Much like last year’s UK squad, however, Florida has yet to live up to its lofty preseason rankings and finds itself in need of a signature victory as the No. 1 Cats visit Gainesville for a 9 p.m. ET tipoff.
The Gators (12-10, 5-4 SEC) remain a bit of a mystery, even to opposing coaching staffs that scout them meticulously. Billy Donovan’s team has dropped four of its last six games, including a 67-61 loss Tuesday at Vanderbilt.
“When you’re watching them, you’re trying to figure out, ‘OK, what are they going to do against us? How are they going to play against us?” UK coach John Calipari said. “You would think well let’s play some zone, but we’ve been at our best when we play against zone. Maybe they throw in that 1-3-1, try that. Their press has been really effective. The games that I’ve watched, it has kept them in games. Will it be effective against us? I don’t know. I hope not.”
Kentucky (22-0, 9-0 SEC) presents matchup issues for the Gators across the board, but is expected to play without freshman forward Trey Lyles (7.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) for the third straight game due to an illness. Although the Cats have won each of those games by double figures, his absence has been felt on the glass, where the Cats have been a net minus-9.
Those numbers have also been influenced by a slumping Willie Cauley-Stein (8.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg). The junior center revealed this week that he’s been nagged by soreness in the ankle that was surgically at the end of last season. Calipari said various check-ups and MRIs have shown there is no new damage, but scar tissue may be aggravating his 7-footer.
Not only has UK been beaten on the glass lately, but opponents have shot better than 40 percent in five of the last six, well above the Cats' season average of 32.9 percent. UK has blocked only five shots in the last three games after averaging close to 10 most of the season.
For his part, Cauley-Stein won’t use it as an excuse. “I just haven’t been playing like I should be playing.”
The UK boss suggested Cauley-Stein has to get his aggressive mindset back.
“It’s kind of like you’re in a boxing match,” Calipari said. “You walk in, and the other dude is knocking you around. It’s just not fun. If you’re moving and sticking and in and out, talking, you say, ‘Man, am I having fun.’ Yeah, because you’re being the aggressor and you’re beating him up. If you’re standing there and you’re not the aggressor, it’s not fun. It’s hard.”
Calipari added you need a fighter’s mindset when you walk into the O’Connell Center. “They’ll get after you, especially in that building.”
“They’ve got really good fans. Their fans are crazy,” Cauley-Stein said. “I mean, they’re like everybody else, but the way their gym is setup, it’s just different. Like, they’re on top of you. It’s loud, yelling on top of you. They’re really into it.
“You can always hear what they’re saying. It doesn’t matter where you’re at.
The Gators also have several players back from last year's Final Four squad (a team that beat Kentucky three times) including guards Kasey Hill (7.4 ppg, 4.1 apg) and Michael Frazier II (13.4 ppg, 40% 3PFG) and forward Dorian Finney-Smith (12.8 ppg, 39% 3PFG). The latter went 4-for-6 from beyond the arc in the last meeting between the two teams, a 61-60 victory for Florida in the SEC Tournament championship game.
Florida is still relying heavily on the 3-pointer, but ranks 11th in the SEC in scoring offense at 66 points per game. The Gators, however, rank No. 2 defensively at 59.3.
Kentucky leads the all-time series 94-37, but the Gators have split the last 20 meetings with the Cats. UK has not won in Gainesville since its 2012 national championship season.