On Tuesday, most of the Gator and Wildcat nations were overlooking their games against Mississippi State and Georgia. Instead they were already focusing on the showdown on Saturday.
It appears both teams may have been doing the same as they both lost and in doing so put their tournament hopes on life support.
However, according to the Joe Lunardi’s and David Mihm’s of the world, neither team is dead yet and it appears that a win on Saturday will leave one team with a glimmer of hope.
The loser, on the other hand, will be forced to run the gauntlet in the SEC tournament in pursuit of the NCAA Tournament ticket.
The Cats squeaked out a win in their first match-up with the Gators, as Meeks continued his storied season by connecting on a miraculous three with fewer than 10 seconds remaining and Nick Calathes in his grill.
After being fouled, attempting to tie the game, Calathes then missed three free throws as the Rupp Arena crowd erupted.
Despite his late misses, the story of the first game was the play of Nick Calathes. As penetrating guards have all season long against Kentucky, he completely controlled the game. He finished with a career-high 33 points on 10-of-20 shooting, 2-of-7 from deep, seven rebounds and three assists.
Calathes (6-6, guard) does a little bit of everything for the Gators. He leads them in scoring (18.2) and he also leads the team, as well as being ranked seventh in the country in assists per game (6.4). He has scored in double figures in 27 of 30 games this season.
In league play, he has been an absolute beast, as you can find his name in the top ten of nearly every category. He is fourth in the league in scoring (19.3), eighth in field goal percentage at (48%), first in assists (6.1), third in steals (1.9), first in three-point field goal percentage (43%), sixth in three-point field goals made (38), third in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.92) and eighth in minutes played (34.5). He even ranks 17th in the league in rebounding with 6.1.
On January 28, against Georgia he finished with the second career triple-double and the third in Florida history, with 20 points, 13 rebounds, and 10 assists.
The key to stopping Calathes is keeping the Gators in half-court and keeping him out of the lane. However, his ability to knock down open threes makes it very difficult to keep him out of the paint. The Cats have first-hand experience at getting killed by Calathes. Will they try anything different this time?
Remember last time against Calathes, the Cats consistently switched the ball screen and big guys like Perry Stevenson and Josh Harrellson were found guarding him way too often. With Stevenson or Harrellson guarding Calathes, it makes it way too easy for him to get in the lane and also pulls one of your bigs outside, which prevents them from providing help.
Late in the game, after Patrick Patterson’s injury, the Cats switched to a smaller, quicker lineup and found it much easier to contain Calathes. Will Billy Gillsipie impore this smaller lineup more on Saturday?
Remember, the Gators’ only real inside presence is the sophomore Alex Tyus (6-8, forward). He has a big body and really good hands for a big man, but the Cats should be able to guard him one-on-one underneath and focus on containing ball penetration.
Not all teams can get away with playing a smaller, quicker lineup, but Kentucky can because of the length of the guys in their backcourt. Kentucky can not allow Calathes to have the type of game he had at Rupp in Gainesville. If so, it could be a long afternoon.
When Calathes penetrates, he is looking for shooters at the wing and the Gators throw three guys at you. Look for Chandler Parson (6-9, forward), Dan Werner (6-8, junior) and Erving Walker (5-8, guard) to be ready to pull the trigger on open threes. While Parsons and Werner have struggled at times this season, Walker has really picked up his game as of late.
The diminutive freshman has scored in double figures in five of his last eight games and is averaging 12.1 points during that span. He is a quick, can get into the lane and he is not hesitant at all about shooting the basketball. He is averaging 9.8 shots in his last five games.
Another thing that caused problems for Kentucky in their initial match-up with Florida was their ball pressure. They made Michael Porter and Perry Stevenson, at times, seem like walking turnovers. The Cats must find a way to limit turnovers because the Gators live off of easy buckets in transition.
The Gators’ pressure defense up front is led by senior Walter Hodge (6-0, guard). Hodge is the only remaining member of their two National Championship teams and is an absolute workhorse defensively. Remember, last time out, Hodge only played 20 minutes after being ejected for stepping on Stevenson. You have to wonder if his presence on the floor would have made a difference defensively down the stretch.
While his scoring is down this year, he is only averaging 8.7 points; he consistently puts himself in the right place at the right time, and always seems to come up with the timely basket.
Wow, talk about a big one. I don’t believe at the beginning of the year that anyone would have believed that Kentucky and Florida would be playing for the right to simply keep their tournament hopes alive.
But, that is the situation both teams have played themselves into. The loser will leave the floor with a total lack of momentum and then be forced to reel off four strait in the SEC Tournament to make the Big Dance.
The winner will carry a slight sense of momentum into the conference tourney, with the feeling that they only have to win a few games to punch the tournament ticket.
The Cats have not missed the NCAA Tournament since 1991. Florida missed the tournament a year ago after winning back-to-back titles.
One team wants to keep a streak alive, the other wants to keep back to the party. We will know a lot more after this one plays itself out on Saturday afternoon.
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