Saturday’s premier Southeastern Conference showdown will be billed as a battle of seniors and freshmen, and for good reason as the No. 3 Florida Gators start four of the former and the No. 14 Kentucky Wildcats boasted the top-ranked recruiting class heading into the 2013-14 season.
While Florida’s four seniors are the leaders for the team’s hot start (22-2, 11-0 SEC), Kentucky’s freshmen are basically all it has with the program’s record (19-5, 9-2 SEC) being a reflection of both the youngsters’ immense talent and relative inexperience.
All five of the Wildcats’ losses have come away from home with four being true road games. Three of those losses were to ranked opponents by a total of 14 points.
Gators head coach Billy Donovan is well-aware of the talented group he and his team are going up against on Saturday night.
“Probably top-to-bottom the most talented team in the country. You’re talking about every position that they’ve got on the floor there, they’ve got scoring ability, they’ve got size, they’ve got athleticism, they’ve got great length,” he said on Friday. “I think clearly from top to bottom this is maybe the most talented team in the country.”
UK is the 33rd-best scoring team in the nation at 78.8 points per game and the seventh best rebounding squad with 41.9 per contest. Freshman forward Julius Randle is a huge part of those statistics, averaging nearly a double-double per game by scoring 15.8 points and grabbing 9.9 boards in 29.6 minutes each contest.
“He’s very skilled, very aggressive. He really attacks the boards,” said UF senior center Patric Young. “I respect the way he plays. He stays composed for the most part, too. You don’t find that in young guys.”
Experience is thought to be the one area where Florida has an advantage on Kentucky, but Donovan dismissed that notion on Friday. He believes that every player on the court Saturday enters the game with plenty of basketball under their belts with everyone now 24 games into the same season.
“I think people are going to talk about [experience] but these [freshmen] have played against a lot of basketball against a lot of good players,” he said. “Certainly all their guys have logged an enormous amount of minutes, and they’ve learned and grown too. I don’t necessarily look at it like that. Maybe it’s a little different the first game of the year. I think right now at this point in time you’ve got, in my opinion, a very experienced team in terms of their roles, their responsibilities of what they’ve had to go through. And then I think you’ve obviously got a very talented team if not the most talented team in the country.”
The Gators’ only two losses this season have come in true road games, albeit by a combined seven points and both in non-conference play when UF was not at full strength from a roster standpoint.
Florida has won seven-straight games away from its home court, but Rupp Arena is a different animal. The Gators are just 8-48 against the Wildcats on the road all-time, 3-14 under Donovan, a fact not lost on the dean of SEC coaches.
“It’s always a great environment. It’s electric. It doesn’t really make a different if it’s a noon game, a nine o’clock game, three o’clock in the afternoon, weekday, weekend, there’s always a great environment there to go play,” he said of Saturday night’s venue.
Young is also well-aware of Rupp’s nuances and the effect the crowd can have on the game. He’s still smarting from UF’s four-point loss to UK to close the 2012-13 regular season and hopes to finally lead his team to a win in Lexington, KY.
“We let one slip out of our hands last year. I definitely think we had an opportunity to win that one,” he said. “But it would be really special to finally get that one. I don’t want to go my whole career without winning there. Especially with how well we’re playing right now, we’re achieving a lot of goals. That doesn’t mean anything, but it would just be nice to come away with another win.”
Florida has responded well this season when faced with adversity, and Saturday evening will undoubtedly be another chance for the Gators to prove themselves to a nation that is barely aware UF is the No. 3 team in the country.
Heck, even ESPN on Friday night posted a Florida State logo in place of a Florida logo while previewing the contest featured on their very own College GameDay broadcast the next day.
“We don’t really care too much about what the media says or what’s going on outside our team,” said Young. “We just care about what’s going on in between the lines and wins, just getting it done.”
— OnlyGators.com (@onlygators) February 15, 2014