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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Don't be fooled by the ESPN broadcast or the long line of students camping out for good seats.

Don't get sucked in by the lame, overblown storylines surrounding Billy Donovan's decision not to leave UF for Kentucky (imagine that) and Patrick Patterson choosing the Wildcats over the Gators last summer.

Saturday's game between UF and Kentucky is nothing more than an average Southeastern Conference contest.

This is a young rivalry on life support after being punched repeatedly in the stomach by NBA departures and coaching shakeups.

This isn't the Gators trying to unseat Tubby Smith's hard-nosed Wildcats after an epic reign as the kings of the SEC.

This isn't a couple of national title contenders trying to pound their chests with a statement victory.

And it certainly isn't David Lee leaping onto the table on press row and ripping his shirt off in a shining moment of triumph.

Saturday's game is a matchup between a UF team that couldn't possibly be any younger and inexperienced, and a Kentucky team that has put many of its devoted fans on 24-hour suicide watch. Wildcats coach Billy Gillispie is in danger of realizing a different form of one-and-done.

The Gators' dearth of size has forced them to guard opposing big men with wing players, while Kentucky is a team in disarray and will enter the game with a losing record.

Don't get me wrong. UF is a pretty good team, and nobody would be truly shocked if Kentucky made a huge run all the way to the NCAA Tournament. But for the first time in the recent history of the series, the best team in the conference won't be in attendance. Nor will the second-best squad.

This is a rivalry that depends on both teams being great. It doesn't compare to the Gators' football rivalries, where there is a long-standing tradition of hatred, a constant battle for recruits and divided homes and neighborhoods.

And how excited can the Gators really get for this game? UF's young squad hasn't really experienced much in the way of a heated rivalry with Kentucky.

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After winning six straight games against the Wildcats, the Gators will be favored to win again. A victory against the 7-8 Wildcats would be encouraging, but how much pride can they really take in knocking off a team that has struggled miserably this season? Meanwhile, a loss would have to be viewed as a disappointment.

I'm not saying Gators fans shouldn't get pumped for Saturday's game. They should be excited for every conference game.

But if you are saving up your energy for one game this year, leave that sleeping bag in the closet for a while.

Bruce Pearl's Volunteers come to town on March 5.

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