Unquestionably the biggest game of the season for Kentucky. At least until the next time they play Florida in a few weeks.
ESPN Gamenight will be in attendance in Rupp Arena. The 9 pm tip ensures that the crowd will be lubricated adequately.
There has already been more national media focus on this game than any other UK tilt since conference season got started. In fact, ESPN’s basketball power index rating says that this matchup has the highest “quality rating” of any other game for the rest of the regular season.
And the hype is warranted.
Beating a top 3 ranked Florida team when everyone in the college basketball universe is watching is the best chance Kentucky is going to get to send a message to the NCAA tournament committee and the rest of the country about what kind of damage it can do in March.
For Florida, too, this is about as big as it gets. The Gators have romped through their first 11 SEC games, winning by an average of 14 points per outing. But though they have some pretty good non-conference wins, nothing else on their schedule comes close to a road game vs a top 15 Kentucky team at Rupp Arena.
So how will it play out?
Our keys to the game:
• Florida is looking like a team on a mission right now. This is a senior laden bunch which has been to three consecutive Elite 8s without a Final Four berth. Right now, we give the mental edge to the Gators who haven’t lost in over a month and are simply rolling through opponents.
• Kentucky’s edge is in the paint. The Cats have been dominant on the offensive glass this season and they will need to be again Saturday night. Florida plays tough D and could force some errant shots. So that means there will be a lot of opportunities for putbacks and garbage baskets. Randle, Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Poythress need to send a message with some thunderous follow dunks.
• Florida has positively feasted on teams with shaky guards. All season long, Kentucky’s fate has followed its backcourt play. When the Harrison twins and James Young are taking good shots and not turning the ball over, UK can play with anyone. How these guys handle Billy Donovan’s trademark fullcourt pressure will go a long way in determining the result.
• Free-throw shooting will play a factor. Neither team is strong in this area. Both are hitting about 67% from the charity stripe. If the game is close, foul shots will come into play and the team that shoots them better will have a big edge.
• Kentucky’s traditional homecourt advantage has made life hard on Florida during the Donovan tenure. In fact, UF is only 3-14 vs Kentucky at Rupp Arena, by far his worst road record vs any program in the SEC. This will be a very hostile crowd and a huge advantage for UK.
• Just make shots. This Florida team is a bit different than some of the recent editions as it doesn’t shoot as well from three and really only has one guy, Michael Frazier II, who is a prototypical long range bomber. But they get it done with efficiency and unselfishness. Kentucky on the other hand is like all young teams—unpredictable. But given the raw athletic talent on the floor, if Kentucky gets hot it could roll with the emotion and send 25,000 fans into a frenzy. Even the experienced, balanced Gators roster would be hard pressed to beat a Kentucky team that is scorching the nets.
Prediction: Kentucky rides the home crowd and puts on its best performance of the season for a thrilling 75-73 primetime win.go back