Setting: It’s time for an SEC showdown at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on the University of Florida campus. John Calipari comes calling with his No. 2 Kentucky Wildcats (16-0/1-0) to take on Billy Donovan and his Florida Gators (11-4/0-1).
Plot: After beginning the season with eight victories, the Gators have limped through a 3-4 stretch with losses to Richmond, South Alabama, and most recently at Vanderbilt, 95-87. Six of Kentucky’s victories have been by single digits.
Sub-plot: Florida has shown flashes of brilliance this year. They recovered from a second-half eight-point deficit to draw even with the Syracuse Orange in November. Kentucky deceives its opponents into thinking they can be beaten. SEC rival Tennessee knocked Kansas from the ranks of the undefeated by going with a zone. Will Billy Donovan follow Bruce Pearl’s lead?
Flashback: Walter Hodge led Florida with 18 points, as the Gators closed last year’s SEC regular season play with a 60-53 victory over Kentucky. Alex Tyus added 11, and Erving Walker chipped in 10 off the bench. Kentucky leads the all-time series 86-32, but Florida has won the last five in Gainesville and eight of the last ten between the rivals.
The two schools have combined for 15 NCAA Tournament appearances since 2001. The Wildcats reached the Elite Eight in 2003 and 2005. Florida won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and 2007.
Foreshadowing: Sixty-seven Wildcats have made their way into the NBA, including current players Kelenna Azubuike, Keith Bogans, Chuck Hayes, Jamal Magloire, Jodie Meeks, Nazr Mohammed, Randolph Morris, Tayshaun Prince, and Rajon Rondo. Twenty former Gators have made rosters in the Association. Current players include Matt Bonner, Corey Brewer, Udonis Haslem, Al Horford, David Lee, Mike Miller, Joakim Noah, Marreese Speights, and Jason Williams.
Tone: Florida needs redemption. Losing four their last seven has the Gators in a tail spin. Knocking off the number two team in the country could propel Florida into SEC play. Going undefeated is unrealistic in 21st century Division One play. Kentucky will lose eventually. Is it tonight?
Conflict: Nine Wildcats average double-figure minutes played per game. Six Gators log at least 22 minutes per game. Ray Shipman plays just under 15 minutes per contest. Erik Murphy gets 9.8 per game. Which number is closer to reality and which is closer to fiction? Do all the Wildcats get meaningful minutes, or has Calipari been able to substitute liberally in blowout games?
Five Gators average double figure points per game, while three Wildcats score 15 or more.
Kentucky scores at a rate of 82.4 per tilt. Florida holds its opponents to 61.7 per game. Kentucky has a rebound margin of 10.6, while Florida grabs 2.6 more boards than its opponents.
Kentucky hands out 16.6 assists per game. Florida gets eights steal per night.
Which force will succeed?
Figuring out Kentucky becomes an analysis of the cart and horse theory.
Popular opinion suggests rookie sensation John Wall is the horse. Wall leads the Wildcats with 17 points, seven assists, and two steals.
Would Wall’s effectiveness decrease if he did not have Eric Bledsoe hitting threes? Bledsoe averages 45.2 percent from long range. It is not so much that Bledsoe has hit from behind the arc, but it is that he can hit from long range. Bledsoe nailed back-to-back three pointers, as the Wildcats took a one-point halftime lead over Indiana and turned the game into a 17-point blowout.
Of course, Bledsoe and Wall benefit from Patrick Patterson and DeMarcus Cousins combining for 17.5 boards per game. Cousins grabs almost four offensive rebounds per game.
Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker combine for 26 points and eight and a half assists per game to lead the Gators. The backcourt tandem has hit 60 three pointers and 73 free throws.
Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus, and Dan Werner will have the responsibility of keeping the Wildcats off the boards. The trio combines for 17 rebounds.
Chandler Parson adds 11 points and six and a half rebounds off the bench.
Symbol: Florida prides itself on defensive pressure, but playing an extended man-to-man against Kentucky is a losing proposition. Will Billy Donovan deploy a zone?
Resolution: There is long way to go before the end of the season, but Florida needs this game more than Kentucky. The Gators can not afford to start out conference play in a two-game hole.
As a team, the Gators shoot 70.4 percent from the free throw line. Kentucky finishes 68.6 percent from the stripe, but the Wildcats have made 118 more attempts (398-280) than their conference rival.
Kentucky is ripe for a loss, and the Gators are prepared to do the picking.