After dropping the hammer earlier in the week in Nashville, UK's road trip will continue today. The Wildcats head south to face a heated SEC opponent in one of the conference's rowdiest venues.
In their fourth year under Mike White, the Gators are coming up a bit short of expectations.
If the NCAA Tournament started today, the Gators might not be in the field of 68 because of a really sketchy resume. The Gators are 2-7 in Quadrant 1 games and are in desperate need for a marquee win.
The Rowdy Reptiles will be going crazy and Mike White has had a fair amount of success coaching against Kentucky since making the move from Louisiana Tech. Can the Cats improve their road record to 5-1?
Nuts and Bolts
Florida was a mediocre program before a guy named Billy Donovan got on campus in 1996. The Gators had been to just one NCAA Tournament and in it Lon Kruger led the school to its first Final Four. After the arrival of the former Rick Pitino point guard and assistant coach is when this program skyrocketed.
Since 2000, the Gators have won six SEC regular season titles and four SEC Tournaments. Florida has made four Elite Eights and won two national titles. To say Mike White would have his hands full would be an understatement.
After a rocky first season that ended with an appearance in the NIT, White led the Gators to the Elite Eight and 27 wins in 2017. Last year Florida made the Round of 32 and this year they're looking to get back into the tournament for the third time in four years.
Under White, the Gators hang their hats on defense. Florida, per KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency numbers, has ranked in the top 25 in each season since White took over.
This year has a chance to go down as his best defense. The Gators have size inside with a great shot blocker in Kevarrius Hayes. On the perimeter, they have interchangeable players who can guard multiple positions. This is one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Kentucky owns the all-time series lead by a count of 100-40. Since Donovan's arrival, however, this series has been much closer. The Wildcats are just 30-20 against the Gators since 1996-1997.
Since Mike White took over, he is 3-3 against Kentucky with a season sweep under his belt. Over the last two decades, no program has challenged UK more than the Gators.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 3-point favorite with a total of 130. That's a projected final score of 66.5-63.5. On the season, Kentucky is 11-9 against the spread with five straight covers. Florida is 9-11 against the spread with three straight defeats. The Wildcats are 4-1 against the number on the road. Florida is 1-5 against the spread at home against power conference competition.
When Florida's offense has been at its best under Mike White, its been when the Gators have had a quick, shifty point guard who could make things happen off of the bounce. Both Kasey Hill and Chris Chiozza were able to consistently get into the paint and create easy shots for their teammates. This year the Gators have switched it up a bit.
Andrew Nembhard is a big point guard (6-foot-5, 191 pounds) and the freshman from Canada has started all 20 games this season. The five-star recruit was considered a top-25 prospect in last year's class and the Gators are asking a lot of him this season.
Nembhard leads the team in minutes and is putting up just over seven points per outing. The long guard has been really inefficient (only shooting 36.1 percent from the field), but he has been able to setup teammates. The diaper dandy is dishing out just under six assists per game. He's different style of point guard, but he's still been solid in his first season in college.
Next to Nembhard is player who has been in Gainesville for about a decade. KeVaughn Allen is finally a senior and the Arkansas native has had a s0lid career for the Gators. The former first team All-SEC member in 2017 leads the team in scoring and can get white hot from the outside.
The grizzled vet is shooting 37.3 percent from three and is Florida's best perimeter defender. The career 34.5 percent shooter from outside the arc likely peaked during his sophomore season, but he has still played a lot of basketball. On Tuesday, Allen hit a huge shot to save Florida from would've been a suboptimal home loss to Ole Miss.
With the Gators in desperate need of a marquee win they should get the best version of KeVaughn Allen today.
Losing Allen after this season is obviously a reason for concern, but the Gators have their next three-point specialist on campus right now. Noah Locke was a top-100 recruit from Maryland and the combo guard is shooting 42.9 percent from deep.
He has been one of the team's best players in SEC play and will be someone UK's defense must be aware of.
The biggest disappointment for the team is on the wing and it may be the biggest disappointment in the SEC. Former Virginia Tech transfer Jalen Hudson led the team in scoring last season and poured in 78 threes in 2017-2018. This year, Hudson is barely scoring six points per game and is shooting 29.4 percent from the deep.
His lack of production is severely hurting this basketball team and is a big reason why this offense is struggling.
There's no question that under Mike White the Gators are a perimeter oriented team. At all times, Florida will play at least three guards and they need the spacing to create shots for their shooters. However, you still need a big to hold down the paint. They have that in senior Kevarrius Hayes.
The 6-foot-9 big has been starting games since his freshman season and provides this defense with some legitimate rim protection. Hayes has 41 blocks on the season and will be one of the best shot blockers UK plays this season.
On the other end, Hayes is shooting an efficient 65.5 percent from the floor. However, he's at is best setting screens and crashing the offensive glass. He's the interior glue guy that every small ball team needs.
Next to Hayes for the majority of minutes recently has been another freshman. Keyontae Johnson was another top-100 recruit and the Oak Hill Academy alum has been really impressive this season. The Gators are using the 6-foot-5 swing player a little out of position, but he provides this lineup with a much needed stretch four element.
Also in the post, Isaiah Stokes and Keith Stone both provide minutes. Stokes is a backup five-man while Stone is another four-man who can step away from the basket.
Keys to Victory
- The Gators are excellent on defense and they will make Kentucky earn their buckets. Florida is great at forcing turnovers. The Gators are forcing takeaways on 24.7 percent of possessions and this ranks second nationally. Kentucky has had issues protecting the ball this season. If the Gators are able to get some live ball turnovers, it could create some easy scoring opportunities for an offense that has a tendency to go through droughts. On the road, nothing gets a home crowd going faster.
- Florida gets over 40 percent of its offensive production from behind the arc. The Gators live and die by the three-point shot. They want to beat you with dribble penetration and then use crisp ball movement to create open looks from three. Kentucky must communicate and be sound in their recovery defense. If the Wildcats struggle with ball screens it could be a long night if Florida gets hot.
- Florida does a lot of things well on the defensive end, but rebounding misses is not one of them. The Gators allow a 31.5 percent offensive rebounding rate and this plays right into UK's hands. At times, it'll be tough for UK to score but as long as they get shots up it should lead to second chance points.
- It's now been five consecutive games where Kentucky has played really well. UK has produced three blowout victories to go with hard earned wins against Auburn and Kansas. The Wildcats are due for an off day. If they have it today at Exactech Arena and are able to grind out a win that could be the sign of a special team.