#12 Florida Gators (23-5, 13-2 SEC) @ #10 Kentucky Wildcats (23-5, 13-2 SEC)
Lexington, Kentucky; Rupp Arena
Saturday, February 25, 2017; 2 p.m. EST
Florida has been on a big time roll winning their last nine basketball games and doing it through a good bit of adversity as well. They have played very well for most of the games and only a couple of teams have been within striking distance of the gators at the end of the contest. Among those wins is a 22-point victory over Kentucky that Florida played like the veteran team and finally wore down a very talented and youthful Kentucky group in front of a raucous home crowd.
Mike White knows that the Kentucky team his squad faces Saturday afternoon is a lot more poised than the one they faced back at the beginning of the month. So what does his team think about the matchup this time around?
“We’re not 22 points better than them, we know that,” White said at his Friday press conference. “They’re very good. I think they’re playing well right now. They’re defending at a high level. They’re tough, they’re resilient. You have a group of guys that continue to get better. Some are logging heavy minutes and some of these guys are having great years.
“Hats off to those guys for continuing to develop and get better. What’d we learn from that game… we played very well and that they’re very good, but we’ll have to play really well to beat them at their place.
The implications for this game are huge. The winner will be the easy frontrunner to finish atop the SEC standings at the close of the regular season. The loser would have to hope for the other team to lose against someone else. Plus, it is Kentucky we are talking about.
White doesn’t want his team to focus on anything but playing a basketball game against a big time conference rival.
“Zero… none at all,” he said of worrying about the outcome before the game happens. “Our guys they’re on social media. They read the Internet. I wish they’d read it less. They know it’s a big game and it’d be a big game if Kentucky and Florida were both 10-6. It obviously has a lot of implications, but if we’re investing time and energy into those things as opposed to transition defense and how we’re defending Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe and Fox and how we’re keeping them out of the paint and defending Adebayo in the post and those type of things, just our game plan, then we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”
Nevertheless, the Gators are up there with the Wildcats as the top two teams in the SEC and lead by three games over the next group. With three games remaining on the schedule, everything is amplified right now.
White is proud of his team’s play so far this season.
“It’s great,” he said. “Our guys have done their jobs. They’ve been terrific. Our culture has really taken a turn for the good. Our guys really enjoy each other. They’ve worked extremely hard all year. They’ve been consistent with their attitude and their effort. We’ve got talent and got depth. We’ve overcome some adversity. That’s what you want to do in all sports at Florida, to be in position to potentially win championships.
“I’m proud of where we are right now, but we’ve got a ways to go. Tomorrow’s going to be very difficult and the next two are going to be very difficult as well.”
He’s most proud that his team has remained focus through everything that has happened to them this year.
“We’re not talking about (winning a championship) right now,” he said. “We’re talking about the scouting report, playing at Rupp, competing against Coach Calipari’s team and that’s the focus right now. Everything else will take care of itself. We’ve got to focus on playing well tomorrow.”
The Wildcats of course play better in front of the home crowd. 24,000 strong will be rooting them on Saturday afternoon against the Gators. These young guys have had a little bit harder time away from the friendly confines of Rupp Arena.
“I can only make the assumption that it has to do with just being more comfortable in their surroundings that they’re used to and playing in front of an electric environment we’re all familiar with,” White said. “It’s really loud in there. It’s a great environment in there. It’s really loud in there. It’s a great college basketball atmosphere.
“I think everyone’s better at home, but that place is one of the best environments of course. They have even extra benefits built in.
The Gators are getting a little healthier. John Egbunu is of course out for the rest of the year, but redshirt freshman forward Keith Stone is back to where he needs to be and senior swing man Canyon Barry continues to improve from a sprained ankle. He one that is out still until further notice is freshman center Gorjok Gak.
“I assume he’ll play, White said of Barry. “I don’t know if he’s at 100% but he’s moving better than he was the other day,
“Not going to happen (for Gak). Didn’t go today, didn’t go yesterday. Hopefully we can get him back soon. He’s going through a bunch of rehab and starting to go through some movement exercises. He’s just dealing with pain tolerance right now.
Excited to see Allen take off…
Sophomore guard Kevaughn Allen is the Gators’ leading scorer, but White would like to see him do even more. The usually unselfish Allen needs to be more aggressive and White especially wants him to be assertive in rebounding situations. He went off on Tuesday against South Carolina scoring 26 points and hauling down seven rebounds, he was a force from the first shot of the game until the end and White loved it.
“I don’t know whether him coming out with a really aggressive mentality offensively led to the extra pep in his step and on the glass or vice versa,” White said. “I would bet on the latter, that he got himself going offensively because of how hard he was playing on the defensive end.
“In terms of him rebounding it better, he was flying around. He was focused on it more. He was around the ball. He had a nose for the ball. He wasn’t floating and assuming somebody else would get the rebound so he could run the lane.
“We’ve challenged him for a long time and he’s embraced it. He’s coming off of his best rebounding game. When he gets defensive rebounds and can lead the break, it’s a pretty good offense most of the time.”
Hayes will continue to be key…
With Egbunu out, sophomore center Kevarrius Hayes is going to continually be a focal point of the opposition to go after. Early foul trouble and just working hard throughout the contest is something that he will have to face game in and game out. Against Kentucky the big chore of matching up with super freshman Eldrice ‘Bam’ Adebayo who is scoring 13 points a game and hauling down more than 7 rebounds. And his game has really improved in recent weeks.
“For him to be able to defend Adebayo at a high level and to be able to rebound with him and stay out of foul trouble, it’s going to stake a special effort from Kevarrius,” White said. “Schuyler Rimmer has to be ready to roll and Keith Stone has to be ready to roll. Our guards have got to continue to get better with helping us on the interior, defensively and on the glass. We have to do it by committee. We can’t expect Kevarrius to just do it by himself.
A reason they are at the top with Florida…
Kentucky starts four freshmen and a sophomore. Any other team and that would be a recipe for a very tough season. But, this is Kentucky. They reload every year with All-American type players and that is what they have done again this year.
They love to get up and down the court like Florida does. They love to run fast and have really stepped up their defense, something difficult for young players to do. While the Gators rely on an older and very experienced lineup, the Wildcats have grown as a team over the year, the way it usually happens for head coach John Calipari’s teams.
White knows this is a group of road runners that his guys have to keep up with.
“When they’ve got it going, they’re one of the best,” he said. “First off they’re terrific defensively every year as we well know. I think their defending as well as they’ve defended all year right now. Offensively, when Adebayo’s got it going in the paint and Wenyen Gabriel and Willis are hitting perimeter shots, Malik Monk’s as good a scorer as there is in college basketball, De’Aaron Fox is playing at an all-time high, playing with a lot of confidence, converting at the foul line, Briscoe is one of the hardest guys in the country to keep out of the paint like Fox.
“They’re just so difficult to defend. I don’t know if you can go into a game and just know you can take just one thing away from them. You’ve got to be good at everything. We’ve got to be solid. We understand that they’re going to hit some difficult shots. They’re going to go on some runs of course. They have really good players. They run good stuff. They’re a really good basketball team. We’ve got our hands full.”