The Gators know what’s at stake when the regular season concludes today after the 1 p.m. game against Kentucky. And they know who deserves much of the credit, too.
With a win, Florida would sit second in the SEC standings heading into the conference tournament, giving UF the much-coveted double bye – and head coach Mike White knows it presumably wouldn’t have been possible without the off-season addition of graduate transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr., the team’s second-leading scorer, leading rebounder and primary post presence.
“Great question. In a world of hurt,” White, asked where the team would be without Blackshear, said. “He came in with this, just crazy, crazy expectation that he was gonna be Shaquille O’Neal, I think, to the outside world. He’s had a great year. Talk about playing through a guy, he catches the ball everywhere on the floor. The more he touches it, the better we are. Defensively, he’s been an anchor. From a consistency, toughness, intelligence, focus standpoint; scouting report, preparation standpoint he’s the guy. He’s the guy on our team.
“Leadership characteristics, as smart of a guy as I’ve ever coached. Impressive with how he’s dealt with all the crazy exterior stuff that’s been thrown at him. Continues to work, have a great attitude every day. We’re not the best passing team in the country, we’ve gotten better – he’s been open a lot when he hasn’t gotten it. We’ve done a better job of getting it to him. And he’s just stayed the course, comes with a great attitude every day. He’s helped this team, put us in a position where we’re pretty competitive. We’ve got a chance to finish strong. If he doesn’t come to Florida, it could’ve been a tough year.”
The Orlando native will take part in Senior Day festivities prior to tip-off – as will manager-turned walk-on Chris Sutherland – and the 6-foot-10 Blackshear said he’ll have several friends and family members in attendance for his final UF home game.
But the focus, of course, is on the 40 minutes of action itself.
“It’s not something I’ve really been thinking about. I think it’s going to be a cool atmosphere, playing a top-10 team in the country, but this being my last game hasn’t really crossed my mind,” Blackshear said. “We’ve been focused, taking what we had last game against those guys (Kentucky) and trying to fix it and carry on.”
Since falling 65-59 in Lexington two weeks ago, the Gators have secured double-digit victories at home against LSU and on the road at Georgia, yet have continued to experience bouts of scoring droughts and, for a program accustomed to being in the upper echelon when it comes to defensive efficiency, subpar defense.
“This season, we’ve struggled with foul discipline, with focus, with transition defense. And we’ve had some strengths defensively as well. But those have been areas of focus in the past month – transition, really all season – and I thought those areas were a little bit better, especially being able to set our half-court defense so the transition D (is better),” said White. “And then the foul discipline, just playing clean and being focused. You’ve got to be physical in this league. You’ve got to play really hard, of course, but you’ve got to keep the other team off the foul line. Heading into this one, it’s even more important, as Kentucky’s as good as most teams in the country at getting to the foul line and converting at the foul line. They make free throws at a high clip.”
Although Florida did look much improved in its previous showing, on both ends of the floor. After the Dawgs connected on their first seven attempts from the field to take an early 19-6 lead, the Gators refocused and honed in defensively, resulting in a 14-point victory for UF and a season-low 54 points for UGA on both the program’s Senior Night and likely the final regular-season game of freshman Anthony Edwards’ collegiate career.
To avoid a similar fate, White knows the Gators need an identical performance on the defensive end against the Wildcats.
“I thought we were really good at Georgia. Really good. I thought we were locked in defensively for 40 minutes, showed some toughness. We were pretty connected. It was one of our better performances of the season,” White said. “I thought we defended at a high level and will certainly need to do that to have a chance against Kentucky.”
Notes: Quickley scored a career-high 26 points in Lexington in the previous game. The 6th-ranked Wildcats are the 3rd top-6 opponent to visit Gainesville over the last 8 home games. The Gators split the first 2, with a loss to #1 Baylor and a win vs. #4 Auburn. Kentucky comes into the game having won 6 of 9 against the Gators under Mike White.