GAINESVILLE — From the outside looking in, here's how you might pitch the storyline for tonight's SEC showdown between No. 7 Florida and No. 25 Kentucky.
The young Wildcats have struggled and are still trying to find their way late in the season. The Gators are in transition, having lost their top reserve for the remainder of the regular season and dealing with serious depth issues, particularly in the frontcourt.
But spend a few minutes talking to players and coaches from both sides and it's clear neither is buying what's billed about the other.
Team in transition? Not in Kentucky coach John Calipari's mind.
"You've got a top-five team on the road," Calipari said Monday. "They play well in their building. It will be a hard game for us to win. Let's put it this way, they were an Elite Eight team last year, should have been in the Final Four, and they've got everybody back. And college basketball isn't what it was a year ago, so that's how a good a challenge, or how big a challenge and how good of a team they are. …
"It doesn't matter (the loss of Will Yeguete to injury). You've got a bunch of guys that expect to win and they're that good, they'll make up for that."
Kentucky is the only Division I team not to return a single player with at least one start. At the beginning of January, UK was 10-4, and the team that began the season No. 5 eventually fell from the Top 25. But the Wildcats are 8-2 in conference play, one game out of first place, on a five-game winning streak and back in the rankings at No. 25.
"I think it's their same offense," UF senior guard Kenny Boynton said when asked how this team compares to last year's. "Honestly, I think their talent's the same. Archie Goodwin is a great driver. I think they've got a good, solid team. Despite what their record is, I think lately they've gotten better. … I see a team that's getting better throughout the year as last year's team did."
With Kentucky's strong frontcourt depth, it's imperative for the Gators to keep senior forward Erik Murphy and junior center Patric Young out of foul trouble. Kentucky freshman center Nerlens Noel has had a double double in the past three games and poses serious problems with his 6-foot-10 frame.
"I think he's just as good as Anthony Davis as shot-blocker," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He's got unbelievable length, he's got unbelievable timing. He's very skilled at it. He keeps himself out of foul trouble. He can alter shots in a lot of different directions and areas of the floor. We have to have a level of intelligence of driving in there and trying to shoot over the top of him. But I still think that we're a team that needs to attack the basket."
The game is also expected to be a battle of guard play between Gators Scottie Wilbekin and Boynton and Kentucky's Archie Goodwin and Ryan Harrow, who combine to score 22.4 and 24.6 points, respectively. How well Florida can press and disrupt Kentucky's young guards could be key.
"They have great guards that get out and run, so our guards are going to have to step up," Goodwin said. "It's going to be a big game so everyone is really going to have to play great."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]