Kentucky and Florida, two teams coming off different results, will face each other on Saturday evening in a duel between ailing SEC foes.
TV schedule: Saturday, January 9, 5:00 pm ET. ESPN
Arena: Exactech Arena at Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, Florida
In a tumultuous SEC regular season, two of the teams going through the most turmoil will face each other in a critical conference showdown, with the Florida Gators hosting the Kentucky Wildcats.
Florida (5-2), after starting the season 3-0, have understandably endured a hectic stretch since the sudden health crisis of Preseason SEC Player of the Year Keyontae Johnson during their loss to Florida State. Since then, they picked up a blowout win over Vanderbilt and a crucial victory against LSU – but were most recently blown out on Tuesday at Alabama, 86-71.
Against the Crimson Tide, not much went well for the Gators – but they did get their best game of the season from Cleveland State transfer Tyree Appleby, who poured in a team-high 18 points (4-8 2PT, 2-4 3PT, 4-4 FT) to go with five rebounds, three assists, and two steals. Michigan transfer Colin Castleton, meanwhile, has continued his streak of double-digit performances since Johnson’s departure, putting in 13 points (6-11 2PT) to go with eight rebounds – in all, Castleton has gone 24-34 in his last three outings.
While Florida also featured two more double-digit scorers in Noah Locke and Tre Mann (11 points apiece), the Gators uncharacteristically struggled from inside the arc and from the charity stripe. Despite averaging a 56th-best 54.3% clip on two-pointers, Florida shot just 37.5% (18-48) – and from the line, an area where the Gators maintain an 83rd-best 73.4%, Florida went just 8-14 (57.1%). Contrarily, however, the Gators shot 45.0% from beyond the arc, going 9-20 – an improvement on their 37.5% season average, which ranks 45th nationally.
Kentucky (3-6), meanwhile, has picked up steam since beginning the season at 1-6 – but their performances have not necessarily been anything to rave over. After putting up a fight against a solid Louisville squad on December 26th and losing by three, the Wildcats have rallied for back-to-back wins to open up SEC play, scraping by Mississippi State in double overtime before avoiding two game-tying threes in the closing seconds in a 77-74 win against Vanderbilt.
Obviously, neither are particularly strong wins – but they are significant for one of the youngest teams in college basketball, especially to begin conference play. The Wildcats’ most recent outing, their win over Vanderbilt, produced Olivier Sarr‘s best game yet, a great sign for Kentucky after his struggles to begin the year. The big man recorded a season-high 24 points (5-9 2PT, 14-17 FT) to go with seven rebounds, two assists, and two blocks. Joining him were Dontaie Allen (14 points, after his stellar 23-point showing against Mississippi State), Davion Mintz, and Devin Askew – both of whom recorded 11 points apiece.
The Wildcats rank among the nation’s worst in 2P% (46.2%, 262nd), 3P% (29.9%, 272nd), and FT% (67.6%, 234th) – but were a mixed bag against the Commodores. They shot worse than their season average inside, going 18-42 (42.9%), but drained five of 13 attempted long-range bombs to finish 38.5% on three-pointers. Where Kentucky won the game, however, was from the line – they allowed Vanderbilt to get there just 14 times, while the Wildcats, behind Sarr’s performance, went 26-32 (81.2%) from the charity stripe.
This will be a showdown of two teams currently playing different tempos of basketball. The Gators maintain the 78th-fastest tempo nationally, allowing for 71.5 possessions per game – and average a possession length of 15.5 seconds, the 35th-fastest mark in Div. I. Kentucky, meanwhile, allows 69.0 possessions, which ranks 210th – and, although they take 16.7 seconds off the shot-clock during their possessions, their defense forces teams to take 18.1 seconds off the clock, which ranks 321st nationally.
Florida’s offense is, decisively, better than Kentucky’s – the Gators average 0.97 points per possession while the Wildcats average just 0.82. But both defenses have recorded nearly identical numbers, with both teams holding teams to 0.84 points per possession. This game will, undoubtedly and obviously, come down to Kentucky’s ability to score – which their 1.15 mark against Vanderbilt proves they are capable of doing.
Where Kentucky may be doomed is inside, where, despite their poor shooting, 57.8% of their offense comes from – the 34th-highest mark in college basketball. Florida, meanwhile, ranks among the best in 2P% defense, holding teams to 42.7% on two-pointers (24th) – and opposing teams’ offenses, ultimately, only get 43.7% of their point distribution from inside the arc, which ranks 314th – nearly 7% lower than the Div. I average.
The Wildcats have finally been able to experience what it means to win a game, and they have done it twice back-to-back – in their first wins since the season-opener on November 25th against Morehead State. That could go a long way for this young group – but the Gators may just be too talented to let Kentucky make it three-in-a-row.
Prediction: Florida 80 – Kentucky 66