The Florida Gators and Kentucky Wildcats will renew their rivalry Wednesday night in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
The Gators (14-13, 7-7 SEC) were defeated by the Wildcats (18-9, 9-5 SEC) the first time the teams matched up in Rupp Arena Feb. 4. UF kept the game close but fell 72-67 to Kentucky.
Florida has the chance to split the season series Wednesday but will have to do so without graduate student forward Colin Castleton, who leads the team in scoring.
Both teams were on the bubble of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Tournament the last time they matched up. This time the Wildcats have played themselves off the bubble and into the tournament, according to ESPN reporter Joe Lunardi.
UF has lost four of its last five games and is no longer on the bubble, according to Lunardi. A victory against Kentucky would be a big step toward getting back into the tournament conversation.
The Wildcats are 2-2 in their last four games since beating the Gators. Kentucky pushed itself closer to sealing a tournament bid after it defeated the then-No. 10 Tennessee Volunteers 66-54 Saturday.
Kentucky used a balanced attack in its last two wins, as four players finished with double-digit points in each game.
Wildcats graduate student forward Oscar Tshiebwe remains a key player for Kentucky. The 6-foot-9-inch forward scored 16 points and went to the charity stripe 11 times against the Volunteers.
Tshiebwe averages 13 rebounds per game, and his ability to create second-chance points could hurt Florida. The Gators were outrebounded 40-25 in their last game against Arkansas.
Florida senior center Jason Jitoboh will need to stay out of foul trouble if he is matched up against Tshiebwe.
Tshiebwe scored just four points on 2-14 shooting the last time the Wildcats played the Gators. However, he will be more difficult to slow down without Castleton, who broke his hand against Ole Miss Feb. 15.
Castleton played a big role in stopping Tshiebwe in the last matchup, Florida head coach Todd Golden said. Slowing him again would take a whole team effort Wednesday, he said.
“We’ve got to do a better job collectively of helping each other out, knowing that it's probably going to be hard for one guy to just load up and stop them for 40 minutes,” Golden said.
Kentucky senior forward Jacob Toppin could be another player to watch out for Wednesday. The Brooklyn, New York, native averages 11.8 points per game, and his size could be an issue for Florida to handle.
The 6-foot-9-inch forward grabs 6.4 rebounds per game — the second-most boards on the team behind only Tshiebwe.
The Wildcats could be without redshirt senior guard CJ Fredrick and senior guard Sahvir Wheeler. The pair has missed the last three games for Kentucky.
Fredrick and Wheeler are both working their way back to full health, Wildcats head coach John Calipari said on his weekly radio show Monday. Calipari didn’t comment on if either would be available for Wednesday’s matchup.
Kentucky freshman forward Chris Livingston stepped up in the two guards' absences. Livingston earned Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Week honors after he averaged 12.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and two assists through the Wildcats' last two games.
Golden understands the task ahead trying to stop players like Livingston offensively, he said, but feels prepared to slow him and the rest of Kentucky down.
“We'll have some different things that we can do and that we can look at that I think will help us take on that challenge tomorrow night,” Golden said.
The Gators played their first since Castleton’s injury against the Arkansas Razorbacks Saturday. Florida kept the game within reach early but lost 84-65. Florida shot 37.3% from the field and 19% from deep in the defeat.
Florida will need to do a better job of protecting the paint against Kentucky’s forwards after UF surrendered 52 points inside against the Razorbacks.
Jitoboh and freshman forward Aleks Szymczyk played the bulk of the minutes at the five position Saturday. There could be some alterations to how the minutes will be divided at the center position, and the rotation overall, with more time to prepare, Golden said.
“Everybody is on call right now,” Golden said. “It’s our 12 scholarship guys against everybody.”
Gators freshman guard Riley Kugel led the team in scoring against Arkansas with 17 points on 5-12 shooting. Kugel could be relied upon more with Castleton unavailable.
Florida sophomore guard Will Richard is the second-leading scorer on the team — he averages 10.3 points per game at a 48% clip. He scored 10 points on 3-5 shooting in UF’s last game.
The Gators will play the Wildcats in the O’Dome in Gainesville, Florida, Wednesday night. The game will tip off at 7 p.m. and will be broadcast on either ESPN or ESPN 2.
Contact Jackson Reyes at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JacksnReyes.
Jackson Reyes is a third-year journalism major and one of the assistant sports editors for the Spring 2023 semester. In his free time, he enjoys collecting records, long walks on the beach and tweeting about Caleb Williams.