By Blake Long/The Associated Press
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — No. 7 Florida has mostly dominated the Southeastern Conference this season, winning nine of 10 games by double figures and most of those by lopsided margins.
All that success would mean little if the Gators don’t beat No. 25 Kentucky on Tuesday night.
Florida has dropped five in a row, including all three meetings last season, against the Wildcats. So all that talk about being the class of the conference in 2013 would be moot if the Gators don’t reverse the trend against the defending national champions.
“It’s always going to be in the back of our minds that they beat us three times last year, but it’s a new year and we have things that we’re focused on this year and that’s winning an SEC championship,” Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin said Monday. “And in order to do that, we need to beat them, so it’s an important game.”
The Gators (19-3, 9-1 SEC) have won 11 of their past 12 games and are 11-0 at home this season. They handled Wisconsin, routed Missouri and cruised by Mississippi — the toughest games to date in the O’Connell Center.
None of those victories had the same impact that beating Kentucky (17-6, 8-2) would have for Florida, which hasn’t beaten the Wildcats in more than two years.
“That’s the past,” Gators guard Kenny Boynton said. “We lost five straight. It’s time for us to start a new trend. Hopefully we go from here, win tomorrow, and we make it five straight. We just have to come out and play.”
Kentucky struggled earlier in the season, losing home games to Baylor and Texas A&M while coach John Calipari’s four talented freshmen found their footing. The Wildcats have been much better recently, winning five in a row and seven of eight. UK is the only team in the country to score 70 or more points in eight of its past nine games.
Still, Calipari is wary of facing Florida.
“You’ve got a top-five team on the road, they play well in their building, it’ll be a hard game for us to win,” Calipari said. “Let’s put it this way: Last year, they were an Elite Eight team that should’ve been in the Final Four, one game short of that, and they’ve got everybody back. And college basketball isn’t what it was a year ago, so that’s how good a challenge, how big a challenge and how good a team they are.”
And the Wildcats aren’t giving Florida much credit for winning SEC games by an average of 22.6 points.
“I couldn’t care less about who they beat by 30 and 20 points, because we’re not the team that they beat by 30 and 20,” guard Archie Goodwin said. “We’re another different team and if we let something like that intimidate us, then we won’t be that confident in ourselves and be able to do the things we do.”
Kentucky should have an advantage in the paint, with 6-foot-10 shot-blocker Nerlens Noel and 6-foot-7 forward Alex Poythress in the starting lineup and 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein and 6-10 forward Kyle Wiltjer coming off the bench.
The Gators, meanwhile, lost their best frontcourt defender last week when Will Yeguete had arthroscopic knee surgery. His absence left coach Billy Donovan using a four-guard lineup and counting on starting big men Pat Young and Erik Murphy to stay out of foul trouble.
“I think it’s something we’re gonna have to deal with,” Donovan said. “They’ve got really, really good length across the front line. They’ve got a lot of different lineups they can play. Getting Willie Cauley-Stein, then you add Wiltjer and Poythress and Noel, there’s a lot of length up there.
“Our hand is what it is in terms of our ‘frontcourt. We collectively have gotta do a good job as a group. I’ve always been a big believer that it’s not one guy’s responsibility to take care of another guy, but we’ve got to do it as a team. We will need to continue to do a good job there as a team.”
Despite the disparity in the front court, both teams expect guard play to be the key.
Florida has been at its best when Wilbekin and Boynton share the basketball and create open looks for their fellow 3-point shooters. Kentucky, meanwhile, has been vulnerable when turning the ball over.
“We all know that and our guards know that,” Calipari said. “This is the challenge. You can’t make excuses, you can’t cop out, here it is and let’s show what we are. Our team’s getting better, our guards are getting better, our bigs are getting better, we’re getting better as a team, being more efficient.”