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Friday, May 20, 2022

When the Gators and Wildcats take the court for another storied showdown Saturday night, UF point guard Jai Lucas and Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson will instantly be transformed into heated rivals.

The moment they step off the court, however, they will revert back to the friends they once were - before they decided that their destinies would not be intertwined after all.

They knew each other from summer camps and Amateur Athletic Union tournaments, but it wasn't until the Nike Skills Academy and the NBA Camp in 2006 that they started to spend more time together.

At first, Patterson was a man of few words, but Lucas gradually broke him down.

"I just kept talking to him, and then on the court between a guard and a big man, that's one of the best relationships there is," Lucas said. "Once you get that bond, it's hard to keep you away off the court."

As their relationship grew, the two began discussing the possibility of playing together during the next phase of their careers.

Lucas heavily considered Kentucky for all the reasons every player does: tradition, national championships and respect for the program.

Jai remembers all the hype - whoever committed first, the other would surely follow.

"I found that funny, cause I didn't think that was going to happen," he said.

Lucas made his decision first, and after telling his parents, his high school coach and Gators coach Billy Donovan that he would attend UF, the Texas native text-messaged his friend to share the news.

"I always told him that I would let him know where I was going before I did it," Lucas said. "He said congratulations, and he said he still didn't know what he was going to do."

The duo's relationship made Patterson's pending decision that much harder.

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Patterson was unavailable for comment for this story, but he has spoken publicly about his relationship with Lucas and choosing Kentucky.

"He started sending me text messages every day about making me a Gator and telling me what made him go to Florida and things like that," Patterson told reporters after his announcement. "It was hard, because I really wanted to play with Jai. He was like my little brother."

The decision ultimately came down to roughly 768 miles. Patterson couldn't bear the thought of forcing his family members to take a plane from their Huntington, W.Va. home every time they wanted to see him suit up in Gainesville.

"I went back and forth every single day, every minute until I finally (picked UK)," Patterson said after his announcement. "I know Coach Donovan said he'd do everything he could for my family, moving them out there and finding a house in Jacksonville, but I just didn't want to do that to my family."

So after months of sidestepping reporters' constant questions, the recruiting saga was finally over - sort of.

The headlines pinned the two programs against each other: "Gators beat Kentucky for prized recruit" was followed by "Blue-chip recruit spurns UF for Kentucky."

Though the two chat from time to time now - how's the season, what's school like? - Lucas said he never dwells on what could have been.

"It's just basketball," Lucas said. "You have to go to work with what you have. I love Florida. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Lucas said there won't be any wagers on Saturday's game, but both players have acknowledged that to them, it's more than just a game.

"I want to beat Florida both times," Patterson said at Big Blue Madness on Oct. 12. "Just annihilate and crush them."

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