It’s hard to call the Kentucky Wildcats the defending national champions. They are, but at the same time they aren’t. Most of the roster is now in the NBA and the team we see this season is largely a new one. But there sits John Calipari, coaching a program that hoisted the trophy just one season ago. Commanding the other team is one Billy Donovan, masterfully leading the Florida Gators to a 69-52 win over the defending champs.
The Gators are quickly approaching what could be a dream season by many standards. At 20-3 (10-1 SEC), Florida is one of the nation’s better teams and the convincing win over Kentucky further proved that. The No. 7/6 Gators have lost games to only No. 9/9 Arizona, No. 10/11 Kansas State and—most recently—Arkansas. While the double-digit loss to the Razorbacks hurts, the Gators counter that with an RPI currently at No. 4. Those are the types of things the NCAA Tournament selection committee will take into account. So is the fact that Florida has beaten opponents by double digits in each of its 10 SEC victories. Even more impressive, all 20 of the Gators’ wins—SEC or not—have come by double digits. This is a team that has struggled—three times to be exact—but is approaching near-impossible-to-stop status when running on all cylinders.
Take Tuesday night for example. The Gators stretched a 13-point halftime lead to a 17-point win. Florida shot 49.1% from the field against a team that had only allowed opponents to connect on 37.8% of their shots. The Gators also made 42.9% of their three-point attempts and connected on nearly 80% of their free throws. Offensively, the Wildcats didn’t have an answer. Defensively, they struggled to keep up with the orange and blue as well. Shot blocking freshman phenom Nerlens Noel—who would leave the game with an injury in the second half—managed three blocks, but that was also the total for Kentucky as a whole. The Gators blocked nine Wildcat attempts on the night.
Junior guard Scottie Wilbekin lead Florida with 14 points, but junior center Patric Young was the Gators best player for most of the night. Young put in 12 points to go with 11 rebounds and four blocks. We continuously thank him for decided to return to Florida for his junior season. Three other Gators had double-digit point totals, including junior reserve guard/forward Casey Prather. Prather—filling in admirably for injured junior forward Will Yeguete—had 12 points for the second-straight game.
Winning is good; beating Kentucky by 17 is better. The Gators have only done that once before in Donovan’s time as the Florida head coach. They’ve beaten the Wildcats numerous other times, but only once by that much. Even winning had become rare as Kentucky had taken seven of the last eight meetings. The win gives the Gators their 20th of the season and their 15th-straight season doing so. With seven regular season games remaining and both the SEC and NCAA tournaments to play, Florida has a good chance to make it eight 25-win seasons under Donovan and even possibly get to 30 wins for the third time. The other two times? You already know when those were.