Three weeks ago today, the Kentucky Wildcats traveled to Gainesville, Florida for a big SEC match up with the Gators. The Cats were beaten up and the flu had spread through the team like wildfire. It was a recipe for a big win for Florida and that is exactly what happened. The Gators took it to the Cats and ran up a 22 point victory by the score of 88-66.
Since then, the two teams are a combined 10-0, running both of their SEC records to 13-2 and a tie for first place in the SEC. Today’s game is essentially the game that decides who has the number 1 overall seed in the SEC Tournament in Nashville in two weeks. After tying for first place in the SEC regular season last year, but getting the 2 seed due to the tiebreaker head-to-head match up, I’m sure Kentucky fans would love to see the team get back up into the top spot.
The biggest difference between last game and today’s game is that Florida is now without starting center John Egbunu who tore his ACL and is out for the season. Egbunu has killed the Cats in the past, most notably last season. He had 8 points and 7 rebounds in the first match up with the Cats. In his place, the Gators have been starting sophomore Kevarrius Hayes. Let’s take a look at the rest of the starting five for Mike White today.
#5 KeVaughn Allen, Sophomore Guard, 6’2″
KeVaughn Allen returns to the Gators for his sophomore season, after being honored on the 2016 SEC All-Freshman Team. He was the second leading scorer on an NIT-bound Florida team last year, behind Dorian Finney-Smith. Last season, he scored 15 points and had 5 rebounds in one of Florida’s two losses to UK on the year.
The sophomore guard is leading the team in scoring this season. He’s averaging 13.6 points per game to go along with 2.6 rebounds and 1.3 steals. Like a lot of players on this Florida team, Allen is a really good shooter, hitting 39.5% of his threes and 88.5% of his free throws on the season. He’s attempted at least 5 threes in 17 of the Gators’ 28 games this year. Last game against the Cats, he finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists.
Florida presents some defensive match up issues for the Cats due to the size of their typical starting five. The Gators will throw a front line of 6’9″, 6’8″, and 6’8″ at the Cats. Compare that to the usual starting front line of the Cats measuring at 6’10”, 6’9″, and 6’3″. Florida’s starting five rivals the size of Kansas, which we all know caused fits defensively for Kentucky. Usually, I’d say Coach Cal puts Briscoe on the scorer for the opposing team; however, with a starter at the 3 position that is 6’8″, Briscoe may have to play big as he’s done so often this season. De’Aaron Fox should probably have to guard Kasey Hill, which may leave Malik Monk to guard the Gators’ top scorer.
#1 Devin Robinson, Junior Forward, 6’8″
Devin Robinson was a five-star and top-20 prospect coming out of high school a few years ago, but this is the first season that he’s seen his stats really reflect it. Two years ago, he was an SEC All-Freshman Team member, despite only averaging 6.4 points and 2.8 rebounds on the season. Robinson has stepped up his game in his junior season though, becoming one of the main contributors on the team.
The junior is putting up 11.2 points and 5.8 rebounds, to go along with a solid shooting effort, especially for his size. Robinson is shooting 38.4% on his shots from deep, on top of just shy of 80% from the charity stripe. Last season, he had two pretty solid games against the Cats, combing for 19 points and 8 rebounds between the two match-ups. In the first game against Kentucky this year, he had 16 points and 9 rebounds as his size is a nightmare match up for the Cats at the three position.
As mentioned earlier, the size of the usual starting lineup for Florida could cause some match up issues for Kentucky. At 6’8″, Robinson may draw the eye of Isaiah Briscoe in this one, as I mentioned above. He’s a bigger offensive threat than the other 6’8″ starter, and the Cats will need De’Aaron Fox to match up with starting point guard Kasey Hill. Despite being 5 inches shorter, Briscoe does outweigh Robinson by 10 pounds, meaning he could use his muscle to make up for his height.
#0 Kasey Hill, Senior Guard, 6’1″
It seems like just recently to me that Kasey Hill was a part of this dynamite recruiting class at Florida that also included Chris Walker, giving the Gators two recruits in the top-15 of the class. Both were touted as one-and-done players that would bring Billy Donovan’s Florida team to the Final Four. Four years later, Hill is a polished senior for Mike White and Walker is playing in the D-League.
Hill is probably the most important player for the Gators this season. Between his 9.7 points, 4.9 assists, and 2.9 rebounds per game, he is the “straw that stirs the drink” to steal a quote that media members used to use about Tyler Ulis all the time. The senior isn’t much of an outside shooter, but his straight line drives could cause issues for the Cats. He’s leading the team with 1.8 steals per game, good for fourth in the SEC. He had a monster game three weeks ago against the Cats, scoring 21 points to go along with 6 assists and 5 rebounds.
The senior is a true point guard for Florida and will most likely be matched up with UK’s De’Aaron Fox, assuming Fox is over the sickness that kept him out of Tuesday’s game against Georgia. This will be a tough test for Fox. Experience vs inexperience, on top of the fact that Fox has been struggling through practice for most of the week. Hopefully we see a newly energized Fox tonight, rather than the one that was consistently getting beat on defense in the past few weeks.
#23 Justin Leon, Senior Forward, 6’8″
Justin Leon is the second of two seniors in the starting lineup for Mike White, something you never see on the Kentucky side of the ball. Leon spent his first two seasons at Shawnee Community College in Illinois before transferring to Florida for his final two years. His sophomore year ended with Junior College All-American honors.
In less than 15 minutes per game last season, Leon was not much of a factor for the Gators. He combined for 0 points and 4 rebounds in two games against Kentucky last year. This season, moving into a starting role for Mike White, he’s putting up 7.1 points and 3.8 rebounds. For his size, Leon is another solid shooter for Florida, hitting 41.3% of his 3’s and 75.7% of his free throws.
The senior will most likely get matched up with the Wenyen Gabriel/Derek Willis duo on the defensive side of the ball. It will be important for the Cats to not let Leon become a big contributor in this game, as Florida has multiple different options on offense who will already be putting up big numbers. After a couple solid games offensively from Gabriel and Willis, it will be interesting to see how Leon can stop Willis’ outside shooting and Gabriel’s hustle on the boards. They duo held Leon to 3 points and 3 boards in the first game.
#13 Kevarrius Hayes, Sophomore Forward, 6’9″
Sophomore Kevarrius Hayes has taken over the final starting spot after John Egbunu’s injury for the last few games. Hayes was a four star recruit coming out of high school and started six games late in the season last year. He scored double-digits in the final few games of the season as well.
Hayes has seen a spike in minutes since being given the starting nod, but he’s still only averaging just over 16 minutes per game on the season. His stats include averaging 6.4 points, 4.1 rebounds, and leading the team with just over 1.6 blocked shots per contest. He is long and athletic which makes him a very solid defender.
Despite being around the same height as Bam Adebayo, Kevarrius Hayes weighs 42 pounds less than the Cats’ starting center. With Egbunu out, Hayes gives the Gators some extra length and speed at the position, but they lose a large amount of muscle in the post. Bam Adebayo should be a huge contributor on offense for Kentucky in today’s game.
Today’s game is huge for Kentucky for obvious reasons. Everyone knows what a win today does for the Cats in SEC seeding, NCAA seeding, and overall confidence levels going into March. Outside of the UCLA and Kansas games, this game should be the rowdiest that the Rupp Arena crowd has been all year, and for good reason. Florida is an SEC rival and they are one of the only schools that has stayed relevant in the scope of college basketball throughout Calipari’s time at UK. A win today gives the Wildcats their spot back at the top of the SEC where they belong.
Go Cats. Beat Gators.