Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
LEXINGTON, Ky. -- The stakes are pretty much invisible to the naked eye, save an added number in either the wins or losses column.
The 11th-ranked Florida Gators (24-5, 14-3) are the 2013 Southeastern Conference regular-season champions and nothing that happens Saturday at Kentucky (20-10, 11-6) can change that. The outcome at Rupp Arena, however, could have a significant impact on UF’s standing in the NCAA Tournament.
Not to mention the team’s mindset away from home.
“There’s still a lot to get done,” senior forward Erik Murphy said.
Such as accomplishing something these particular Gators have never done: Win at Rupp.
Murphy’s never done it. Kenny Boynton, either. No player on the current UF roster has gone to the SEC’s hall of championships and left victorious, but now the Gators get to take a conference championship with them to face the reigning (albeit reeling) national champions.
Coach Billy Donovan wasn’t thrilled with the way his team played Wednesday in running past Vanderbilt in the second half for an eventual 26-point win. There was some sloppiness along the way -- missed easy shots and errant entry passes really bugged him -- but Donovan didn’t harp on the negative after such an exhilarating positive.
He let his players have their night.
Then came practice Thursday.
“C’mon!” Donovan screamed during one sequence. “Last night is over!”
Whatever thoughts you might have on the Wildcats and their recent struggles, only a fool would believe UK coach John Calipari will let one of the proudest programs in the land mail in a regular-season finale in front of 24,000 fans against one of the best teams in the country. Donovan certainly expects the best version of Kentucky to show up.
Given all five of UF’s losses have come on the road and three of them were victories there for the taking, it’s key for the Gators to experience what it’s like to win a game against a quality foe (and finish one off, if need be) in an uncomfortable environment.
“We’ve performed pretty well on the road,” said Donovan, whose team is 7-5 in road games, including a league-best 5-3 in the SEC. “We haven’t always gotten the result we wanted, but we’ve given ourselves a chance to win.”
They had a chance at Arizona, but turnovers and poor decisions in the final minute turned a seven-point lead into a one-point loss. UF played Kansas State at Kansas City like it had one foot out the door for Christmas break, slogging to a six-point defeat. The Gators’ worst game of the season, at Arkansas, they were beaten from the opening tip, but they blew a big lead in the final 11 minutes at Missouri (lost by 3) and did not capitalize on late opportunities at Tennessee (lost by 6).
All three losses were with undermanned rosters, but that’s no longer the case. That’s not to say the Gators are at full strength, though.
Each day that junior forward Will Yeguete can take the floor (be it practice or games) is a huge plus. And the Michael Frazier who showed up against Vandy (2-for-3 from the arc, six rebounds) was the one that has sparked UF off the bench all season.
“It’s a process,” Yeguete said of his slowly but surely comeback from Feb. 8 knee surgery.
UF’s most versatile defender and consummate dirty-work player, Yeguete is trying to find his timing and confidence on the fly. In his first two games back, he’s gotten the ball in the paint a couple times and tried to do too much with it. The Gators don’t need Yeguete posting up or even looking to create scoring chance for himself.
“He needs to eliminate that stuff right now,” Donovan said. “We really need from him the [intangible] things that have made Will Yeguete who he is as a player.”
Just like Donovan needs the Gators to get back to playing the type of offense that made them one of the best teams in the country in January en route to winning 10 straight, all by blowout margins. During that run, Florida either hit or was close the 17-23 assist territory that Donovan likes to see. When that happens, that means the Gators are sharing the ball, which leads to enhanced scoring opportunities and a chance to set up on defense.
For now, UF has it half right -- the Gators still are playing terrific on defense -- but the coach is seeing too many “wasted possessions” on the offensive end.
Like dumping the ball to Yeguete. Overthrowing Young when he’s got position on the block. A pass at the ankles that becomes a turnover. Or one that should be thrown that isn’t.
It’s about taking advantage of opportunities the system opens for them. The Gators have averaged just 11 assists over the last five games, so they haven’t done that.
As Donovan points out, the Gators lead the SEC in shooting percentage (.488) and 3-point field-goal percentage (.382).
“We need to get a shot up at the basket,” he said.
They also need this win. For confidence. For momentum.
“We’re still hungry and know we can get better every day,” Frazier said. “We have more room to improve and I don’t think Coach D is going to relax.”
GATORS GAME BOX
No. 11 Florida at Kentucky
Tip-off: Saturday, noon (Rupp Arena, Lexington, Ky.)
Records: Florida 24-5, 14-3 (SEC); Kentucky 20-10, 11-6 (SEC)
TV: CBS (Ian Eagle and Jim Spanarkel)
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: The Gators wrapped up the Southeastern Conference regular-season title three days ago. Now, it’s about padding the resume for the NCAA Selection Committee and the program’s first win at Rupp Arena -- even against a struggling Kentucky squad -- would rate as the best achievement by this team away from the O’Connell Center this season. ... UF defeated UK 69-52 on Feb. 12 in Gainesville, snapping a seven-game losing streak against the league’s blue blood program, but the Wildcats still lead the all-time series by a commanding 93-34 margin, including 8-47 at Lexington. Florida had not won at Rupp since 2007, in the second of those back-to-back NCAA-title seasons. ... Gators coach Billy Donovan is 14-23 vs. UK and just 3-13 at Rupp. ... UF has won two straight, while UK has dropped two straight, the latest Thursday night’s 72-62 setback at Georgia. ... The Gators are coming off Wednesday’s 66-40 “Senior Night” win over Vanderbilt. The game marked the final home date for Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario, a trio who helped total 100 wins and two outright SEC titles over the last four seasons. ... Rosario and Boynton share high-scorer honors for UF at 12.6 points per game, with Murphy just a shade back at 12.3 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Throw in center Patric Young (10.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and point guard Scottie Wilbekin (9.1 ppg, 5.2 apg), and UF’s five starters all average within 0.3 points of one another, a testament to the team’s offensive balance. ... Freshman guard Michael Frazier, after missing one game with a concussion and playing shaky in his first game game back, returned to his reliable shooting form against the Commodores going 2-for-3 from the 3-point line to move his long-distance percentage to 54.5 for the season in SEC play (30 of 55). ... All 14 of Florida’s SEC victories have come by double-digits, with the average margin 18.8 points. ... The Gators rank fifth in the league in scoring (72.5 ppg), but lead in shooting percentage (48.8) and 3-point shooting (38.2). More importantly, Florida remains the conference standard-bearer on defense, allowing just 53 points per game, 37.3 percent shooting and 29.3 from the 3-point line. ... Kentucky is led by guard Archie Goodwin (13.8 ppg) and forward Alex Poythress (11.9, 6.1 rpg), both freshmen, but the Wildcats have taken some backward steps since losing center Nerlens Noel (another freshman) to a season-ending knee injury sustained in the first meeting against the Gators. Freshman 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein (8.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) has been pressed into increased minutes and has improved the last month of the season. ... Point guard Julius Mays is the league’s No. 3 shooter from the arc (38.6 percent) and leads the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio, but his team does not follow suit when it comes to protecting and passing the basketball. The Wildcats’ average 1.21 more turnovers than assists (only Tennessee, Mississippi State and Georgia average more) and could be vulnerable if the Gators opt for pressure defense.