Scout/Jeff Drummond

The No. 23 Gators take on No. 6 Kentucky in Gainesville

With four players averaging 13 points or more in the starting lineup, the high flying Kentucky Wildcats visit Gainesville Saturday in a much anticipated matchup on the hardwood. The Gators are coming off a three game winning streak in which they won each contest by 30 points and feeling pretty good about themselves. But, they are about to take on the most talented team they will face all season.

#23 Florida Gators (17-5, 7-2 SEC) vs #6 Kentucky Wildcats (18-4, 8-1 SEC)

Gainesville, Florida; Exactech Arena

Saturday Feb. 4, 2017; 8:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Florida head coach Mike White and his team are off to a great start this season. The Gators have an RPI ranked 14th in the country this year based on a tough road schedule they have played and winning the games they were supposed to win on the road. Again, talent wise, this will be the best team they have faced all year.

“Extremely talented team,” White said when asked what they are facing Saturday. “I like our talent. We’re a talented team as well. But these guys, they are one of the best offensive teams in the country. They are one of the best defensive teams in the country.

Kentucky is led by an explosive backcourt of sophomore Isaiah Briscoe, and freshmen Malik Monk and D’Aaron Fox. The trio combines for 47.5 points per game.

“It’s hard to argue there are a lot of teams out there with a better backcourt of the three of those guys, that combination that those three guys make up. I love Isaiah Briscoe’s game, in my opinion he’s one of the most underrated guys in the country, I know he’s got a rep but I think he does a lot of stuff that doesn’t show up in the box score as well. Those freshmen guards of course are terrific.

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The Wildcats start four freshmen and a sophomore. One of those freshmen is space eater and athlete Edrice Adebayo and they of course have players off the bench that can make a difference.

“Adebayo is terrific,” White said. ““He’s great in the offensive glass. He’s a great field goal percentage finisher. He’s just a high-percentage guy. But again, at the same time if he’s your focal point, then you’ve got three guards out there that are all tremendous players that you can’t allow your focus to drop on those guys on how we’re defending those guys, so on and so forth.

“They’ve got more depth, they’ve got bigs coming off the bench that are very talented of course. They play really hard. They’re very physical. They’ve got great team speed. They are great on the offensive glass. They’re good at a lot of things.”

As a freshman Monk leads the SEC in scoring. He’s a special talent that can beat you every way imaginable with the ball in his hands.

“We've been, for the most part a gap-heavy team in the half court,” White said. “I know a lot of teams have done a good job of limiting (Monk’s) touches,” White said. “I'm not sure that we have had a lot of experience doing that. It's just not who we are, but if you allow him to get a couple of easy ones, especially early, you're in for a long night. He's one of the most talented players in the country. He's already hit 70 3s. He can make contested, tough 3s, jump 40 inches and jump backwards and jump sideways. He's got an ability to get it off whenever he wants. We just have to make sure that everyone is contested and make everything he does, make it hard. Just make it hard. We have to make him work. If we're really locked in and he doesn't get an easy one, that's job No. 1. We also know that he's going to make some hard ones. He's got the ability to do that, and we can't get discouraged. We've got to stay the course."

Kentucky loves to race up and down the court with pressure defense and transition offense with athletic guards and big men that can all run the floor equally well.  Florida is built the same way, but White knows they have to be on their A-game.

"Well, transition defense is huge,” White said. “We've got to stop that ball, of course. Especially with Fox and Briscoe, we have to do a good job by-committee trying to limit the number of times they get in the paint and in transition, but it's easier said than done, too, when you need to be extended on a guy like Monk, when you need to rim run and wrestle with Adebayo so that he doesn't get good post position on transition duck-ins.

“Playing a team like Kentucky, like playing a team like Gonzaga earlier in the year or playing a team like Duke, you can't make glaring mistakes. You've got to be good at everything just to give yourselves a chance. And this is one of those teams that you can still play pretty well and still not win, so obviously we've got to do our best to play our best just to give ourselves a chance."

Florida has been a pretty good team in terms of few turnovers. The gators lead the league (11.5 per game) in fewest turnovers and in turnover margin (+4.3). But the Wildcats are right behind them in both standings and will make you pay if you have a bad night controlling the ball.

“These guys score 91-92 points per game, something crazy,” White said. “Turnovers in this one are enormous. They are eighth in the country in offensive tempo. Those three playmakers in transition… it's a layup drill if you turn the ball over against these guys. We have to play really smart...We are not putting in new plays we are not going to have ten offensive keys. We have to give ourselves a chance to defend these guys starting with our offense.” 

This Florida team has played their best basketball in the last three games and their mindset seems to be right according to White.

“I think it's pretty high, as high as it has been for sure,” White said of the team’s confidence. “But our guys understand what they are up against in the Wildcats. There is a lot of respect there from our guys. We will see where our confidence is at tip tomorrow. Five minutes, 10 minutes in, I think that’s really important for us. Got to get off to a good start.”

White believes his team is mature enough to handle the big stage they will be on Saturday night in the O’Connell Center.

“I think there is respect, a healthy respect there,” he said. “I think we are a more confident team than a year ago. At the same time out guys, they just don't think, oh we're going to blast Kentucky, show up tomorrow play average and beat them, they know better than that. But I think our guys probably feel like we need to play very well to beat them. But if we play very well, we will have a chance and that’s all you can ask for. It's a healthy level of confidence and respect there.”

 

Stone may still not be ready…

Redshirt freshman forward Keith Stone has been suffering from a viral infection that has kept him away from getting on the court. White isn’t sure when his young big man will be back.

 “The viral deal that’s led this in, ear this, ear that, dizziness, I don’t understand any of it,” White said. “Not intelligent enough. I just know he’s not cleared. He’s day-to-day. We’re just hoping maybe he’s cleared this afternoon. Maybe he’s cleared tomorrow. Maybe it’s a week. I don’t know. I know he doesn’t feel great. He’s gotten better and better – it’s a setback for him. But with a freshman, it might be a blessing in disguise where he might come back really refreshed.”


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