Florida Versus Kentucky Basketball Preview

With the big win over Tennessee, the Gators finally got the marquee win they’ve been looking for to put their resume in the spotlight, but the work is far from over as they head to the Rupp Arena on Saturday night to compete against the Kentucky Wildcats to compete.

After beating the Volunteers (13-9, 6-3 SEC), the Gators are in a much better position from a CV perspective than they were at the start of this game, but they’re still very much on their toes and winning probably wasn’t enough for them into the NCAA tournament picture. Florida has yet to collect some quality wins and they will get that opportunity in Rupp on Saturday.

Florida won’t be the only desperate team on Saturday as the Wildcats are also desperate for quality wins. This team from Kentucky (15-7, 6-3 SEC) has been struggling and stuck in the bubble themselves, so they’ll be going into this game hungry to win, too. It’s very rare for the Gators and Wildcats to meet in a game where both teams sit outside the NCAA tournament field, but that’s where we are and it should make for a spirited tilt on Saturday.

Right now, Kentucky’s resume looks…well, it looks a lot like Florida’s resume. For much of the season, the Wildcats struggled for a marquee win, but they also avoided the heavy loss — but ultimately there wasn’t enough meat on the bone to have a resume that clearly looked at a great level. To accommodate Kentucky, they lined up and beat Michigan and Louisville — two teams they expected to offer resume boosts in the offseason, but neither were quality NET games.

Then disaster struck. Kentucky lost at home to South Carolina and suffered one of the worst losses for a team with NCAA tournament ambitions this year. Her résumé, which was once lacking in quality wins but also lacking in heavy losses, suddenly had a massive black eye – and there was work to be done. The Wildcats were able to hit back and defeat Tennessee in much the same way the Gators did – by defensively pushing back and holding the Vols to just 56 points.

Currently, Kentucky sits at No. 35 on the NET rankings, while the Gators are just behind at No. 41. Both teams clinched a win against Tennessee, but Kentucky’s win was just a little bit more valuable — they won in Knoxville. However, Kentucky has the Albatross loss at home to South Carolina — a loss far worse than anything the Gators have suffered. Because of this, it’s difficult to know exactly which team is ahead of the other in the recap, but if you ask most reputable bracketologists, both teams are currently still off the field, so they’ll both be desperate for a win.

We’re used to seeing Kentucky teams that exude size and athleticism—teams that excel on defense but aren’t typically great on offense. Things are different than expected as they currently rank 24th in KenPom’s Adjusted Offensive Efficiency and 65th in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency nationally. While that’s a fairly significant spread, it doesn’t always match the eye test. Kentucky won the massive game in Tennessee with their defense, and when they’re at their best it still seems to be down to their efforts. Offensively, Kentucky’s offense on the halfcourt can look disorganized, choppy, and slow — but they’ve still found a way to get pretty good efficiency.

This is largely because, as we’ve come to expect from Kentucky teams, they excel on the offensive glass. Currently ranked 5th in the nation in terms of offensive rebound rate, the Wildcats crash after every shot, giving them second, third and fourth chances to score, which offsets some of the efficiency they get at the first attempts are missing.

Who is the engine behind this offensive rebound attack? You guessed it – Oscar Tshiebwe. In a pre-NIL era, college basketballer of the year would be extremely unlikely to return, but that’s exactly what the Wildcats have with Tshiebwe, a well-known monster inside when it comes to goals or rebounds. He’s currently averaging 17 points and 14 rebounds per game, just a hair down from the 17 points and 15 rebounds he averaged last season.

Colin Castleton and Oscar Tshiebwe had a couple of spirited one-on-ones when the Gators saw Kentucky last year, and they’ll surely be in the spotlight on Saturday. In the two matchups, Tshiebwe had 27 and 27 points while Castleton had 23 and 17. You see, the 6’9″, 260-pound Tshiebwe has always been at his best when facing taller, lankier centers like Castleton, who has a lower center of gravity than he likes the matchup so offensively. Then you have 6’11” Colin Castleton, who is best against centers that aren’t as tall and long as he is, as he can shoot over or around those defenders. So he also likes the Tshiebwe matchup. We’ve seen these two players compete against each other over the past season and it’s again something to watch out for as these players would certainly love to beat the other.

Another player to watch out for is Antonion Reeves, who moved to Kentucky from the state of Illinois. The 6ft 5in guard is known as a gunman and he was someone Calipari targeted to try and put some distance around his 5-star athletes, who would mostly operate in colour. Reeves took some time to settle in early in the season, but he’s playing his best basketball right now and just had 27 points against Ole Miss, where he shot 6-7 from behind the arc. Kentucky will do a lot of action for Reeves to run off the screens to give him a clean look of a three or catch him downhill, and that’s what the Gators will be working on in practice to make sure they know how to do it want guard it.

In general, we’re used to Kentucky vs. Florida matchups being massive events where one or both teams are ranked and have aspirations of finishing at the top of the league. This year’s iteration of the matchup is completely different, but in many ways it makes this game far more relevant than it has been in years past. Both teams will be hungry and it should be an excellent game.

This game will take place on February 4th at 8:30pm ET and will be televised on ESPN.

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