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Monday February 11, 2013The Gators and Kentucky Face Off with First Place in the SEC on the Line

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The hallmark of Florida's spectacular start to the college basketball season was defense. No one in the country played it better.

That has not been the case the last three games.

It will need to be Tuesday.

"I think we lost our focus a little bit," junior guard Scottie Wilbekin.

Right about now would be an ideal time for the seventh-ranked Gators (19-3, 9-1) to relocate that focus, what with the surging, 25th-ranked and reigning national champion Kentucky Wildcats (17-6, 8-2) coming to the O'Connell Center for a Tuesday night ESPN game, complete with Dick Vitale at midcourt.

Those (big) blue and white uniforms have a way of getting an opponent's attention, but UF coach Billy Donovan has tried to be proactive on that front relative to his team's defense after what he considered to be a sub-standard performance in Saturday's 83-58 defeat of Mississippi State.

"Everyone keeps talking about our defense, our defense," Donovan said. "Just because you're doing something well doesn't mean you're going to maintain doing something well."

The same logic can be attached to Kentucky, which at one time was 12-6 and nowhere to be found in either poll, causing much concern among a rabid fanbase that expected yet another wave of freshmen phenoms -- Coach John Calipari's third straight No. 1-ranked recruiting class -- to flatten foes the way Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did last year en route to the NCAA title.

Calipari said this rookie class, led by 6-foot-10 shot-blocking menace Nerlens Noel and off-guard Archie Goodwin, needed some time. Now they've had it and are better for it.

"Right now, we're a confident team," Noel said after Saturday's home win against Auburn. "We've got some good momentum right now."

It's a better momentum buzz than what the Gators have, especially as they try and piece together roles after the crushing loss of forward Will Yeguete for the rest of the regular season to a knee injury.

"We've had slippage," senior guard Kenny Boynton said. "But we can fix it."

In winning 18 of their first 20 games -- with the lone losses by one point at Arizona and by six against Kansas State at Kansas City -- the Gators surrendered an average of 53.1 points per game and posted an other-worldly defensive efficiency rating (DER, which translates to points per possession) of below 0.80.

In the previous three games, wins over Ole Miss and Mississippi State sandwiched around a resounding loss at Arkansas, the Gators gave up an average of 67.3 points and more than a point per possession.

Those are unacceptable numbers for a UF coaching staff that spent the offseason, the preseason and those first 18 games using DER as its baseline for success.

"It's all about the focus level," Boynton said. "I think Coach has resorted back to putting us through harder practices, defensive-wise, to get us back to where we need to be."

That was certainly evident during a high-intensity Sunday afternoon practice, with more of the same Monday. One of the biggest points of emphasis was closing out 3-point shots. For good reason.

The Razorbacks ambushed the Gators by hitting seven of their first nine from distance. That was not expected, given Arkansas came into the game making 29 percent for the season.

UF did itself no favors by letting the Hogs hit some open long ones early. Some of that showed up again for Mississippi State, which made four of nine 3-point shots in the first half and went 6-for-16 for the game.

In those first 18 games, Florida defended the 3-point line at 29.7 percent.

The last three, it's 41.2 percent.

"Our close-outs have been a little bit shorter than normal. We have not gotten out there," Donovan said. "That is an area where we need to do a better job. We need a greater sense of urgency, understanding our personnel [and] understanding who we're closing out on. Those kinds of things are important."

They're tantamount against the Wildcats, a team that is starting to gel its immense wealth of talented freshmen just in time to make a run at yet another conference championship.

UK ranks second in the SEC in 3-point percentage (36.2), but UF will need to be just as alert on Goodwin's drives to the basket, limiting the options of sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer in the halfcourt, and in defensive transition, especially after a Noel rejection.

"We'll see how it goes [Tuesday]," Boynton said. "But I think, overall, we've bought into getting our numbers back to where they were -- starting with this game."

Perfect place to start.


GATORS GAME BOX
No. 25 Kentucky at No. 7 Florida
Tip-off: Tuesday, 7 p.m. (O'Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.)
Records: Florida 19-3, 9-1 (SEC); Kentucky 17-6, 8-2 (SEC)
TV: ESPN (w/Brad Nessler, Dick Vitale and Shannon Spake)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Game notes: Florida notes; Kentucky notes
Need to know: This one could go a long way toward determining the Southeastern Conference regular-season title. The reigning NCAA-champion Wildcats have won a league-best five straight and are alone in second place in the SEC standings, just a game behind the Gators, who came back to the pack with last Tuesday's road loss at Arkansas. ... UF is seeking its 15th straight 20-win season, all coming under Coach Billy Donovan. Before Donovan arrived in 1996, the Gators had five 20-win seasons in program history (77 years). Only Duke's Mike Krzyzewski (17 seasons) and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim (15) have longer 20-win streaks. ... Kentucky leads the all-time series 93-33. UF is 22-33 under Donovan, including 9-7 at home. ... Senior guard Kenny Boynton (13.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg) will start his 128th career start, which will tie him with Andrew DeClercq (1992-95) for most in school history. ...Senior forward Erik Murphy (12.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg) leads the SEC in 3-point shooting at 49.5 percent. ... Junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (9.3 ppg, 5.1 apg) will return to the starting lineup after giving way to freshman Michael Frazier (6 ppg, 47.1 from 3-pt range) for one game. Frazier, though, is become a much more well-rounded reserve and averaging 6.4 rebounds over the last five games. ... This year's rookie-dominated version of Kentucky is led by 6-10 C Nerlens Noel (10.6 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 4.8 bpg), who was named SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 10 points, 11 rebounds and 3 blocks in wins over South Carolina and Auburn last week. Noel is a defensive force who will challenge every shot. He blocked 12 against Ole Miss, including 7 after picking up his fourth foul. ... The Wildcats have three other starters in double-figures, topped by G Archie Goodwin (14.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and F Alex Poythress (12.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg), and a fifth in 6-10 F Kyle Wiltjer, who averages 11.7 points and makes 40.7 percent of his 3-pointers, which ranks second to Murphy in the SEC.

 

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