The conversation surrounding SEC basketball has largely centered on Kentucky since John Calipari arrived in Lexington in 2009. The Wildcats, who annually have one of the nation’s best collections of young talent, have been to four Final Fours and two national championship games with one title win in that time. Kentucky was once again well stocked this season, with the nation’s number two recruiting class, and looked to be the conference’s best team.
Mike White and Florida put that in doubt. On February 4th, the Gators handed the Wildcats a 22-point loss (88-66), dominating them in Gainesville. Now, just two weeks later, the two teams meet once again, this time in Lexington. With identical 23-5 overall records and 13-2 SEC records, they battle Saturday afternoon at 2:00 for the top seed in the SEC tournament, which begins next week.
As #13 Florida and #11 Kentucky gear up for the rematch, CBS Sports college basketball analyst Jim Spanarkel breaks down the matchup.
CBS Local Sports: The last time these teams met, Florida came away with a big win, 88-66, stifling Kentucky and forcing them into a poor shooting night. Can the Gators replicate that kind of performance on the road in Lexington?
Jim Spanarkel: The shift of home court makes a big difference in college basketball. So, when you have a rematch like this, my inclination is to believe that you just push everything that happened in the first game aside. Now, I do think sometimes on an individual basis it helps for individual match-ups to be able to say [that] I played well against this team, so I feel comfortable coming in as a player. But a lot has changed since the first match-up.
Since Florida lost two games in a row going back to mid-January to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, this is a team that has really strung it together from a defensive standpoint. They’re really helping one another too in pushing the basketball on the transition side. I would be surprised if they had the same success against Kentucky as they did at home. That’s not to say that they can’t or won’t win the game, but it’s going to be more of a competitive game and a challenge.
CBS Local Sports: You mentioned Florida’s hot streak since the South Carolina and Vanderbilt losses — they’ve won nine straight. Is the defense really the big factor behind this winning streak?
Spanarkel: They are an aggressive defensive team that looks to jump passing lanes. They’re good on the ball, and they’re pretty good help defenders too. They have a pretty good combination of two or three different aspects and facets of their defense.
Where they’ve really helped one another is with their guard play. When you look at Allen and Hill, those guys have the ability to really push the basketball. Then, with Chiozza off the bench, [also] gives them the opportunity to push the basketball down the floor and not only score in transition but also score in a quick half court set. They’re trying to get down there before the defense sets up, not that they’re going to take a quick five-second shot. But they’ll be looking to push the basketball up and get into their sets much quicker.
CBS Local Sports: For Kentucky, defense has been a problem throughout the year. But in their last four games, the Wildcats have started to figure some things out, holding opponents to 64 points per game. What’s behind the recent defensive success for John Calipari’s squad?
Spanarkel: When I look at them defensively, in watching the Missouri game, I think they scramble pretty well. Adebayo played well against Missouri in terms of rebounding the basketball, so he clogged up the middle a little bit. And when they have their forwards clogging up the middle just a touch, it forces the action away from the basket a little bit more. But you also have the ability to gamble just a little bit on the perimeter with guys like Briscoe, Fox and Monk because they know they have some protection or at least some guys clogging up the back.
Overall, they’re starting to get a little bit more rhythm in terms of consistency. I know John Calipari always says ‘we have a long way to go still’ in terms of putting it together. He’s a master at the psychology of basketball with these young guys and trying to get them onto the same page on the defensive end.
When they push the basketball, they’re one of the leading teams in getting shots off in the first 14 seconds of the offensive sets. They don’t use the shot clock at all. Sometimes, and the game against Missouri was a good example of this, there was some frustration with the turnovers they had. Missouri threw a nice game at them for the most part. When you’re turning it over 17 times — and that happens on the road sometimes — they really have to find a way to cut back on that.
CBS Local Sports: This game will likely determine the number one seed in the conference tournament starting in a couple weeks. What’s the biggest key for each team in this game to come away with a win?
Spanarkel: Initially, you look at the speed of Kentucky and going up and down the floor. If they can utilize their big guy, Adebayo, in the middle and get maybe 10 and 10, that’s going to be a big factor to keep the Florida frontline busy. They [Florida] are a good, active frontline but I would try and pound it down low if I’m Kentucky.
Also, one of the things to consider in this game is just the backcourts of these two teams. Florida, with Allen and Hill, who can really score — Allen got to the line a lot in the Gators’ game against South Carolina, when he went 13 of 14 from the stripe. Then, for Kentucky, with the Monk and Fox combination, Fox can get to pretty much wherever he wants on the floor whenever he wants to, it seems like, and he’s very tricky and stylish going to the basket. I’d focus on Adebayo, getting him the ball down low, and then watch the guard play for both of these teams which will be a lot of fun to watch.
CBS Local Sports: You mentioned Adebayo a couple of times, is he your X-factor for Kentucky in this game? If not, who is? And who’s the X-factor for Florida?
Spanarkel: One guy on Florida who I’m curious to see is (Canyon) Barry. He hurt his ankle in practice and then played against South Carolina, but only played nine minutes or so and he was 0-for-3 from the floor. So he’s obviously struggling. Hopefully for Florida he can pick it up, because he’s very good at setting up the backdoor cut. If Kentucky starts leaning on him to try to play the passing lane or the steal, then he goes backdoor a little bit, and that opens up the perimeter.
For Kentucky, their big guy (Adebayo), if he can provide that kind of offense… But which one of the guards, Monk or Fox, will be able to get the crowd going, with some uptempo scoring for Fox or by shooting the basketball for Monk? Which of those guys can get the crowd going will be key in what is a great atmosphere in Lexington.
The Gators make the trip to Rupp Arena on Saturday for a 2 p.m. tip with the Wildcats with the game featured live on CBS and streaming online via CBSSports.com.