GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida gets the spotlight of the college basketball world on Saturday, or at least a large share of it, as it plays host to Kentucky and the ESPN College GameDay crew.
While visiting campus Friday to take in Florida’s practice, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas shared his thoughts on the much-anticipated matchup between the No. 24 Gators (17-5, 7-2 SEC) and No. 8 Wildcats (18-4, 8-1) and what he’ll be watching for when the teams tip off at 8:15 p.m. ET inside Exactech Arena at the O’Connell Center.
“Well, Kentucky’s got more talent. They’ve got lottery talent on their team, so they’re the more talented group, but Florida’s a really good defensive team and they play really hard and I think they’ve come a long way from last year,” said Bilas, who will be the analyst for ESPN’s broadcast of the game. “So yeah, I think they match up well, especially with Florida playing them here.”
The Gators won their past 3 games by 32 or more points, including a 93-54 rout of Missouri on Thursday night. Those wins were against the SEC’s worst teams, LSU and Missouri, and an Oklahoma team mired in a down season. However, it’s hard not to be impressed with Florida’s recent play.
Kentucky, meanwhile, has been vulnerable of late. After back-to-back losses at Tennessee and home against Kansas, the Wildcats needed overtime to hold of Georgia for a 90-81 win Tuesday night.
Standout freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox did not play in that last game due to illness and his status for Saturday night has not been announced, but Florida coach Mike White says the Gators are preparing as if he will play.
The status of Fox, who averages 15.9 points, 5.7 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game, is pivotal to the matchup, Bilas said.
“If De’Aaron Fox is not 100 percent, it makes Kentucky a little more vulnerable. He’s the speed of their team, and not having him available or at least 100 percent, changes a lot of roles,” he said. “All of a sudden Isaiah Briscoe’s got to play the point, and Dominique Hawkins has got to play the point at times, and that takes them out of their normal roles so somebody has to step into their roles which just makes it different. They’re a bigger team, they have to play more size and it affects their ability to get up and down the floor as fast as they normally do.”
As usual, though, the Wildcats aren’t lacking for talent or star power.
Fellow freshman guard Malik Monk is one of the more feared shooters in the country, averaging 22.4 points per game and hitting on 41.2 percent of his 3-pointers.
Briscoe, a sophomore, averages 14.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists.
And freshman forward Bam Adebayo averages 13.2 points and 6.8 boards per game while throwing down monstrous dunks.
In addition to playing sound defense, limiting Monk’s open looks and minimizing the Wildcats’ opportunities in transition, Bilas believes Florida needs a big game out of sophomore guard KeVaughn Allen.
Allen leads the Gators in scoring at 13.6 points per game and has five 20-point games this season, but he’s also been held to 11 points or fewer in five of the past seven games.
“The key guy for Florida is KeVaughn Allen. He’s got to play really well. When you are not a prolific scoring team, your best scorer’s got to score,” Bilas said. “So if he’s constantly looking to score, he opens things up for others. And that’s important. I know that’s not the way he’s built as a person. He’s a humble, quiet kid, but you can’t afford to be humble and quiet on the floor — you have to play. And he’s got the ability. He just has to be assertive on every play, and if he is, it opens up other things.”
Mike White runs a GREAT practice at Florida. Impressive. pic.twitter.com/WRkPU4drR8
— Jay Bilas (@JayBilas) February 3, 2017
Florida and South Carolina emerged as the top challengers to Kentucky in the SEC this season, with the Gators taking a significant step forward in White’s second season with the program.
This doesn’t surprise Bilas at all. He believes former Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley made a shrewd hire in plucking White from Louisiana Tech to replace legendary coach Billy Donovan, and he says the Gators are now playing in the style of their new coach.
“Mike White’s a great coach. He’s had some time to put his imprint on the program and I think he’s done that,” Bilas said. “They’re very good and very connected and very stingy defensively. Their offense, they’ve had some good nights offensively, but they’re not as consistent on offense. One area where they’re incredibly consistent is their defensive play, and that’s been there just about every night. … They’re a legit top-20 team, no question.”
So what does Bilas see as Florida’s potential in March?
“Like anybody else, you’ve got to get a good draw. I wouldn’t put them as a favorite, but they’re capable of beating almost anybody and that’s what the tournament is,” he said. “The tournament’s just 68 teams having different paths. It’s not like golf where everybody has to play the same course. You have a different path, so a lot of your success in the tournament is determined by what your opponents in your path do because not everybody’s route to the Final Four is the same.”