Florida coach Billy Donovan made one thing clear after his Gators fell 89-77 to visiting Kentucky on Tuesday night: Wildcats coach John Calipari is spoiled this season, and in the best way possible.
Kentucky's fans, legacy, and talent are all hands-down the best in the Southeastern Conference. But it's superior depth that allowed the Wildcats to pull away after Florida tied Kentucky at 72-72 with just over five minutes left.
Donovan said it's also the depth that gives Calipari free reign to run his dribble drive offense and pressure defense any way he wants.
“He's got a coach's dream in a lot of respects,” Donovan said. “Because if one guy's not doing what he wants him to do, he just throws another guy in there and that makes it a lot easier on him.”
So when Donovan chose to concentrate his team's defensive efforts on Kentucky freshman John Wall, it was another freshman guard—Eric Bledsoe—that reaped the benefits. Bledsoe scored a team-high 25 points and added seven rebounds and five assists to Kentucky's winning effort.
Along with the trend of Kentucky's youth allowing big leads to vanish, turning potential blowouts into barn burners, this season has been about finding the player that will step up when Wall's covered.
Against Louisville, it was freshman DeMarcus Cousins who went for 18 and 18. Against Georgia, junior Patrick Patterson rose to the occasion, scoring 17 points to go with Wall's 17.
As the Gators attempted to take Wall out of Tuesday night's game by double teaming him and stunting his drives toward the basket, Calipari said Florida sometimes forgot about Bledsoe. The freshman shot 3-of-4 from three-point range and 10-of-13 on field goals.
“I think what Billy was doing was saying we're going to make this game hard for John and make these other guys make plays,” Calipari said. “Then Eric, when we put John off the ball, it kind of shifted to John and it gave Eric room to just go score.”
Although Calipari was impressed with Bledsoe's numbers, he was also surprised. Outside of having Bledsoe's grandmother in the stands, who drove from his hometown of Birmingham, Ala., to see him play, Calipari said there were no other indications coming into the game that Bledsoe would steal the show.
Well, except that the Kentucky-Florida showdown headlined ESPN's Super Tuesday lineup.
“When the TV lights go on, it seems like that kid steps up and makes plays and isn't afraid," Calipari said. "Can you imagine that? A freshman—has no idea what he's doing—and goes for 25."
The last time the Wildcats played on a national stage as they did Tuesday night, Bledsoe supplied a steady 12 points in the Louisville game. He was also good for 23 points in Kentucky's first true road win, at Indiana.
Whether it's because of the TV fame or a chip-on-the-shoulder road attitude, Bledsoe said he didn't know. What he did know was that someone outside of Wall has to become a consistent option.
And Bledsoe is fine if that's himself.
“Everybody's going to sag in on John and leave everybody else. They're going to try to stop DeMarcus and leave everybody else," Bledsoe said. "I'm just going to have to pick it up for other people.”
The reason could also be family. Some of Bledsoe's relatives, including his mother, were in attendance at the Louisville game, already buying into the rivalry by sporting anti-Rick Pitino shirts.
But it was before the Louisville game that Bledsoe began his double-figures scoring streak, which stretched to four games with his career-high 25 points against Florida. And when Kentucky continues its two-game road trip at Auburn this Saturday, Calipari said he's ready for a fifth breakout performance from his freshman shooting guard.
The first-year Kentucky coach also understands that the key might not be how the Tigers choose to isolate Wall to free up others on the offensive end, but rather if Bledsoe's grandmother chooses to hit the road en-route to a nearby game.
“Let me just tell you, she better be at Auburn when we play this weekend,” Calipari said, straight-faced.