College GameDay will travel to Gainesville on Saturday as No. 24 Florida (17-5, 7-2 SEC) hosts No. 8 Kentucky (18-4, 8-1 SEC) in a battle between two of the top teams in the conference. The Gators, who have won their previous two games by a total of 71 points, are hunting for a signature win and a home victory over Kentucky would be quite a resume booster. On the other hand, the Wildcats, losers of two of their last three, havs an opportunity to make a big statement with a road win over one of their toughest SEC competitors. In addition, a loss would momentarily move Kentucky out of first place in the conference. With both teams having much to play for, Saturday night has the potential to be the best game of the SEC basketball season.
Despite the low ranking, Florida has been one of the most complete teams in basketball. Known for their depth, the Gators have nine players averaging at least five points, and put up nearly 80 points per game. Defensively, Florida loves to wreak havoc, forcing opponents to turn the ball over at least 15 times per game, while also holding opponents to a 46.5 percent effective field goal percentage, good for third in the conference.
How will the Gators matchup with Kentucky? Unlike most teams in the conference, the Gators have the guards to keep up with the Wildcats lethal backcourt and the size needed to contain big men such as freshman Bam Adebayo. Florida’s starting backcourt of Kasey Hill (9.4 PPG, 4.9 APG, 1.9 SPG) and KeVaughn Allen (13.6 PPG) will be relied on heavily to shut down Kentucky’s guard play, as well as 6-foot-8 wing player Devin Robinson (11.8 PPG), who very well could draw the assignment of guarding the leading scorer in the SEC Malik Monk (22.4 PPG).
Florida must also use its depth to its advantage and could use a big night from at least one of its role players off the bench, notably its second leading scorer, guard Canyon Berry 12.8 PPG). Guard Chris Chiozza recorded a triple-double in Florida’s victory over Missouri and similar production would play a huge role in a potential victory on Saturday. The Gators are fortunate to not only have a shot blocker in its starting five (John Egbunu averages 1.6 blocks per game), but 6-foot-9 sophomore Kevarrius Hayes averages 1.4 blocks in his 19 minutes per game. Matching up with Kentucky this season is quite a tall task, but Florida’s combination of depth and talent on both ends of the floor makes the Gators an appealing pick for Saturday’s contest.
For Kentucky, it starts with the status of star point guard freshman De’aaron Fox (15.9 PPG, 5.7 APG). He missed Tuesday’s game with Georgia due to an illness and has been nursing an ankle injury over the last few weeks. John Calipari ruled him as a game-time decision for Saturday. Although the Wildcats managed to end their two game skid without him, one would assume his absence would have a greater affect against a ranked opponent in a hostile road environment.
Nevertheless, the Wildcats will more than likely be fine regardless of Fox’s availability. On the season, the Wildcats are one of only two teams in the NCAA averaging over 90 point per game (91.3). With Fox in the starting lineup, the guard trio of him, sophomore Isaiah Briscoe (14.5 PPG, 4.5 APG) and freshman Malik Monk combine for 52 of those points and are a nightmare matchup for opponents to gameplan for. While Monk and Fox may earn the majority of the recognition for fans, Briscoe’s experience mixed with his effortless ability to get to the rim and create for himself and others makes this offense borderline unstoppable.
In addition, the Wildcats interior play is one of their strengths, as they posses three players listed at least 6 foot 9 who play 20 minutes or more. Led by Bam Adebayo, the 6-foot-10 freshman averages around 13 points, seven rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, and serves as the perfect roll man for both Fox and Briscoe in pick-and-roll situations. Alongside him, senior Derek Willis serves perfectly in the stretch-four role, while freshman Wenyen Gabriel has to be the most talented seventh-leading scorer on any team in the country. Defensively, the three pose a strong interior presence, evident by their SEC-leading six blocks per game.
While the offensive fire power of Kentucky certainly holds the advantage, Florida’s ability to defend and force turnovers leads for an intriguing matchup. Florida spent its non-conference portion of the season putting up admirable performances against ranked opponents, but continuously came up short against teams such as Duke, Gonzaga and Florida State. For Florida to prove its worth as a legitimate threat come March, Saturday’s game could be considered a must win.
Fox’s status could be the determining factor in the outcome, but regardless, expect Florida to ride the momentum from the crowd. By using active hands defensively and knocking down their jump shots, the Gators win, 85-81, with five guys scoring in double digits. Monk may have had a huge game against Georgia, but Florida’s efforts toward slowing him down will be successful. The Gators earn the signature win they’ve been searching for all season long.
Edited by David Bradford
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