For all its accomplishments, the Florida Gators men’s basketball program still does not have a lot of wins over No. 2 teams — so its triumph over Tennessee earlier this week was a laurel to linger on.
But Florida also doesn’t have many wins over Kentucky at Rupp Arena, so Saturday night’s game in the Bluegrass State is an opportunity for something else worth crowing about.
And if Florida gets both of these dubs in one week, it’s going to be hard to talk about the NCAA Tournament field without mentioning the Gators.
What awaits them in Lexington is a good — not great, not yet — Kentucky team that is capable of being both average and very good. The Wildcats are 15-7 to Florida’s 13-9, and 6-3 in SEC play just like the Gators, but their worst loss — an abysmal showing against South Carolina — is far worse than even Florida’s obliteration at the hands of West Virginia, and while their best win is also over Tennessee, it would take valuing a road win more than a more comprehensive home win to say that Kentucky’s victory over the Vols trumps Florida’s.
The Wildcats and Gators also share another problem: Beyond their wins over Tennessee, their NCAA Tournament resumes leave much to be desired. Kentucky’s best non-conference win was Michigan, and the closest it came to Michigan State, Gonzaga, and UCLA — the latter of which is the only Final Four-capable team in that troika — was nine points. Last Saturday’s SEC-Big 12 Challenge game also did not go the Wildcats’ way, with Kansas pulling away late for a nine-point win of its own.
The flaw that runs through most of Kentucky’s losses is not hard to find: When they have shot 30 percent or worse from three, the Wildcats are 1-6, their only win coming over an overachieving Georgia team that had a double-digit lead evaporate at Rupp thanks largely to a whole lot of free throws — 30 overall, and 18 for Oscar Tshiebwe alone on a monstrous 37-point, 24-rebound night — and scant few (seven) turnovers for Kentucky.
And while Tshiebwe is still excellent, he’s not been quite as dominant as he was during his 2021-22 season that earned him national player of the year honors. That explosion against Georgia featured his season high in points by nine and in rebounds by five, and Kentucky has more often gotten nights like his 18-and-9 against Kansas this season — not bad by any means, but not enough for a relatively shallow roster that lacks a consistently great perimeter talent to pair with its big man to survive nights when teams have exploited Tshiebwe as an average-to-poor pick-and-roll defender.
Cason Wallace and Antonio Reeves flash greatness, and do hit threes in bunches — they just go 1-for-7 (Wallace, twice) or 0-for-something (Reeves, four times in Kentucky’s last 11 games), too, and the predicted consistency of C.J. Frederick (currently shooting 33 percent from deep on the year) has yet to materialize. So Kentucky is unusually vulnerable this year, and that remains true at Rupp, where South Carolina staged its upset and only Georgia has lost by double digits among SEC visitors.
The problem for Florida is that Kentucky proved rather difficult to deal with a year ago, with Tshiebwe edging Colin Castleton in both meetings and only one other player scoring in double figures in either game — and only barely, as Anthony Duruji had 10 points in Florida’s home finale. Those Gators are mostly elsewhere now, but Kyle Lofton won’t have his usual height advantage against Wallace — though Wallace may be slowed by a knee injury — and Will Richard might have problems of his own against the lanky Jacob Toppin.
Castleton equaling — or besting — Tshiebwe would seem to be Florida’s primary means of prevailing in this one, with the Gators putting the clamps on Kentucky’s attack being the second-best tactic. But we saw more than enough of Tshiebwe being beastly against Florida last year to make a reversal unlikely.
Yet Florida’s already done the unlikely once this week. What’s a second surprise?