Kentucky Basketball: 5 Keys to Beating Florida in SEC Showdown
On Feb. 12, the Kentucky Wildcats will travel to Gainesville to play the Florida Gators. The winner will claim the top spot in the SEC regular season standings.
You read that correctly. The (currently) unranked, six-loss Wildcats have a chance to be the top team in their conference.
Kentucky has improved. The Wildcats have won five straight and seven of their last eight.
But there are still gaping holes in the play of this team. To beat Florida in The Swamp, it will take a focused team effort on both sides of the ball.
Maybe a bit of luck, too.
Here's the five keys to the game for the Wildcats.
Kentucky needs to make an early run against Florida.
Making the first run of the ball game will help the confidence of the young Wildcats. It could catch Florida off-guard and take the crowd out of the game.
Against Arkansas, Florida never led. The Razorbacks shot out to an early lead and never looked back. Florida was stunned, and couldn't quite regain their composure on the road.
Of course, Florida will be playing at home on Feb. 12, but the logic still applies. Kentucky needs to make the first punch.
If Florida makes the first run of the game, they could snowball their lead and blow out the Wildcats.
Kentucky has shown resiliency on the road recently, but the Gators are a step above teams like Ole Miss and Texas A&M, particularly at home.
If Kentucky gets down early, they'll have a much tougher time earning a win.
Guard the Perimeter
Florida is a perimeter-oriented team. With 6'7" forward Will Yeguete out for the year, that fact is only compounded. Yeguete is one of three players on Florida's roster taller than 6'6".
Florida will play small. Guards Kenny Boynton, Michael Frazier II, Mike Rosario and Scottie Wilbekin will play extended minutes.
On paper, Kentucky's quartet of guards (Archie Goodwin, Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays and Jarrod Polson) don't quite compare to the Gators set of guards.
Kentucky has struggled to defend elite guards. Seth Curry scored 23 on the Wildcats. Pierre Jackson scored 17. Russ Smith and Peyton Siva combined for 40 points. Elston Turner scored 40 (then 21). Ladarius White and Marshall Henderson combined for 43 points.
All of the aforementioned players, minus Jackson, scored more than their season average against the Wildcats.
Who will step up and defend for the Wildcats? Nerlens Noel can't do it all.
Guards will need to defend for Kentucky to win.
Hit Free Throws
It is pretty simple, really.
Kentucky struggles at the foul line, despite taking over 24 foul shots per game (second-most in the SEC).
The Dribble Drive Motion offense is predicated on getting to the rim, and Kentucky has a lineup that is excellent at drawing fouls.
Archie Goodwin is the main reason for this absurd statistic. He goes to the line almost seven times each game, and has gone to the line 157 times this year—most in the SEC.
The problem? Kentucky doesn't hit the freebies. The Wildcats are 12th in the SEC in free-throw percentage.
Hitting foul shots could be the difference in the game against Florida.
Avoid Foul Trouble
Shockingly, Kentucky has more depth down low than Florida. Willie Cauley-Stein, Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer are all capable bigs.
Florida has two: Patric Young and Erik Murphy. DeVon Walker and Casey Prather will play power forward on occasion, but both are listed at 6'6".
Kentucky has height on Florida, but foul trouble would negate that advantage.
Noel and Wiltjer are two bigs that Kentucky cannot afford to lose. Noel's game-changing defense will be needed on the court for 30-plus minutes, and Wiltjer's offense is too important in what will be an up-tempo game.
Alex Poythress will be the X-factor down low. His combination of power and finesse can be problematic for Florida if he decides to show up.
The game will be fast paced. Both teams like to get up and down the court.
For Kentucky to be in this game for the entire 40 minutes, they'll have to play smart. Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow will need to shoulder this load.
Both have seen their fair share of ups and downs this season, and both make their fair share of stupid mistakes.
Goodwin, Harrow and every other Wildcat need to limit those mistakes for Kentucky to beat Florida.
This "key" to beating Florida is a catch-all. Kentucky needs to limit turnovers. Kentucky needs to take quality shots and work the Florida defense. Kentucky needs to avoid committing silly fouls.
If Florida makes a run, Kentucky needs to regroup.
More than anything, Kentucky needs to play smart. If the Wildcats expect to win in Gainesville, it will be because of intelligent play.