Senior day has arrived and UK will look to end a very successful season on a high note. After defeating Ole Miss earlier in the week to finish 8-2 in true road games this season, the Wildcats will now be hosting the Florida Gators to end the season. A team they are all too familiar with in playing on senior days whether at The O’Dome or Rupp Arena.
The Gators appear to be a lock for the NCAA Tournament despite their 17-13 overall record. Thanks to a weak bubble and three Quadrant 1 wins, Mike White will have UF playing in the big show for the second time in three seasons.
The status of Reid Travis is still up in the air and the Wildcats are still ironing out the kinks without their senior big in the lineup. Today, UK will battle the early wave of emotions from senior day to attempt to collect their fourth Quadrant 2 victory of the season.
Nuts and Bolts
With his third season coming to a close, Mike White is now 84-50 overall at Florida with a 41-28 mark in SEC play. After winning 27 games and reaching an Elite Eight in year two, the Gators have recorded at least 13 losses in each of the last two seasons. Despite a fair amount of winning, the book is still out on the former Ole Miss point guard.
The fact of the matter is that White was charged with replacing a man that turned Florida, essentially overnight, into a perennial contender. Billy Donovan brought home two national championships and six SEC titles to Gainesville. Those are some big shoes for a young head coach to replace. However, the future appears to be pretty bright for this program.
Three of Florida’s top five scorers are all freshmen and are currently not projected to be draft picks. You add that in with five-star guard Scottie Lewis arriving on campus next season and, on paper, Florida will be competing for an SEC title once again next year. In the big picture, White is doing just fine in Gainesville.
Florida is a team built on defense and three-point shooting. Early in his tenure, White has made it blatantly obvious that this will be a defense first program and the numbers prove that. The Gators are 13th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom and under White they’ve never finished outside of the top 25. On defense, Florida will use a zone press in addition to a ball pressure halfcourt man-to-man defense that has switchability at nearly every position. Where they struggle is on the offensive end.
Under Mike White, the Gators only have one top 25 offensive efficiency finish and this season they currently sit at 71st. Florida is middle of the road in the SEC and this appears to be the biggest thing holding the program back. The Gators run a spread offense that is heavily dependent on their point guard creating plays off of ball screen actions. Florida has some solid three-point shooters and when they are on they can play with anyone. It’s when they are off when the struggles come. In the low post, Florida has close to no offense and that really stings when they go cold from the outside.
This will be the 142nd meeting between the two SEC programs with Kentucky owning a 101-40 series lead. After being swept last season, UK will be looking to return the favor this afternoon. Mike White is one of only five current SEC head coaches that owns a win over Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Overall, White is 3-4 against UK while John Calipari is 15-8 against Florida.
Out in the desert, Kentucky is a 10.5 point favorite with a total of 128.5 That’s a projected final score of 69.5-59. On the year, UK is 15-14-1 against the spread while Florida is 12-18. The Gators have been a dog 10 times this season and are 3-7 against the spread in those games. After covering seven in a row, UK is just 2-5-1 against the number in its last eight games. The under is 8-2 in the last 1o games for both Florida and Kentucky.
Speaking of young freshmen, the Gators have two in the backcourt that are playing a big role. Florida is heavily dependent on point guard Andrew Nembhard and sharpshooter Noah Locke. Both have been excellent for most of the season and are a big reason why this basketball team will be playing into March.
Nembhard is a 6-foot-5 point guard who ranks third in the SEC in assist rate and has become a much more efficient offensive player in SEC play. The Canadian point guard has played at least 32 minutes in the last six games and plays a huge role for this team. Florida really has no other point guard on the roster and Mike White asks this freshman to do a lot.
Next to Nembhard is Noah Locke and the newcomer has been a pleasant surprise for the Gators. The Maryland native was a bench piece in the non-conference before turning into one of Florida’s most important offensive players. The 6-foot-3 off guard is shooting 36.9 percent from three in league games on 122 attempts. The three-point specialist has only attempted 75 two-point field goals this season and Florida hunts three-point attempts for the young shooter.
There’s more than just youth in the Gator backcourt, however. KeVaughn Allen and Jalen Hudson both entered their senior seasons with All-SEC expectations, but each is coming up a bit short in their final year in college. The duo is only putting up 20.8 points per game this year after chipping in 26.5 per game last season.
Allen, the former high school rival of Malik Monk and second-team All-SEC member in 2017, leads the team in scoring but the Gators still need more. The Arkansas native is putting up 12.2 points per outing and is shooting 33.1 percent from three. The two-guard is in a very big shooting slump as he is 4-for-25 in his last three games. This cold spell was the biggest culprit in consecutive home losses to Georgia and LSU.
Speaking of slumps, wing Jalen Hudson went through some big time sluggish runs this season. The former Virginia Tech transfer put up over 15 points and hit 78 threes in his first season in Gainesville. This season he is putting up just 8.6 points and is shooting just 27 percent from three-point range.
Hudson was a player many considered a borderline NBA prospect before the season and that stock appears to have now gone down the drain. The senior has been woefully inefficient despite accounting for 29 percent of the team’s shot attempts. However, he has turned the corner as of late and has had double-digit scoring efforts in the last five games. In the recent loss to LSU, Hudson put up a season-high 33 points.
The Gators have a nice blend of youth and experience, but there’s no denying that it’s been a weird mix this season. It’s a major reason why this team has been so inconsistent all year.
Down low, the Gators have also dealt with some disappointment but it was largely do to injury. Four-man Keith Stone was lost for the season at the beginning of SEC play due to a torn ACL and Florida has really missed his versatility on the offensive end. The junior was a competent floor spacer who was shooting 40.5 percent from three when he was knocked out of the lineup. Without him, the Gators have had to lean heavily on another rookie.
Keyontae Johnson has exceeded expectations in his first season playing college ball and the undersized forward is going to have the chance to develop into an all-conference level performer. The 6-foot-7 forward has shown the ability to hit jumpers in addition to being able to get buckets in the paint. He’s been a quality rebounder and overall solid defender. He’s the glue guy for this team.
Next to Johnson in the post is senior five-man Kevarrius Hayes and Mike White could not ask for much more from the rim protector. Hayes is very limited offensively. He is out there to set screens, rebound, and anchor the defense. The senior ranks seventh in the SEC in block percentage, ninth in steal percentage, and fourth in offensive rebound percentage. He’s an excellent role player and is easily this team’s best paint player.
Keys to Victory
- With any senior day, you have to worry about slow starts. The pregame will be totally different due to the senior day ceremonies and UK will be using a new starting lineup for the first time this season. The Gators are heavily dependent on the three-point shot and they could put Kentucky in a very early hole if they are on early. Kentucky’s defense must be ready to go from the jump to give the offense time to establish some rhythm.
- KeVaughn Allen is this team’s top scorer and has scored over 1,600 points in his collegiate career. The senior torched Kentucky for 24 points in Rupp Arena a couple seasons ago. The Arkansas native has been cold as ice the last couple games and is due for a breakthrough. UK needs to make sure it doesn’t happen this afternoon. If Allen is on, the Gators become a much more dangerous team on the offensive end.
- On Tuesday, the rebounding numbers were embarrassing for UK and they’ll be facing a similar offense in Florida. The Gators can’t spread the floor five-wide like Ole Miss, but most of the time they use spacing in ball screens to create lanes for dribble drive actions. When UK gets defensive stops they must be able to end the possession with a rebound and not an extra shot. It will be important for UK to team rebound and get a body of Keyontae Johnson and Kevarrius Hayes whenever a shot goes up.
- It’s been a rough go for Ashton Hagans, but the freshman made some nice offensive plays downhill in the second half against Ole Miss before a couple of iffy decisions in crunch time. In the last meeting against Florida, Hagans had just an average game. Against an excellent defensive team, this is a great spot for the rookie point guard to build some confidence going int0 postseason play. Expect the Gators to ball pressure Hagans a ton and if he can start to figure out some solutions that will be a great sign for UK’s offense.