GAINESVILLE — When Kentucky steps onto the court to face Florida tonight at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center, the Wildcats will carry a No. 2 national ranking and a 16-0 record — their best start since 1966.
After toiling in mediocrity and uncharacteristic NIT appearances or early NCAA exits the past several years, Kentucky is back on the rise.
The Wildcats are in the Associated Press top five for the first time since 2002 and once again are the big draw in the SEC.
For first-year Kentucky coach John Calipari, the resurgence has been a combination of battle-tested veterans who have bought in to what he's selling and talented newcomers who have helped spark the comeback.
Kentucky's top seven lineup includes four freshmen and two sophomores, but none has generated more attention than freshman John Wall.
"He has great speed and athleticism, and he's very long for a guard," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He has the ability to rebound and be explosive on the open floor, has a terrific feel of how to play. He makes people around him better. He's a guy that's a special player all the way around."
Wall, who owns the school single-game assists record (16), has drawn comparisons to two other former all-star players under Calipari — Tyreke Evans and Derrick Rose. But the decorated coach said Wall falls into a category all his own.
"It's different in that Derrick took over a veteran team, so he knew they had been through it," Calipari said. "The year before they had been to an Elite Eight. John Wall has taken over a team that was in the NIT, so there was more that he had to do, and he's doing whatever he has to do. There are games he scores more; there are games he passes more. … But again, he still has a ways to go."
Gator freshman Kenny Boynton, who has four 20-point games this season, has spent time playing with Wall on the AAU circuit and at all-star camps. He knows firsthand what the Gators are up against.
"His speed and his athletic ability (make him so good)," Boynton said. "When he gets in the open court, it's hard to stop him, but you have to try to stop him and not let him run. If we can get back in the halfcourt offense, we'll probably be able to stop him more."
Florida (11-4) enters the game three days removed from a tough loss to Vanderbilt, but the players see this as a prime opportunity to prove they, too, are legitimate contenders in the SEC East.
"No matter what game you're coming off, you're going to get excited to play Kentucky," junior forward Chandler Parsons said. "Obviously the success they are having this year, it's a great game to have to come back and build off something after a loss like Vanderbilt. … We've been the underdog pretty much all season long. We knocked off Michigan State when they were No. 2. We're not going to go in there scared at all. We're going to go in there a confident team and ready to play anybody and compete."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]