GAINESVILLE — There was a time just a few weeks ago when the mention of their team's troubles down the stretch during the previous two seasons seemed to make the Florida basketball players a bit irritated.
The past, they insisted, was the past, and any previous late-season collapses had no bearing on this squad.
Yet here they are, for the third consecutive season, entering the final regular-season game hanging on the NCAA Tournament bubble and desperately needing a few more wins to secure a tournament berth.
Florida (20-10) plays at No. 3 Kentucky (28-2) this afternoon in storied Rupp Arena, clearly viewed as huge underdogs.
"If (Vanderbilt) was a must-win, then this is huge," junior forward Chandler Parsons said. "They are good; they are really good. They've got a lot of talent, obviously with their size down low. They have (DeMarcus) Cousins, (Patrick) Patterson, so it's going to be a real physical battle down low with our bigs. And the last game we played them, (Eric) Bledsoe went off in transition, so they've got a combination of everything. They've got guards that push the ball in the halfcourt; they've got big guys they can give it to that can block. So it's going to be a big challenge for us, but we're confident we can contain them."
Barring a monumental upset today, the Gators will be in a must-win situation at the SEC tournament this week. Florida was 9-3 heading into last weekend then lost to Georgia and Vanderbilt, the latter at home. A win in either of those games would most likely have secured a spot in the Big Dance, ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi said. Now, everything is on the line.
"Having lost them both, and you have to presume at this point that they will lose at Kentucky — I'm not saying it's a guarantee, but they're going to be underdogs for a reason — they're going to have to win a game or two" in the SEC tournament, Lunardi said. "They're going to play one of the weaker West teams, and maybe that's kind of a redundant statement, but they're going to have to win one for sure and maybe two depending on how other bubble teams shake out."
For now, the Gators insist Kentucky is the only thing on their radar. And for good reason. Florida hasn't won at Rupp since 2007. In their previous meeting this season, the Gators lost by 12.
Of the seven players getting playing time for Florida now, three have never been to Rupp Arena, and two are making only their second trip.
"I think we've played in some environments that have been good homecourt environments, maybe not to the level of Rupp, but they are going to have to make sure as they're playing the game that they're all on the same page," coach Billy Donovan said. "They are going to have to be able to communicate with each other, that's as important as anything."
Florida needs to find offensive consistency. The Gators shot 26 percent in the second half in the loss to Vanderbilt, and its backcourt duo of Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker continues to struggle from the field. Not only will the two need to shoot well, but they'll be responsible for defending two of the league's best in John Wall (17 ppg) and Bledsoe (10.3).
"They are a good team, and both of them are good players, and they are going to make plays," Walker said. "We just want to contain them and not let them go wild."
Florida center Vernon Macklin is coming off one of his best games of the season Tuesday night, and the Gators will need production from him and the rest of the frontcourt more than ever.
"They've got three guys that can go in there and score — Cousins, Patterson and (Daniel) Orton — so it'll be a great challenge for our frontcourt," Donovan said.
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.