UK guards will be key against veteran Gators



By David Schuh | @DSchuhKernel

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For the first time since Dec. 3, the UK men’s basketball team is ranked in the Top 25. Following wins over Auburn and South Carolina last week, the Cats enter their big matchup with No. 7 Florida as the No. 25 team in Monday’s AP Poll.

UK is riding a five-game win streak into Gainesville, Fla., their longest of the season. A win over the Gators would vault the Cats into a tie for first place in the SEC. But, with a record of 19-3, Florida will  be one of UK’s best chances to get a marquee win.

“It will be a hard game for us to win,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “Let’s put it this way, they were an Elite Eight team last year … and college basketball isn’t what it was a year ago. So that’s how good a challenge, or how big a challenge or how good of a team they are.”

Florida boasts one of the best defenses in the country this season. The Gators have held eight SEC teams under 60 points and are ranked fourth in the country in scoring defense and lead the nation with a +21.5 scoring margin.

They force nearly 15 turnovers and make nearly nine three-pointers per game, which can largely be attributed to their experienced guard play.

“Your guard play has to be good so that they don’t get into that race where they’re scoring from the three and off turnovers,” Calipari said.

Freshman center Nerlens Noel was named SEC Freshman of the Week Monday for the fourth straight week. He has recorded three-straight double-doubles, and his defense of Gator shooters will be key.

UK has been relatively successful on the road this season despite their record. Their 4-1 road mark in the SEC is notable, but Florida poses a much more complete challenge than any other conference foe.

“We feel ready,” sophomore forward Kyle Witljer said. “We have had a lot of tests before and I feel like we are improving every day, so it’s going to be a great battle for us and hopefully we can learn from it.”

Some have compared this year’s Florida team to last year’s UK team — not necessarily in personnel, but in the way they’ve dominated conference foes. The Gators have an average winning margin of +22.6 in SEC games.

“If you’re in cool mode … you’re getting killed in this game,” Calipari said. “You have to know what the game is, not be selfish, know what the team needs you to do and just go out and do it. It’s just hard to do it because they put a lot of pressure on you. They’re a very good team.”

A win for UK would be, by far, their most credible of the season. It would go a long way to securing the Cats a mid-level seed in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ll find out where we are,” Calipari said. “We all know we’ve gotten better … Now, are we ready for this kind of challenge? We will see.”

The game will tip at Tuesday night at 7 p.m. and be televised nationally on ESPN.