As Florida can attest, it takes a special team to stare down the Kentucky Wildcats in Rupp Arena and escape with a victory.
Actually, in the Gators’ case, it has taken extraordinary teams to do it.
Over the past 19 UF-UK games in Rupp, the Gators have won only three. And those rare victories were produced by three rare teams that all went on to win the SEC Championship, two that also went on to win the national title (2006 and 2007) and another that advanced to the Final Four (2014).
So, where does the 2018 Florida team rate in terms of potential championship material? The Gators, and the rest of the league, will know more after today.
As history has shown, the Gators have to be better than good to win at Rupp.
“Wow,” UF coach Mike White said, when told about those three wins at Rupp. “Yeah, that’s a pretty good example how hard it is to win there. How hard it is to beat Kentucky in the first place, but especially to win at Rupp. It’s very difficult, great environment, of course. It will be very loud in there. We have a tough task ahead of us.
“(Senior point guard) Chris Chiozza and I just had a little talk about him giving the younger guys the message kind of echoing my message to do our best not to freak out.
“There will be times when it gets really loud in there. We’ll just have to play with great poise. It’s really been a strength of this team to this point. But we haven’t played in an environment quite like this. It will be a factor. But probably a bigger factor will be defending those guys and getting clean looks against a stifling defense.”
In UF’s most recent win in 2014, the Gators, with a significant edge in experience, beat the Wildcats 69-59. UF started four seniors — Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Patric Young and Will Yeguete — against a Kentucky lineup consisting mostly of true freshmen.
The Gators could have a similar advantage today. UF will be starting two seniors, two juniors and a third-year sophomore against five true freshmen.
“I hope we can us that to our advantage, maybe in some time-out situations and things like that,” junior guard Jalen Hudson said. “And out-of-bounds plays, maybe we’ll get a couple of points here and there, and all those points add up, all those possessions add up.
“I’m looking for it to be a one or two-possession game, so hopefully we can steal a couple of them from them since they’re so young and don’t have as much experience as us.”
One area where the Gators could be at a big disadvantage is inside, where UF continues to be short-handed with the absence of four injured players — John Egbunu, Chase Johnson, Isaiah Stokes and Gorjok Gak.
Gak is the only one of the four with any chance to see the court today, albeit a slim one. He has been under concussion protocol since getting hit in the head at Ole Miss last Saturday.
“Gorjok is hopeful, doubtful, we’ll have to see tomorrow,” White said. “It’s a game-time deal.”
While the Gators are hurting inside the ’Cats are not. They are big and productive in the paint, led by 6-foot-11 Nick Richards and 6-9 Kevin Knox, who is from Tampa.
“Extremely tough, extremely tough,” White said of UF’s potential matchup problems inside. “It’s our biggest deficiency, defending the interior, along with transition defense. We’ve got some tough kids, though. We’ve got a resilient group and we’ve been able to overcome it at times. This one will be a little bit tougher for us.
“Keith Stone, Egor Koulechov and Kevarrius Hayes, they’ve got to play with incredible toughness and poise and intelligence. We’ve got to avoid foul trouble. Dontay Bassett has to give us productive minutes, and then our backcourt guys got to help them out anyway they can.”
The Gators not only have to find a way to deal with the big ’Cats inside, they also must contend with the big-time environment inside Rupp.
“It’s going to be hard to communicate,” Hudson said. “Obviously, they’re a good team. They’re coming off a loss now, too, so they’re going to be super hungry and ready for us. So it’s definitely going to be tough.”
Five Gators — Hudson, Kolechov, Bassett, Deaundrae Ballard and Mike Okauru — will be experiencing Rupp for the first time.
“These kind of games, it’s why I came here, it’s why a lot of guys came here,” said Kolechov, the graduate transfer from Rice. “It’s going to be exciting, it’s going to be a great environment. We’re going to do a great job preparing to have a good game over there.
“I expect craziness. I’ve heard good things about that arena and it gets really crazy out there. I’m really excited. Guys are excited, but at the same time, we know it’s a business trip and we’ve got to get a win.”
Hudson, a transfer from Virginia Tech, has played in big games and big arenas before. But this will be a different kind of environment.
“I’ve never been to Rupp to so it’s definitely going to be an experience,” he said. “I’ve played in a bunch of big crowds before in the ACC, so I’m not really nervous or anything. It’s going to be a good one.
“I am super excited. I heard it’s one of the best places to play in the country.”
Contact Robbie Andreu at 352-374-5022 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Also check out Andreu’s blog at Gatorsports.com.
Who: Florida (13-5, 5-1 SEC) vs. No. 18 Kentucky (14-4, 4-2)
When: 8:15 p.m.
Where: Rupp Arena, Lexington, Kentucky
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
G KeVaughn Allen 6-2 Jr. 11.3 ppg 2.4 apg
G Chris Chiozza 6-0 Sr. 12.3 ppg 5.9 apg
G Egor Koulechov 6-5 GSr. 15.1 ppg 7.1 rpg
F Keith Stone 6-8 RSo. 8.1 ppg 4.1 rpg
C Kevarrius Hayes 6-9 Jr. 5.2 ppg 5.2 rpg
G Hamidou Diallo; 6-5;Fr.;13.3 ppg;4.0 rpg
G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander;6-6;Fr.;12.0 ppg;4.2 apg
F P.J. Washington;6-3;Sr.;10.9 ppg;5.3 rpg
F Kevin Knox;6-9;Fr.;14.6 ppg;5.7 rpg
C Nick Richards;6-11;Fr.;7.1 ppg;5.4 rpg
Notes: Florida is 38-100 all-time against Kentucky and 1-3 against the Wildcats under Mike White . … The Gators are 3-1 against ranked teams this season and 7-12 against ranked teams under White. … The 3-point line could prove to be a big factor in the game — Florida leads the SEC in 3-point percentage (39.7 percent), while Kentucky is the top team in the league in defending 3-pointers, holding opposing teams to 29-percent shooting beyond the arc. Florida has made 10 or more 3-pointers in nine of 18 games this season, including three SEC contests. … Florida also leads the SEC in turnover margin (plus-4.6) and 3-pointers made per game (9.6), while ranking second in the league in free throw percentage (77 percent) and steals (7.4 per game). … Florida graduate guard Egor Koulechov leads the SEC in free throw percentage at 94.1 percent. … Florida junior guard Jalen Hudson is averaging a team-high 16.5 points per game in nine starts and nine games off the bench. … Florida junior guard KeVaughn Allen is coming off a season-high 28 point performance against Arkansas on Wednesday. Allen had scored just 33 points in his first five SEC games before breaking out of the shooting slump by going 8 of 12 from the floor and 6 of 7 from 3-point range. … Kentucky is 11-0 at home this season, with wins over Virginia Tech, Louisville, Texas A&M and Georgia. … Freshman forward Kevin Knox, a Tampa native, leads the Wildcats in scoring and rebounding. … Kentucky gets to the free throw line 26.5 times per game at home, compared to 17.4 trips for opponents. … The game will be featured as the first ESPN’s CollegeGameDay matchup of the season. Florida is 6-2 all-time in CollegeGameDay games.
— Kevin Brockway