Florida's first game of March could go a long way toward determining whether the Gators are playing at the end of March.
No. 19 Florida meets No. 7 Kentucky tonight in a game that likely will decide the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title.
At least that's the official description. Unofficially? It might make a difference in how far the Gators advance in the NCAA Tournament in coming weeks.
The higher Florida is seeded in the NCAA Tournament, the easier it is to advance through the field. UF likely will land anywhere from a No. 3 to a No. 6 seeding, and tonight's game could determine the difference.
"There's obviously a lot on the line in this game. You can focus on whatever you want," UF coach Lon Kruger said. "You can look at the Eastern Division championship, the seeding for the conference tournament, or NCAA seeding. You can go pretty deep into why it's an important game."
Here's a speculative gander:
Win tonight? The Gators get a better bracket in the SEC tournament in Memphis next week and reach the championship before meeting top-ranked Arkansas. Florida likely finishes with a 4-1 flourish and a No. 3 NCAA Tournament seeding.
Lose tonight? The Gators draw Arkansas in the semifinal of the SEC, so UF's tournament stay is shorter. Florida struggles to a 2-2 finish and is a No. 5 or 6 NCAA seed.
Pressure? Who mentioned pressure?
Not to mention that a victory against a Top 10 team would look spiffy on Florida's resume when the NCAA selection committee gets together in 11 days. Right now, the two teams are 22-5 and 11-3 and tied atop the SEC East.
"You want to line up and win the game to find out who is the better team," Kruger said. "But I think the NCAA seeding would be affected, and that's the greater significance."
Of all the games on the schedule, the one in Rupp Arena is not a very wise choice for a must-win scenario. Not unless you see something optimistic about UF's 5-31 record in Lexington.
The Gators went 3-6 at Rupp in the 1980s, and those are considered the halcyon days. Florida needn't feel alone in its embarrassment, however. Arkansas is the only SEC opponent to win on Kentucky's court in the 1990s.
Working in Florida's favor is its performance against Kentucky in January in Gainesville. Behind Andrew DeClercq's 20 rebounds, the Gators exploited the Wildcats inside and outplayed them down the stretch.
"We played a bad offensive game down there. We did not do things very well, although half of that was us and half of that was Florida's defense," Kentucky coach Rick Pitino said. "We have to do a better job on the backboards. We gave them 21 second shots, and that's far too many."
Kentucky got some good news this week, learning that point guard Travis Ford's hamstring injury was not as serious as first thought. Ford left the court early in the game against Georgia Sunday but is expected to play tonight.