For all the rough patches Kentucky basketball has endured this season, the No. 14 Wildcats are still very much in the SEC title hunt. If they want to overtake the front-running Florida Gators, though, it will have to start with a win in Lexington on Saturday night.
Third-ranked Florida may be 11-0 in conference play, but Billy Donovan’s squad isn’t much closer to being a perfect team than the ‘Cats are. Kentucky can reassert its usual SEC dominance, as long as it follows this four-step plan:
1. Protect the ball
Against turnover-prone Kentucky, Donovan is sure to unleash his intimidating full-court press early and often. Scottie Wilbekin and backup Kasey Hill are more than capable of racking up takeaways in a hurry if Andrew Harrison and his backcourt mates get rattled by the assault.
In the absence of a first-class ball-handler, the Wildcats must rely on depth, spreading the responsibilities among both Harrison twins, Jarrod Polson and (possibly) forgotten freshman Dominique Hawkins. If they can keep Florida guessing, they’ll have a chance to burn the press for some easy baskets.
2. Don’t try to run with Florida
The Gators are undefeated when they score 70 points in a game this season. Kentucky has the more productive offense, but in an up-tempo game, the quicker visitors would have a decided edge.
Instead, Kentucky needs to play smart on offense, moving the ball and working for the best possible shot against an outstanding defense. By limiting bad shots, the Wildcats can also cut down on the Gators’ fast-break points, forcing them into their far less prolific half-court offense.
3. Pay attention to matchups
Florida is an elite defensive team, but it has individual weaknesses that can be attacked. Michael Frazier II (in the starting lineup for his three-point shooting) and Dorian Finney-Smith (the designated inside scorer off the bench) will both struggle to guard the explosive Wildcats if they’re forced into one-on-one situations.
Similarly, while Frazier is lethal from beyond the arc and Wilbekin is nearly as tough, none of their fellow starters wants to shoot anything beyond 12 feet. The ‘Cats must defend accordingly, especially in help situations.
4. Don’t be afraid to play rough
The Gators’ post tandem of Patric Young and Will Yeguete is as physical as any duo in the country, and Kentucky has to come out ready to match that level of muscle. If the ‘Cats get pushed around on the glass for any length of time, they’ll be in serious trouble.
Then, too, physical defense should be the order of the day against a team that flounders at the free-throw line (.663 as a group, 285th in the country). Early foul trouble for the deep Kentucky frontcourt is a small price to pay if it keeps the Florida dunkers from getting comfortable.