Florida basketball coach Mike White didn’t want to feed any more into the hype for the Gators’ visit to No. 18 Kentucky on Saturday night.
Yes, it’s the biggest SEC showdown yet for his team and a chance for Florida to continue establishing itself atop the conference standings. And yes, Kentucky is Kentucky and the Gators’ history at Rupp Arena says all that needs to be said.
They’ve won just three times in Lexington, Ky., in the past 19 years, and each of those teams (2005-06, 2006-07 and 2013-14) went on to reach the Final Four.
“That’s a pretty good example how hard it is to win there, how hard it is to beat Kentucky in the first place, but especially to win at Rupp,” White said. “It’s very difficult. Great environment, of course. It will be very loud in there. We have a tough task ahead of us.”
So yes, this is undeniably a little different than going on the road at Texas A&M or Missouri, but White doesn’t want his players thinking that way.
Florida (13-5, 5-1 SEC) has won seven of its past eight games and came into Saturday as one of only two one-loss teams in the conference, along with Auburn. Kentucky, meanwhile, (14-4, 4-2) is just 2-2 in its past four games, with losses to Tennessee (76-65) and South Carolina (76-68).
“It’s a really good SEC team on the road, that’s what it is. We have so many games to play,” White said, dismissing any added significance to the matchup.
That said, here are the keys for the Gators when they tip off Saturday night at 8:15 ET (on ESPN):
Rise to the challenge on the interior
It doesn’t take an in-depth scouting report or a coach’s trained eye to identify that Florida’s biggest weakness is defending inside against bigger teams.
Florida simply doesn’t have the size or depth it needs up front until senior center John Egbunu returns from his ACL injury. And they might be thinner than usual Saturday night if sophomore center Gorjok Gak (concussion) is not able to play.
Kevarrius Hayes (6-foot-9, 225 pounds), Keith Stone (6-8, 245) and Egor Koulechov (6-5, 205), as usual, simply have to play beyond their size.
Kentucky has size across its roster with 6-9 Kevin Knox, 6-11 Nick Richards, 6-9 Wenyen Gabriel, 6-9 Jarred Vanderbilt, 6-7 P.J. Washington, 6-10 Sacha Killeya-Jones and 6-10 Tai Wynyard. As such, the Wildcats are very effective in the paint.
Vanderbilt made his much-anticipated Kentucky debut Tuesday against South Carolina after spending the first half of the season recovering from a foot injury. One of the most high-profile newcomers in the SEC, he changes the dynamics of this Wildcats team and of this game.
“Extremely tough, extremely tough,” White said of the matchup. “It’s our biggest deficiency defending the interior, along with transition defense. We’ve got some tough kids, though. We’ve got a resilient group, and we’ve been able to overcome it at times. This one will be a little bit tougher for us.”
Get KeVaughn Allen going early
Junior guard KeVaughn Allen will probably remain unpredictable for Florida the rest of the season, capable of being the best player on the floor any night but also capable of being content deferring to his teammates and disappearing from the stat sheet.
Allen was terrific in the Gators’ 88-73 win over Arkansas on Wednesday night, scoring a season-high 28 points.
The key was Allen’s strong start as he hit his first five shots, including three 3-pointers, and remained a factor the rest of the game.
Florida will hope Allen can reinforce his confidence early against Kentucky and deliver another memorable performance.
The Gators are often dictated by their perimeter shooting, and the Wildcats pose a tough challenge in that regard as they rank sixth nationally with opponents shooting just 29 percent from 3-point range.
“This team is zoning a little bit more. This zone’s got a little bit more length than any other zone we’ve seen or will see,” White said.
Florida has had an up-and-down season with its December lull, but this team has mostly risen to the occasion in big games.
The Gators outlasted a very good Gonzaga team (now ranked No. 13) in double overtime, nearly knocked off then-No. 1 Duke, beat a Cincinnati team now ranked No. 12, blew out Texas A&M in their first SEC road test and won a tight game in the final seconds on the road at Missouri.
Going back to treating this like any other game, or trying to, White wants more of that poise despite the stage.
“[Senior point guard] Chris Chiozza and I just had a little talk about him giving the younger guys the message, kind of echoing my message to do our best not to freak out,” White said Friday. “There will be times when it gets really loud in there. We’ll just have to play with great poise. It’s really been a strength of this team to this point.”