The No. 25 Kentucky Wildcats are back in the AP poll for the first time since late November, but they will have a difficult time making that achievement last—they travel to Gainesville to take on the No. 7 Florida Gators on Tuesday night.
The defending champions entered the season with another elite draft class and more high expectations, but they stumbled out of the gate and continued to struggle deep into January, losing to teams like Baylor, Texas A&M and Alabama.
But John Calipari finally has his talented team clicking.
The Wildcats have won five straight and now sit in sole position of second place in the Southeastern Conference. But a test against the Gators, who, with the exception of one slip-up at Arkansas, have completely steamrolled the conference, will reveal if the young 'Cats are truly ready for March Madness.
Let's take a look at everything you need to know about this battle for SEC supremacy.
When: Tuesday, Feb. 12, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Stephen C. O'Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Kentucky Injury Report (via USA Today)
G Twany Beckham, Back, Out
Florida Injury Report (via USA Today)
F Erik Murphy, Ankle, Probable
F Will Yeguete, Knee, Out
What They're Saying
Yeguete's injury, which will sideline him for the rest of the regular season, is a significant blow to Florida's rotation, but Kentucky head coach John Calipari is playing it off smoothly (via Rivals.com's Brett Dawson):
Brett Dawson @BDawsonWrites
Calipari on Florida being w/o Will Yeguete: "When you've got a bunch of guys that expect to win and are that good, they'll make up for that"2013-2-11 20:04:56
That is just kind of something you say as the opposing coach, though.
Freshman Michael Frazier is a good candidate to soak up a majority of Yeguete's 21.9 minutes per game, and while he is an upgrade on offense (6.0 points per game, 47.1 percent from deep), he represents a significant downgrade both defensively and on the glass.
Frazier is still learning the game, while the junior Yeguete was arguably Florida's best, most versatile defender.
While the Gators will certainly be able to tread water without their key glue guy, it remains to be seen if they will recover as well as Coach Cal believes.
Kentucky Player to Watch: Nerlens Noel
The stud freshman hasn't been the second Anthony Davis like so many at the beginning of the season were hoping, but he has been the first Noel.
And that equates to one of the best interior defenders in America.
Noel doesn't have the polished offensive game that Davis had, but defensively, he is right on track with the 'Brow (via Sports-Reference):
|Player||BPG||Block %||SPG||Steal %||Defensive Rating||Fouls Per Game|
Moreover, in SEC play, Noel is averaging an unbelievable 5.6 blocks per contest.
He is still raw on offense, but the flat-topped stud is in the top 150 in the country in block, steal and rebound percentages, a feat that no one else in America can boast.
Noel is exciting, explosive and has an effect on the defensive side of the ball like no one else in the college hoops world.
Florida Player to Watch: Erik Murphy
Murphy is nearly the exact same size as Noel (in terms of height and weight), but he plays the exact opposite style of game.
The senior is arguably the best stretch 4 in America.
He doesn't always make a major impact defensively (0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks per game), and he doesn't tend go hard in the paint, but E—much like Kevin Connolly, I'm sure—is absolutely deadly from outside.
Even though he only takes 27 percent of his shots at the rim, Murphy is shooting an unreal 56.4 percent from the field. He is knocking down 49.5 percent of his 4.5 three-point attempts per game, stroking free throws at an 81.5 percent rate and has an effective field-goal percentage of 69.6, which is fifth-best in the country.
Finally, his 1.41 points per weighted shot is third-best in America.
Don't get me wrong, Murphy can do more than light it up, but his ability to draw the uber-athletic Alex Poythress away from the basket will be crucial in this one.
Key Facts to Know
In SEC play, Florida is first in the conference in both points per possession and defensive points per possession. Nationally, the Gators are an incredible fourth and second in the country, respectively.
Kentucky, meanwhile, is third in conference play in both categories.
The Gators are second in the nation in effective field-goal percentage and eighth in defensive effective field-goal percentage. The balance of offensive and defensive prowess is simply amazing.
Kyle Wiltjer isn't far behind Murphy when it comes to big men who can stretch the floor. The sophomore is knocking down 40.7 percent of his threes, has connected on nine long balls in his last four games and has slightly more ability to score from the inside.
The Wildcats need better play from point guard Ryan Harrow. In conference play, he has just 31 assists compared to 23 turnovers, and in his last five games, that ratio is down to 11-to-10.
The matchup of the explosive Noel vs. the rock-solid Patric Young will be a fascinating one. Young is sixth in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage, while Noel is eighth in defensive rebounding percentage.
Kentucky is playing its best basketball and has an inordinate amount of talent that is starting to mesh, but Florida is simply too good, even without Yeguete.
The difference in the game will be guard play. Kentucky's offense can get extremely stagnant when Harrow is struggling and electric freshman Archie Goodwin fails to create penetration into the lane.
Florida, meanwhile, has the tools to highlight those problems in Kenny Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin, who combine to make one of the best defensive backcourts in the land.
With Harrow and Goodwin struggling, Kentucky will struggle to find an efficient attack.
Kentucky 62, Florida 72