As SEC Basketball rivalries go, this is it. There is none other. As much as the other SEC teams want to try to step up, in the end, it all comes down to Kentucky and Florida. After a few bumpy years in which Kentucky sat back and watched the Gators win back to back national titles, Kentucky has reasserted themselves and won five straight games in this rivalry. Tonight’s game can propel Kentucky into a tie for the SEC lead but UK will have to face the #7 team on their home floor and it’s going to be a tough task.
“You’ve got a top-five team on the road,” Calipari said. “It’ll be a hard game for us to win. Let’s put it this way: last year they were an Elite Eight team that should’ve been in the Final Four. And college basketball isn’t what it was a year ago.
“So that’s how big a challenge and how good a team they are.”
The Gators have plenty to overcome themselves against the Wildcats, who are 10-point underdogs.
Florida will face an athletic, attacking Kentucky squad without one of the Gators’ top rebounders and defenders, 6-foot-7 junior Will Yeguete, who is out with a knee injury.
Junior Casey Prather stepped in for Yeguete and had a season-high 12 points against Mississippi State. But Yeguete’s absence still places a considerable burden under the basket on 6-10 senior forward Erik Murphy and 6-foot-9 center Patric Young as they face 6-foot-10 Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel.
Noel leads the nation with an average of 4.5 blocked shots. He also averages 10.6 points and 9.6 rebounds a game.
“I think he’s just as good as [2012 No. 1 NBA draft pick] Anthony Davis as a shot-blocker,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He’s got unbelievable length, he’s got unbelievable timing. He can alter shots in a lot of different directions and areas of the floor.”
Meanwhile, Florida’s once-suffocating defense has given opponents a little too much room to breathe recently.
In its first six SEC games, Florida allowed an average of 46.5 points and held teams to 27.4-percent shooting from beyond the 3-point arc. The Gators’ past three opponents have averaged 67.3 points and shot 41.2 from beyond the arc.
“Everyone keeps talking about our defense,” Donovan said. “We’ve made some strides and we’ve gotten better, but I also understand as a coach how fragile all this is.”
The Gators will need to be on their game against Kentucky.
If Kentucky is to win their sixth straight game over the Gators, it is going to come down to the guard play of Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin and well, both have been less than stellar lately:
Calipari has been critical of sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow and freshman shooting guard Archie Goodwin lately. After averaging 15.8 points in nonconference play, Goodwin has dipped to 12 per game in 10 SEC games. He’s averaging 2.9 turnovers against 2.2 assists in league play. He’s hit just 1 of 18 3-pointers and is shooting 36.8 percent overall against SEC opponents.
Goodwin recorded season lows of 17 minutes and three points in Saturday’s win over Auburn — often giving way to former walk-on Jarrod Polson.
“We were fine without him. It’s good for him to see,” Calipari said. “I’m trying to get Archie to zone in on his team, what he’s got to do for his team, and get out of how he’s playing.”
The one unexpected benefit of Harrow and Goodwin’s struggles has been the solid play of Jarrod Polson. Polson has been singled out as the “energy guy” by Calipari recently and he seems to revel in the physical play, displaying a scrappy side we had not seen before this season. Ashley Scoby talked to Jarrod recently.
On how much the Maryland game was a turning point for him…
Polson: “I think more than anything (it was) just a confidence booster really. I thought I always could play at this level but I guess that just kind of showed me I really could — a real example.”
On if he and Willie Cauley-Stein talk on the bench about having to be the “hype” guys when they go in…
Polson: “Me and Willie always talk about it. We just try to bring energy. We’re coming off the bench. We kind of like that. We both like to dive on the floor and stuff like that. We just like to do it.”
On what it takes to break through against Florida…
Polson: “Shoot, I mean, we’ve just got to play our roles really. That’s Cal’s biggest thing. We’ve just got to do what we’re best at. If we all play our roles and all play hard, I think we could be one of the best teams in the country.”
On if the physical games are a problem for him…
Polson: “Not really. I kind of like the more physical games to be honest. I kind of bring that in and I like it more.”