Florida’s quest to make the 2022 NCAA Tournament will either get an enormous boost or take a tremendous hit this Saturday. Those are the consequences of the two outcomes — a win or a loss against mighty Kentucky — available to the Gators on Senior Day.
And, surely, every Gator who will be on the floor knows that, including the six who will be honored as seniors and suit up — and the one, Keyontae Johnson, who would surely love nothing more than to do so, but cannot.
Florida has already conducted one successful big game hunt in a contest like this, downing Auburn two weeks ago thanks mostly to stifling defense and some timely shooting. And Kentucky has already more than handled the Gators once, playing maybe its most complete game of the season in a rout of Florida in Lexington.
Florida, though, played that game almost entirely without Tyree Appleby — and thus without its most dynamic playmaker and creator. Appleby has recovered from the deep bone bruise that knocked him out of that game, and has caught fire of late, making 16 of his last 33 threes and draining at least three in each of Florida’s last four games.
Phlandrous Fleming, too, is coming into his own for the Gators, with two games of double-digit scoring coming on the heels of five without finding that plateau and on-court heroics both in front of his hometown cheering contingent in Athens last Saturday (a Florida-best 27 points) and in front of a shocked Vanderbilt crowd (16 points, six assists, and one very important block) on Tuesday. Fleming had just eight points and missed all of his threes at Rupp Arena; if he can do more in this game, that is likely to be a shot in the arm for Florida.
Kentucky might also be a slightly lesser version of itself in this game.
Oscar Tshiebwe remains on pace for a national player of the year award, and Kellen Grady remains an utterly lethal shooter, but TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler, who contribute the bulk of the Wildcats’ playmaking, are still dealing with nagging injuries, though they’ve each played — and fairly well — in UK’s last two games.
Kentucky’s defense also hasn’t held an opponent under a point per possession since Florida — in a game that the Gators shot 62 percent from inside the arc, but made just five of 22 threes and forced only five turnovers, effectively shutting off the majority of their offense by themselves.
And Kentucky’s last two road games — at Tennessee and Arkansas teams destined for lofty NCAA Tournament seeding — have ended in losses for Big Blue.
Add that all up and mix in the potential for, say, Colin Castleton deciding Florida cannot lose this game and acting accordingly, and there’s hope for an upset. How long that hope lives probably comes down to how well Florida can disrupt Kentucky’s offensive gameplan and how many Florida threes go in.
But we said similar things when the Gators took on Auburn — and hope never died on that day.