No Overstating Importance of this One

When the Gators were 18-3, 5-1 in the SEC the math was shaping up very well for Billy Donovan's team to earn its tenth straight NCAA Tournament bid. All Florida really needed to do was split the ten remaining regular season contests to enter the tournament with a record of 23-8, a 10-6 SEC mark and an NCAA bid in the bank.

That was nine games and six losses ago.

Now Donovan's crew heads to Lexington, Kentucky for a game crucial to the Gators' post-season hopes. A win over Kentucky would give the Gators 22 wins, a season sweep of the Wildcats and should push Florida to the head of the line for an at-large consideration among SEC teams. A loss means Florida has to win at least two games in the SEC Tournament to keep the NCAA streak alive.

Teams Heading in Opposite Directions

The Gators come into this contest having dropped six of nine including the last two at home. Florida's freshmen at times appear to have "hit the wall" form the long, grueling season. The Gators bench, which had been so productive early in the season, has become increasingly less of a factor. Florida reserves scored just six of the team's 86 in the loss to Tennessee. The bench scored eight against Mississippi State, making it 14 bench points in two games, 12 scored by Chandler Parsons.

While Florida has been fading, Kentucky has been surging since their loss to the Gators back on January 19. The Wildcats have won 10-of-12 since that day and now find themselves tied for the second best record in the SEC at 11-4. Despite losing prized freshman Patrick Patterson they continued to play well in a loss to Tennessee and a big win over South Carolina. A win over the Gators would probably clinch an NCAA bid.

Kentucky is led by their senior guard tandem of Joe Crawford (17.1) and Ramel Bradley (16.0). The two veterans combined for 39 in the first game with the Gators and teamed up for an incredible 55 points in Wednesday's win at South Carolina. Perry Stevenson is doing more since Patterson's departure and was terrific against Tennessee with 13 points and 14 rebounds. Derrick Jasper has averaged 7.5 boards in the last two games.

But the real key to the Kentucky surge in the last six weeks is defense. The ‘Cats have held 11-of-12 opponents to 70 points or less. The Gators have been held under 70 just six times this season; they lost five of those games.

Florida coach Billy Donovan said there are several factors that contribute to Kentucky holding opponents to such low scoring numbers.

"The game is definitely shortened by the amount of time they take to shoot the ball; so I think part of it is that the game does get slowed. I don't think it's them holding the ball. I just think it's just their patience in running their offense and doing what they do. I think the other thing is that they are a good defensive team. In fact, I think they may be a better defensive team right now without Patrick Patterson. Now I think Patrick Patterson is one of the best players in the league and he gives them a low post presence, but I think what's happened is you've added a lot of quickness. A guy like (Derrick) Jasper who has really been able to carve out a great niche in the power forward spot. He's been able to do a really good job and they've done a great job helping each other."

Kentucky's first-year coach Billy Gillespie has gone through a tumultuous season in Lexington. Donovan said he's impressed with how the Wildcats have rallied from a 7-9 start to win 10-of-12.

"He's done a terrific job. I'm not on the inside where you're always dealing with injuries and those types of things, but I think that's always hard. Then you add on the fact that you have a new coach coming into a new situation and that's always difficult for the players. The two main guys who have been the mainstays for the team are Bradley being a senior and Crawford being a senior. They've provided great leadership, but I think Billy's done a great job dealing with the ups and downs of the season and dealing with some of the distractions."

Donovan said in some ways the Wildcats' 6-7 record in the pre-conference schedule may have helped them be better prepared for the adversity of playing the SEC schedule.

"Losing to a Gardner Webb and losing to a San Diego it hardens you, it toughens you and it makes you more resilient. You certainly find out much more about your personnel and your people. In order to have any type of breakthrough you have to go through the low times. It's a lot easier for people when they stay on top and everything's great, but I don't think you become everything you can. I think when you go through difficult times or a player hits rock bottom, that's the time that forces change."

Incredibly the Gators are seeking their eighth straight win over the Kentucky team. No school has ever beaten Kentucky eight times in a row. Before this recent run of success, Kentucky had overwhelmingly dominated the Gators with an 84-24 record.

Questions or comments? Contact FightinGators.com's Larry Vettel


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