Given the up-and-down performances of both of these teams, only one thing Saturday night will be certain: the Stephen C. O'Connell Center will be as loud as ever as the Florida Gators try and defend their home court against against the Kentucky Wildcats.
The Gators are winless against their SEC rival since early 2009. Much has changed since then, especially for the Wildcats. With only three players remaining from that 2008-09 team, Kentucky brings in a roster full of young, elite talent. Florida, only has five players remaining from that season along with its own set of stellar youngsters.
But the key to the game Saturday night (9 PM, ESPN) is not the youth of each respective team. The players who were around in that 08-09 season, graybeards, the juniors and seniors on each team, will be the ones who determine the outcome. For Kentucky this means that guards Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins must have big games. For Florida, four of the starting five players are upperclassmen, but all must play well for Florida to win.
Liggins, a junior for the Wildcats, does not put up any flashy numbers. Coming into Saturday he is averaging 8.6 points, 2.9 assists, and 3.8 rebounds per game. But he is a contributor, usually very efficient in his shot selection and playmaking. Yet in three of the four Kentucky losses, Liggins has shot very poorly. Against UConn he was 3 of 10, 3 of 9 against North Carolina, and 1-4 against Alabama. Florida must force Liggins to be inefficient, that is, taking shots he normally wouldn't take.
Miller, also a junior, is very similar to Liggins, but is slightly more of a scoring threat for Kentucky. He has been slumping as of late, as Luke Winn of SI.com pointed out. Again, as is the case with Liggins, Florida must force Miller to take bad shots and become a less efficient player. The truth is that Florida does not have the talent to stop the likes of F Terrence Jones, G Doron Lamb, and G Brandon Knight. To beat the Wildcats, the Gators have to bear down on the veterans to force the freshmen to try and win the game alone.
For Kentucky, the objective is clear. Florida is a team of streaky shooters. Guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, along with F Chandler Parsons, can shoot the three. Boynton is shooting 30 percent, while Walker and Parsons each shoot 38 percent from long range. But all three of these players, especially Walker, have a tendency to pull up for a shot at extremely puzzling times, even though the shots do fall sometimes. This means that Kentucky must play airtight on the perimeter. Billy Donovan's offense is designed to work only if the outside shooting is efficient and effective.
Going back to the upperclassman theme, Florida has four talented juniors and seniors starting. The aforementioned Walker and Parsons are the unquestioned leaders of the team, and either one of them is liable to get the ball in crucial spots. But Florida has been at its absolute best this year when senior center Vernon Macklin has been dominant. Except for a 20-point performance in a loss to UCF, Macklin has been bottled up in all of Florida's losses. He has been bothered by tendinitis and bone spurs in his knee, so his minutes have been down. If Kentucky can contain a very potent post player in Macklin while he is in the game, Florida will be forced to rely on its shaky outside game.
This should be a very entertaining game. Florida is coming off a hard-fought overtime victory against Vanderbilt, while Kentucky just lost to Ole Miss. With Kentucky a game and a half behind the Gators in terms of SEC record, this one will be crucial for the Wildcats. For the Gators, a win means a stranglehold over the SEC, at least record-wise. They are in position for a great SEC tournament seed, and continue to build a good resume for the NCAA tournament.
While I won't pick who I think will win because I don't think a UF student can pick his own basketball game objectively, I will say that the winner of this game will be the team whose upperclassmen play better. Kentucky's got the talent edge, Florida has the homecourt and momentum advantage. I don't expect this game to be decided until the last few minutes.