UF will try to turn tables on new-look Kentucky
Published: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 12, 2013 at 9:31 a.m.
Florida and Kentucky have combined for three national titles in basketball over the last seven years.
Who: No. 7 Florida Gators (19-3, 9-1 SEC) vs. No. 25 Kentucky Wildcats (17-6, 8-2 SEC)
When: 7 p.m.
Where: O'Connell Center, Gainesville
Gainesville-area radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM
And again this season, the two schools have emerged as the best of a downtrodden Southeastern Conference. The No. 7 Gators (19-3, 9-1 SEC) will look to keep their hold on first place in the league when they host the resurgent No. 25 Wildcats (17-6, 8-2 SEC) tonight at the O'Connell Center.
For Florida, it's a chance for payback, albeit against a new cast. Kentucky won all three games against the Gators last season en route to its eighth national title in school history.
“That's really embarrassing, to lose to a team three times in one year,” Florida junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “We want to come this year with a focus, effort and ready to play our best basketball.”
To put it in perspective, Florida's three losses last season came against a Kentucky team that finished 35-2 and featured the top two picks (center Anthony Davis and forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) in last June's NBA Draft.
Overall, Kentucky lost its top six players from last season's dream team to the NBA.
It's taken longer for Kentucky to jell this season, but after starting 12-6, the Wildcats come into the O'Dome tonight on a five-game winning streak.
“Despite what their record is, lately they've gotten better,” Florida senior guard Kenny Boynton said.
Overall, Florida has lost five straight against Kentucky. Florida coach Billy Donovan is 1-7 against Kentucky coach John Calipari, with UF's one win (70-68) coming in 2011 when former Kentucky point guard Brandon Knight front-rimmed a 3-point attempt at the buzzer in the O'Dome.
“I really never, ever get wrapped up in that kind of stuff,” Donovan said of his record against Calipari. “Clearly the last three or four years, (Kentucky has had) just incredible talent and incredible pieces and they've been very, very gifted and they've been a very, very hard team to beat. I think John has done a terrific job with his team. But for us right now, this is an important game because it's right in front of us right now and this is the next one.”
Boynton also said he doesn't view UF's losing streak against Kentucky as a factor.
“It's new teams, new players,” Boynton said. “That's the past. We lost five straight. It's time for us to start a new trend. Hopefully we go from here, win tomorrow, and we make it five straight. We just have to come out tomorrow and play.”
Donovan is concerned about his thinner frontline against a Kentucky frontcourt that features starters Nerlens Noel (6-foot-10) and Alex Poythress (6-7), with Willie Cauley-Stein (7-0) and Kyle Wiltjer (6-10) coming off the bench. After losing junior forward Will Yeguete to knee surgery, Florida's tallest players off the bench are 6-6 junior forward Casey Prather and 6-6 freshman forward DeVon Walker.
“Our hand is what it is in terms of our frontcourt,” Donovan said. “We collectively have got to do a good job as a group. I've always been a big believer that it's not one guy's responsibility to take care of another guy, but we've got to do it as a team. We will need to continue to do a good job there.”
Though Kentucky's guards have been inconsistent this season, Boynton is worried about their ability to beat the Gators off the dribble.
“We've just got to try our best to keep them out of the lane because they do a great job at driving and throwing the alley to Noel,” Boynton said.
Like the Gators, Kentucky plays a three-guard starting lineup. Freshman guard Archie Goodwin is Kentucky's leading scorer at 14.2 points per game.
“If we just stay aggressive and be patient with everything that we're doing, there shouldn't be a reason why we shouldn't win,” Goodwin said.
Florida still leads the SEC in scoring defense and is fourth nationally in defense at 52.7 points per game. But the Gators defense has slipped of late, with the loss of Yeguete inside not helping matters. Florida has allowed an average of 67.3 points over its last three games.
“Will is a big presence on the defensive end, but we lost our focus a little bit the last three games,” Wilbekin said. “We need to get that back to be a great defensive team.”
Florida also has an edge in experience, with three returning starters compared to no returning starters for UK. But more than 20 games into the season, Donovan doesn't view Kentucky's freshman-laden group as a team that could be rattled easily.
“Those guys have played on national TV in high school,” Donovan said. “They've obviously been heavily recruited. They've played against ball players across the country. They've got 20-something games under their belt. They've got a lot of minutes under their belt. I really don't see that being that big of an issue.”
Fall to No. 7
Florida's first SEC loss of the season proved to be costly from a ranking standpoint.
The Gators dropped five spots to No. 7 in this week's Associated Press men's basketball Top 25.
Florida split its two games last week, losing 80-69 at Arkansas while beating Mississippi State 83-58.
Kentucky is back in the poll for first time since Nov. 26 at No. 25.
Donovan said Yeguete, who underwent surgery to remove bone chips on Friday, is still on crutches. He will rest and do some light leg-strengthening exercises until the stitches are removed from his knee in a week to 10 days.
“ Right now, my expectation is probably not even to address or think about it until the end of the regular season,” Donovan said. “That would be my guess. But again, different things happen. If he's back before then, great. But I think it's probably something we'll re-evaluate at the end of the year."
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