LEXINGTON, Ky. — Despite periodic breakdowns on both ends that have allowed opponents to remain competitive, Kentucky has fought through those lapses to build a four-game winning streak.
The No. 14 Wildcats (19-5, 9-2 Southeastern Conference) have no room for such errors or excuses in their Saturday night showdown against first-place and third-ranked Florida (22-2, 11-0). Facing a veteran Gators squad that has won their last 16 games, Kentucky must play its best contest this season if it hopes to compete with a team projected as a No. 1 seed for the NCAA tournament.
The young Wildcats definitely must play better offensively against the Gators than they did in Wednesday’s 64-56 victory at Auburn, an "ugly" game featuring 31 percent shooting from the field and missed 15 free throws.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said his squad won’t be able to mask those weaknesses against a Florida team that thrives on opponents’ mistakes.
"This game will tell us where we are," Calipari said Friday. "I would imagine they (the Gators) are coming in not to just win, they want to smash. We’re going to find out. There have been games where the other team came in excited and we weren’t able to withstand the beginning of the game and got down so far early that even though the rest of the game we won, we didn’t win by enough. …
"They know it’s a hard game, they know what we’re up against. This team could be the No. 1 team in the country and they’ve got (four) seniors."
The game is the first of two between the schools, who meet again March 8 in Gainesville, Fla., in the regular-season finale for both. While the experience gap between Florida’s seasoned roster and Kentucky’s freshman-heavy rotation figures to be one of the biggest story lines, the Wildcats believe they can negate that difference with better execution and energy.
"We’ve played half the year already, so we’re all experienced players," sophomore forward Alex Poythress said. "We don’t want to make excuses for ourselves, we just want to come out and play the game."
Reaching those goals means displaying more poise and maturity than they’ve shown at times, even during the winning streak that has demonstrated how they remain a work in progress.
Consider Kentucky’s past two games. Despite winning by 10 at Mississippi State — which it beat by 22 the first time around — and eight at Auburn, both games were fairly close before the Wildcats took over late with their size and ability to get to the foul line.
They made 25 of 40 free throws against the Tigers but sealed the game by hitting 9 of 12 in the final two minutes. The Wildcats also outrebounded the Tigers 49-36, one statistic they felt good about in a game that was hard to watch upon review.
"We shot poorly but we still guarded and came out with a win, which shows something happened that we’re doing right," freshman center Dakari Johnson said of the outcome.
Still, Kentucky knows it must execute better throughout to extend its home winning streak over Florida to seven games. Especially since the Gators also know how to finish better than they started.
Florida rallied from a one-point halftime deficit to win 67-58 Wednesday night at Tennessee thanks to a second-half defensive shutdown that limited the Volunteers to 29 percent shooting after allowing 65 percent in the first half. Kentucky’s challenge is containing a Gators lineup where senior guard Scottie Wilbekin (13.0 points, 3.7 assists per game) is among four starters averaging in double figures.
Kentucky’s challenges are tightening its transition defense and using its size advantages. Certainly, playing the only team above the Wildcats in the SEC should motivate them to play more crisply in a game that could determine the regular season champion.
That reward plus ending their frustration at Rupp Arena gives the Gators plenty of incentive as well.
"To get a win and stay in first place in the SEC is just enough motivation for us to go in there and get it done," Florida center Patric Young said. "Since we’re not playing anyone out of conference, they are probably are the best team we’ll play, so this is going to be a battle for sure."