Florida Gators basketball team will put its win streak to the test at Kentucky

Graham Hall
UF basketball writer
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The Florida men’s basketball team puts its four-game win streak on the line Saturday at a venue where no visiting team has emerged victorious this season: Rupp Arena. 

When the Gators battle the No. 4 Kentucky Wildcats, they know the odds aren’t in their favor, but coach Mike White has consistently preached the importance of blocking out the external noise.

What’s come before has little bearing on Florida’s opportunity, after all, and White thinks the Gators have improved throughout conference play when it comes to handling adversity.

“The environment and the mental toughness piece, we’re way more equipped than we were a month ago, two months ago,” White said. “I wouldn’t say ‘hey, man, we’re built for this and it’s not going to be a factor’, because it is. It’s going to be an electric environment, but we’ve come a long way in that category.”

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Kentucky playing at another level

As impressive as Florida has looked recently, whether it’s mounting a comeback or leading from start to finish, as the Gators did in Saturday’s 72-63 win over Georgia, White understands the Wildcats (20-4, 9-2 SEC) are executing at a much higher level. 

It starts down low with Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe, who Thursday was named one of 30 candidates for the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year award.

Tshiebwe, who transferred to UK from West Virginia, is in the middle of a monstrous season, leading the Southeastern Conference in field goal percentage and rebounds heading into the home stretch of the regular season. The Democratic Republic of Congo native also enters Saturday’s matchup with the Gators as the SEC’s sixth leading scorer.

Tshiebwe is averaging a staggering 15.1 boards per game this season, making it a one-horse race for the rebounding title as Arkansas forward Jaylin Williams is second in the conference with 9.2 per contest. His impact is also felt on the defensive end, where Tshiebwe averages nearly two steals per contest to go along with 1.5 blocks a game. He's a force.

“I don’t remember scouting as good of an offensive rebounder,” White said of Tshiebwe. “The way that he can go get it on the defensive glass and the offensive glass just at a level at which, it’s really unheard of.”

Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) flexes after scoring over Kansas during the second half of Saturday's game inside Allen Fieldhouse.

Tshiebwe is hardly Kentucky’s lone weapon, as guards TyTy Washington and Sahvir Wheeler have made for a devastating duo in the backcourt. 

Wheeler, who transferred from Georgia after last season, is averaging a league-high 7.2 assists a night, while the freshman Washington is the team’s second-leading scorer and a mainstay in the starting lineup. 

It’s abundantly clear the Wildcats aren’t just a much-improved from last season, when UK struggled mightily en route to a 9-16 record in the COVID-shortened season: they have the potential to emerge atop of the rest of the field in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

“They’ve got some veterans that are playing well, they’ve got guys that started other places that are playing well, they’ve got young guys that are playing well. All at the same time, both offensively and defensively. There’s just not a glaring weakness with this team,” White said of Kentucky. “They’re terrific. I think this team has a chance to win it all. I really do.”

They may be well-versed in the threat the opposition poses, but the Gators remain focused on internal improvement rather than external forces. It’s not just the losses where lessons are learned — Florida has to improve in victory, too.

Over the final eight minutes of both halves against Georgia, UF saw double-digit leads slashed considerably, raising the question of whether Florida became complacent with a sizable advantage. 

If Florida manages to attain a lead, no matter how slim, in Lexington, the intensity can’t wane.

“The attention to detail dropped, the intensity dropped,” White said. “You’ve got to play with a certain level of edge to max out, to win an SEC game, and against elite teams like this Kentucky team, you have to do it for 40 (minutes) to have any chance.”

Florida teammates congratulate guard Anthony Duruji (4) after he made a basket and got fouled against Georgia at the Exactech Arena in Gainesville on Wednesday. The Gators beat the Bulldogs 72-63 to notch another SEC win.

Florida’s possible starters

Anthony Duruji F   6-7   209 Sr. 9.5 ppg       4.4 rpg

Colin Castleton F   6-11 240 Sr. 15.4 ppg     8.9 rpg

Tyree Appleby G   6-1 163 Sr. 10.8 ppg     2.2 rpg

Phlandrous Fleming Jr. G   6-5 205 Gr. 10.4 ppg     4.0 rpg

Niels Lane G   6-5 206 So. 0.9 ppg       1.2 rpg

Kentucky’s possible starters

Keion Brooks Jr. F   6-7 210 Jr. 11.6 ppg     4.7 rpg

Oscar Tshiebwe F   6-9 255 Jr. 15.9 ppg    15.1 rpg

Sahvir Wheeler G   5-9 180 Jr. 9.7 ppg       2.1 rpg

TyTy Washington Jr. G   6-3 197 Fr. 12.9 ppg     3.7 rpg

Kellan Grady G   6-5 205 Gr. 12.0 ppg     2.0 rpg

Notes: The Gators know how tough it is to win at Rupp Arena. Florida and Tennessee are the only visiting teams to secure multiple wins at Rupp Arena since Mike White took over in Gainesville. ... Florida senior guard Myreon Jones is 14-of-23 from three-point range over his last three contests. White revealed earlier this week that Jones had been playing with a broken finger on his non-shooting hand. ... UF senior forward Colin Castleton is averaging 15.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocked shots in his two games since returning to the lineup from a six-game absence.

SATURDAY

When: 4 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: AM-850, 98.1-FM

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