Preview: Florida seeks season sweep of No. 23 Kentucky, double bye in SEC tourney

The Florida Gators close out the 2017-18 regular season Saturday afternoon looking for another win over the Kentucky Wildcats.
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

TV: CBS

TIME: Noon p.m.

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky finds itself in the rare position of not being able to win the Southeastern Conference title when the regular season ends Saturday at Florida. But the Wildcats are still fighting for an important goal: one of two remaining double byes in the SEC Tournament next week in St. Louis.

Owners of a double bye in the 14-team field need only win three games in three days to claim the tournament title and the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. League leaders Auburn and Tennessee have secured double byes, leaving Kentucky, Florida and Arkansas to fight it out for the two remaining spots.

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Those three teams are in a three-way tie for third place in the SEC at 10-7. The winner between Kentucky and Florida gets a double bye, but the Wildcats could still secure one should Missouri beat Arkansas on Saturday because the Wildcats beat the Razorbacks earlier this season.

No. 23 Kentucky (21-9, 10-7) enters Saturday’s game riding a four-game win streak. That follows a four-game losing streak in early February.

“We are a team that is improving right before your eyes,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said.

Likewise, Florida (19-11, 10-7) has won two straight to bounce back from a three-game skid earlier this month. The Gators rebounded in grand fashion, upsetting No. 12 Auburn and destroying Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

“They went through what we went through, and then they came back and won,” Calipari said Friday. “They’re clicking at the right time too.”

Calipari is impressed by the turnaround in Florida under coach Mike White.

“When I evaluate coaches, I want to know when things go south, how do they respond?” Calipari said. “Do they know their team better than anybody? And does the team respond to them? That’s coaching. You’re on a 10-game win streak, it’s all fun and games. Go on a losing streak. Now, let me see who you are as a coach.”

White has guided Florida through a difficult season of injuries. John Egbunu struggled to return from a torn ACL on Feb. 14, 2017. He never made it back and Florida officially declared him out for the season on Friday.

“I absolutely hate it for him,” White said. “He’s been awesome, love him to death. He’s worked his butt off to do everything he can. Everything that’s been asked of him, he’s tried to do and it’s just a matter of soreness, swelling and he can’t go.”

It is not yet known if Egbunu plans to petition the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility.

Egbunu’s absence does not leave Florida empty-handed. The Gators, who defeated Kentucky 66-64 on Jan. 20 in Lexington, have four players averaging in double figures.

Junior guard Jalen Hudson leads the way at 15.4 points per game. Next comes grad student Egor Koulechov at 13.7, junior KeVaughn Allen at 11.3 and senior Chris Chiozza at 11.1

Kentucky has five players — all freshmen — averaging in double figures.

Kevin Knox is tops at 15.8. Next comes Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at 13.0, Hamidou Diallo (10.7), PJ Washington (10.3) and Quade Green (10.2). Freshman Jarred Vanderbilt, who missed the first 17 games to a foot injury, is the top rebounder at 8.0 despite averaging just 17 minutes.