GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The magnitude of the night will not be lost on the Florida Gators and the sellout crowd at the O’Connell Center. No basketball game against Kentucky in the Billy Donovan era could be.
But now consider where the Wildcats are coming from.
This is a huge game for UK, which started the season ranked No. 4 then lost six of its first 18 games and heard the Cat calls from a Big Blue Nation that could not understand why another loaded freshman class could not meet the sky-high expectations set by last year’s group of savvy college rookies.
“We’ll find out who we are,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari, who is 7-1 vs. Florida. “We all know we’ve gotten better, everybody’s that’s watched us. Individual players have gotten better. Now, are we ready for this kind of challenge? We’ll see.”
For No. 25 Kentucky (17-6, 8-2), back in the rankings for the first time in 10 weeks, that challenge is facing the Southeastern Conference frontrunner and most experienced team in the league on the road and in a place the seventh-ranked Gators (19-3, 9-1) have not lost in 11 games this season.
The Wildcats roll out that starting lineup dotted with a gifted group of freshmen, but Kentucky’s first five have started a combined 145 games in their collegiate careers. Florida’s first five of three seniors and two juniors has 331 career starts under its collective belt.
Then again, sheer talent has a way of becoming quite the equalizer and guard Archie Goodwin, who is excellent off the bounce, is starting to find his rhythm and catching up with 6-foot-10 center Nerlens Noel (pictured left). Same with forward Alex Poythress, who along with Goodwin and Noel were McDonald’s All-Americans last year.
But it’s been veterans like sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, who had 26 points in a big win at Ole Miss, and senior Julius Mays, who has 52 Division-I starts at three schools (UK, along with North Carolina State and Wright State), that have helped the youthful Wildcats maybe settle into things a little better during their run of five straight wins.
Should Kentucky make it six tonight, the Cats will jump quickly back into college basketball’s collective conscience.
“I love playing big games,” said Goodwin, who had 24 in probably his best game of the season in that win at Ole Miss two weeks ago. “These are the type of games that I feel like I was made for.”