Tuesday, February 12, 2013
Journey to the Tourney: Kentucky at Florida
Kentucky doesn't have to be as deep, talented or efficient as last season's team. So don't bother comparing the two.
Or the year before that, or the year prior under John Calipari.
The rest of the country isn't comparable, either.
There are no dominant teams in college basketball, such as the Wildcats were last season.
Florida appeared to be on track for a dominant season in the SEC, but the Gators are looking much more mortal after flopping at Arkansas. An injury to Will Yeguete has taken away Florida's top defender on the press and created a potential crack in the efficiency of the Gators.
Kentucky has won five straight games against the Gators and enters Tuesday night's rivalry game only a game back in the loss column. A win over Florida would completely overturn the perception of the SEC race, as well as Florida's and Kentucky's fortunes.
"Coach [John] Calipari is great at improving individual players and about being unselfish," said sophomore Kyle Wiltjer. "We've been practicing really hard and it has translated into practice and into the game. We're always confident and the team has found its roles and identity."
Wiltjer said Kentucky took too many plays off early in the season, lost its intensity and didn't have the fire or defensive commitment for every possession.
That much was obvious in losses at Notre Dame and at home to Baylor earlier in the season, and even more so in a home loss to Texas A&M, when Elston Turner scored 40 on the Cats, and at Alabama in a low-scoring game Kentucky probably should have won.
But the focus has been there of late in winning five straight, finishing off at Ole Miss, holding on at Texas A&M in overtime and winning as expected against South Carolina and Auburn at home.
Remember, Calipari had to deal with Ryan Harrow being ill and ineffective early in the season at the point before settling down, incorporating a transfer in Julius Mays, getting Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress to become much more committed on the defensive end, working on Wiljter to become an all-around player and waiting on Nerlens Noel to figure out just how good he could become.
Noel is leading the country in blocks at 4.5 a game and 5.7 during SEC play. His 12 blocks at Ole Miss probably felt like 25 judging by the way the Rebels couldn't get anything going in the paint.
"He's become so much more aggressive on both ends of the court," said Wiltjer.
Look, the Gators are as efficient a team in the country in manufacturing points and even better on the defensive end.
But the competition will change with Kentucky's arrival on Tuesday in Gainesville.
Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario should have the advantage on the perimeter, but the wing and post play of Kentucky may well prove to be tougher. Erik Murphy may have a harder time finding open spots if Kentucky is committed to defense by using its length. Patric Young and Noel can tussle inside, but Noel's intimidation in blocking shots could be more effective then Young's strong man game.
A month ago, this game certainly would have been projected as a Florida win. That perception has changed and the reality is this could be the first of two games between these teams heading for a late-possession finish.
In an era with rivalries dwindling, Kentucky-Florida is the best the SEC has to offer. The reason is the two teams have separated themselves among the lot.
There is plenty at stake between two top-10 teams when No. 4 Michigan and No. 8 Michigan State meet on Tuesday in East Lansing because both teams have a shot at the Big Ten title.
But there may not be more intrigue than Kentucky-Florida. A Kentucky win in Gainesville would suddenly send a message to the rest of the country that this Kentucky team has what each of the past three Wildcats teams under Calipari had -- the makeup of a possible Final Four team.
A loss won't end that possibility, especially on the road to the Gators. But how the Wildcats play in this environment will go a long way toward proving whether a deep tourney run is possible again.