader Alabama. There probably won’t be a better chane for Mike White’s second win in Lexington than the one the Gators get today.

And if they can prevail — which may come down to handling Isaiah Jackson (16.3 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game in his last three, all Kentucky wins) down low and finding ways to score on a long and athletic defense that all but punked them in Gainesville — the Gators would all but claim a double bye in the 2021 SEC Tournament, while also condemning the Wildcats to the fate of needing to win the event outright to make the 2021 NCAA Tournament.

The stakes are high, in other words — and Florida would do itself a world of good by rising to the occasion.