Despite 7-8 record, UF wary of ’Cats


Published: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 9:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 18, 2008 at 9:23 p.m.

In some ways, Florida-Kentucky remains a big game.

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Florida's Marreese Speights drives through the defense of Cruz Daniels of High Point at the O'Connell Center on January 2.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun

Facts

Tonight's game preview

Who: Kentucky at UF
When: Today, 9 p.m.
Where: O'Connell Center
TV/Radio: ESPN/AM-850, 103.7 FM

1. Interior Defense
Florida struggled stopping Ole Miss in the post, allowing center Dwayne Curtis and forward Kenny Williams to get several easy inside baskets. It won't get any easier today. Kentucky brings freshman center Patrick Patterson, who is among freshman leaders in scoring (16.7 ppg) and rebounding (8.0 rpg). Look for Florida to double Patterson in the post and force walk-on forward Mark Coury or underachieving sophomore forward Perry Stevenson to make plays going to the basket.

2. íCats' backcourt
Kentucky has relied heavily on senior guards Joe Crawford and Ramel Bradley for offense and leadership. Florida starts a pair of freshmen, Jai Lucas and Nick Calathes, with junior guard Walter Hodge in a three-guard lineup. Sophomore Kentucky guards Jodie Meeks and Derrick Jasper remain questionable with injuries, which hampers the Wildcats' depth in the backcourt. If neither can play, look for Florida to play up-tempo in an effort to wear Kentucky's guards down.

3. Florida's bench
Florida scored 30 bench points in its 89-87 loss to Ole Miss. Freshman forward Chandler Parsons (15 points) and sophomore forward Jonathan Mitchell (nine points) were big contributors. Kentucky, meanwhile, scored just seven bench points in its 69-64 loss Tuesday at Mississippi State. Other than Perry Stevenson, no Kentucky bench player appeared for longer than two minutes. "We had some options, we just chose not to use them," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. "I thought our guys out there were playing really well for the most part."

4. Turnovers
Kentucky is turning the ball over an alarming 17.3 times per game. Florida will likely turn to its press, which has been effective forcing turnovers in all three of its SEC games this season. Kentucky will need Bradley to play under control. If Jasper is healthy, it's a bonus because he's the most steady ball-handler in the backcourt.

5. Homecourt edge
Florida is 10-1 at home this season and should have a raucous crowd today for a 9 p.m. tip for ESPN CollegeGame Day. The Gators haven't lost a conference game at home since a 76-72 loss Feb. 22, 2006 against Tennessee. Kentucky is 0-3 on the road, with losses at Indiana, Houston and Mississippi State.

ESPN College GameDay is here to chronicle the atmosphere of the rivalry that has traditionally determined Southeastern Conference supremacy. Florida and Kentucky have combined to win the league's last four national championships and six of the last seven SEC Tournaments.

Yet beyond the tradition, tonight's meeting between the two schools at the O'Connell Center will not be confused with the level of play of Duke-North Carolina or even UCLA-Washington State. For the first time since 1990, both Florida and Kentucky enter the game unranked.

Florida (15-3) is still trying to establish an identity with a team of freshman and sophomores after losing all five starters from its two-time national championship team. Kentucky is off to a rocky 7-8 start, dealing with transition and injuries under first-year coach Billy Gillispie.

"I don't think their record means a thing," Florida freshman forward Chandler Parsons said. "If they were undefeated or 7-8, they just beat Vanderbilt, which was one of the undefeated teams."

Added Florida freshman guard Nick Calathes: "They've got a lot of history behind them like the North Carolinas, Dukes. We respect them. They are a good basketball team."

The game will feature a few subplots, most notably involving Florida coach Billy Donovan and a pair of freshmen who could have just as easily been suiting up tonight in different uniforms.

Florida freshman point guard Jai Lucas and Kentucky freshman center Patrick Patterson were recruited heavily by both schools. Lucas and Patterson were close friends in high school who even discussed the possibility of playing together. But last spring, Lucas chose Florida, while Patterson picked Kentucky to play closer to his hometown of Huntington, W. Va.

Lucas said he remains in touch in Patterson.

"We just sort of say hello and talk about how the season is going," Lucas said.

Lucas said that he has no regrets about picking Florida, and based on his conversations with Patterson, Patterson is happy at Kentucky. Both are starters and have made impacts for their respective teams.

Lucas hit several big shots in Florida's SEC wins against Auburn and Alabama. Patterson is among SEC freshman leaders in scoring and rebounding.

"He's having a terrific year," Donovan said. "I had a chance to watch Patrick play quite a bit in high school and I always admired his toughness and his ability to compete."

Patterson was the big man Florida sorely needed this season. Without him, Florida was left to start sophomores Dan Werner and Marreese Speights in the post.

Speights has struggled to adapt to the intensity of SEC play, averaging just 8.0 points and 7.3 rebounds in three conference games. Defensively, Speights has allowed the three starting centers he's faced to score 19.0 points and grab 12.3 rebounds.

The second subplot involves Donovan, who discussed the Kentucky coaching opening with UK athletic director Mitch Barnhart in an hour-long phone conversation last April before deciding to return to Florida. Donovan was presumed to be Kentucky's first choice, though according to Barnhart, no formal offer was made.

Donovan was peppered with questions about the Kentucky opening throughout Florida's second straight national title run last March.

"On road trips, I never carry my phone, I pretty much stay in my room with a VCR," Donovan said. "I never watch TV. I was immune to it all except for going to press conferences and being asked about it. I hadn't talked to anybody.

"For me, it wasn't an issue or factor. It was just something that was out there. I hadn't spoken to anybody."

Kentucky instead turned to Gillispie, who has dealt with injuries and inconsistency during his team's 7-8 start. Kentucky could get a lift if sophomore guards Derrick Jasper (knee) and Jodie Meeks (hip) return from injury. Both practiced Friday on a "very limited" basis, according to Gillispie, and are questionable for tonight's game.

"I think we can be a force to reckon with when we get them back and healthy and they get a lot of practice time," Gillispie said. "I'm very proud of our team. They're not dwelling on that. We're looking at it strictly as a bonus for the minutes they can play and a major bonus if they can ever recover to full health."

Donovan said that Florida will prepare for both Jasper and Meeks to be in the lineup.

"When they're healthy, now you're talking about a group of perimeter players that are as good as any in our conference," Donovan said.

Florida has won the last six meetings between the two schools, following a Kentucky string of eight straight wins earlier in the decade. Because of Florida's turnover, Donovan doesn't view the win streak as a factor tonight.

"What's happened in the past is over and done with," Donovan said. "If they think I've got some magic wand I'm going to wave over them just because they step foot on Florida's campus and they're going to win ... it takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to work together as a team. I think we had that mindset when the season started. I think they've started to be responsible for controlling that."

FREE THROWS

Fans are encouraged to attend this morning's ESPN College GameDay broadcast at the O'Connell Center.

Doors will open for 9:30 a.m. for the Rowdy Reptiles and 9:45 a.m. for the general public. The Rowdy Reptiles can enter through Gate 3 and the general public through Gate 1.

ESPN will air its first live portion at the 10 a.m. edition of SportsCenter. GameDay will then follow from 11 a.m. to noon. In between, there will be fan friendly activities and performances from the pep band and dazzlers.

ESPN is making its second college basketball GameDay appearance in Gainesville. The network last hosted GameDay from the O'Dome for Florida-Kentucky during the 2005-06 season.

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