After starting SEC play 2-0 and wading out into Top 25 territory, the Gators were knocked back to shore by a crimson tide Tuesday night, losing to Alabama 86-71.
Fortunately for Florida, its subsequent game against the blue-blooded Kentucky Wildcats Saturday is an uncharacteristically easy matchup.
Kentucky entered the SEC gauntlet holding a 1-6 record — its worst since the Taft administration — and picked up more losses along the way.
A 19-point loss to Georgia Tech was followed by a defeat against ACC bottom-dwellers Notre Dame. The six-game losing streak was capped off by dropping the Bluegrass State showdown against a severely shorthanded Louisville side.
Even in victory, Kentucky looks unconvincing and far worse than the team that won the SEC by three games last season. An overtime victory against an average Mississippi State was followed by a last-second, 77-74 victory at home against Vanderbilt, a team Florida handled comfortably in Nashville.
Florida should win on paper, sitting at six point favorites on KenPom, but Kentucky maintains a talented roster and coach John Calipari’s teams have a reputation for improving as the season goes on. To hang on the upper rungs of the SEC and keep its tournament hopes on track, Florida must take care of these aspects to defeat Kentucky on Saturday.
Mike White’s free-flowing, transition-based basketball got beaten back by the bully-ball style of Alabama last time out, conceding 46 points in the paint. Among UF players that played more than 10 minutes against the Tide, just two stand above 6 feet, 5 inches. While this diminutive makeup helps the Gators get out on the break, it breeds mismatches down low.
Kentucky is the fifth tallest team in college basketball, with eight players measured at 6 feet, 6 inches or taller. The Wildcats would be wise to take Alabama’s blueprint and pound the ball in the paint. White spoke in the postgame on Tuesday about potentially switching defenses. A zone look would remedy some of UF’s deficiencies on the interior but worsen an already glaring problem on the glass.
Florida enters the game 223rd in the country in defensive rebounding percentage, a concerning figure as Kentucky ranks 40th in offensive rebounding percentage. Switching to a zone would give Kentucky a greater advantage on the offensive glass and likely creates easy looks for UK.
The Wildcats struggle to shoot the ball from all over the court, but they are particularly poor from three-point range, shooting less than 30% from distance. Providing help defense in the paint and encouraging Kentucky to shoot from the perimeter should mitigate the physical disparities between the two teams.
White’s off-season promises of fast-paced basketball came to fruition thus far. The Gators now rank 79th in adjusted tempo and 34th in possession length. Kentucky comes into Saturday’s matchup with a completely different style of play, ranking 209th in adjusted tempo.
The Wildcats are currently the fourth-youngest team in college basketball, with the roster averaging just .89 years of experience. Only one UK opponent, North Carolina, ranks inside the top 100 in tempo and most of Kentucky’s key players have little to no experience against a team of Florida’s pace.
Pushing the ball will force the Wildcats out of their comfort zone and likely rattle a despondent team searching for confidence.
With a Jan. 19 matchup against Tennessee looming and a pair of games against pesky Mississippi schools upcoming, a defeat against Kentucky would be an early-season blow to Florida’s tournament chances. UF has been the better team all season and should expect to win Saturday.
Tip-off is at 5 p.m. at the O’Connell Center, and the action will be broadcast on ESPN.
Contact Declan Walshs at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @declanaw