Florida/Kentucky Showdown Unique

In recent years when the Gators and Wildcats met in basketball, one or both teams were competing for the SEC Title, a high NCAA Tournament seed and improved national ranking. Saturday when they take to the floor in the O'Connell Center they'll be fighting for their post-season lives.

The two teams take identical 8-7 SEC records into the contest and the winner will have a much better shot at getting an NCAA bid than the loser will be. No one thought this would be the case two weeks ago when the Gators and ‘Kats were 8-4 in the SEC and tied for the SEC East lead. However both teams have lost three straight games setting up a game that is almost certainly an NCAA elimination contest.

First Meeting Painful

Florida dropped a 68-65 decision in Rupp Arena that was incredibly tough to take. The Gators led by six points (62-56) with 3:19 to play but were outscored 12-3 in the closing minutes. Particularly galling was the fact that the Gators missed 6-of-7 free throws down the stretch, including three by Nick Calathes with one second on the clock. He could have sent the game into overtime by making three, but instead Florida went home with a loss. The missed free throws also overshadowed Calathes' 33 points, seven rebound effort in which he out scored his teammates.

Jodie Meeks, the top scorer in the SEC scored 23 that night, but Florida actually did a great job on him most of the night. Meeks scored 10 of Kentucky's final 12 points, including a game-winning three-pointer with five seconds to play. Patrick Patterson (7/8) was pretty quiet that night, but Kentucky also got two surprising performances from Josh Harrellson (11/3) and Kevin Galloway (6/8, 9 assists).

Florida Coach Billy Donovan took a look at the rematch.

"They have two phenomenal players in Patterson and Meeks and the majority of the stuff they're running goes through those two guys," Donovan said. "But they do have some guys who have stepped up for them during the course of different games. Galloway against us in Lexington played a really good game. (Michael) Porter is a capable three point shooter and when he's making shots it forces you to move your defense and alter your defense a little bit."

But it all starts with Meeks. The 6-4 junior guard is averaging 25.6 against SEC teams, which is 36 percent of their scoring. No player in the SEC carries as much of a scoring load for his team. I asked Donovan if Meeks is a guy he's considered using a gimmick defense like a box-and-one against.

"I think you consider anything against him. I thought we did a pretty good job in Lexington against him until the last three minutes. He made a couple of tough threes, got to the free throw line and score ten points there, but I thought leading up to that point we were pretty aware of where he was at and did a good job of getting to him. As a lot of good players do he stepped up there at the end of the game for his team."

Donovan also pointed out there Kentucky has seen a lot of different schemes designed to slow down Meeks and they've adjusted accordingly.

"They do different things when you try to overplay him and try to take him away. He's got a great ability to go from zero-to-sixty. He's as good as I've seen where he's at a standstill and the screen's coming for him and he can full speed run off it and shoot. He's a heckuva player and a player without question who's being mentioned as a player of the year candidate."

As mentioned above this is a different sort of setting for Florida and Kentucky at this stage of the season. Neither team is nationally ranked. And both are struggling as they near the finish line of the season. Certainly the game has lost the luster of some recent matchups, but Donovan insists that won't be the case when they hit the court.

"For us it's still Kentucky. It's still a program that has great tradition that we have great respect for. It's our last game of the year. It's a team on our side (of the SEC East). I still think it's a big game for us just because of where we're at in our season."

A win makes Florida the No. 3 seed from the East in the SEC Tournament and sets up a late Thursday (9:45 p.m.) game against John Pelphrey and Arkansas. The winner of that game will face Auburn in the second round. A loss would drop the Gators to fourth in the East meaning the Gators would play the first game of the SEC Tournament at 1:00 Thursday afternoon against either Alabama or Ole Miss. The winner of that game draws SEC Champion LSU on Friday.

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