Florida to test Cats

February 03, 2004|LARRY VAUGHT

LEXINGTON - It was this time last year when Florida was ranked No. 1 and looking like the class of the Southeastern Conference. Or that's how it appeared until UK rolled to a 23-point halftime lead and coasted to a 70-55 victory over the Gators.

"The loss last year in Rupp Arena hurt a long time. We are not going to lie about that," said Florida senior Bonnell Colas. "We were No. 1 and they beat us bad. That's been in the back of our minds for a long time."

The Gators (13-5, 4-3 SEC) have actually lost four straight games to UK, including a 69-67 decision in Gainesville in the final regular-season game last year. Colas is the only Florida player to have ever been on a team that beat Kentucky.

"Certainly it is a big game, but every game in this league is always big," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I don't think it's any different with Kentucky. It's a big game because it's our next one. We're playing against a very, very good team and we're going to have to play very well to win."


Both teams are coming off road losses. The Gators lost at Tennessee after beating the Volunteers by 32 points earlier this season while Vanderbilt avenged an earlier road loss by defeating Kentucky (14-3, 4-2).

"We've struggled in a lot of ways trying to finish games this year," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "We're going to face a challenge on the road. They are pretty talented. Everybody on the team can put the ball on the floor and beat you off the dribble."

That has been a problem for Kentucky even though the Wildcats are allowing just 62.6 points per game.

"Cliff (Hawkins), Gerald (Fitch) and others are too good of athletes to be getting beat off the dribble like that. Everybody does it," Smith said.

Florida is averaging 80.2 points per game, the best mark in the Southeastern Conference. Anthony Roberson, David Lee and Matt Walsh have combined for 46.3 points per game in conference play. Roberson is hitting 51.9 percent from the field, including 44.7 from 3-point range, in SEC play and has scored 20 or more points in three of his last four games.

Smith, though, worries as much about matching up with 6-9 Christian Drejer, a sophomore who can play forward or guard. He's averaging 10.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.

"Because of his size, he's tough to guard. He's like a point forward," Smith said.

Florida have shot well in its wins

In Florida's 13 wins, the Gators are shooting 52.6 percent from the field and limiting opponents to 38.7 percent shooting. In Florida's five losses, the Gators are hitting 39.5 percent from the field and allowing opponents to shoot 44.6 percent.

"We've got to find a way to handle their transition game, pressure and crowd," Smith said.

Florida is 23-3 at home the last two years, but Kentucky had not lost a SEC road game in two years before falling at Vanderbilt.

"I think Kentucky's a great transition team," Donovan said. "What makes them so good on the road is that their big guys are so skilled."

"We've got to rebound and stop people," Colas said. "We can score. Our big thing is stopping people. Last year Kentucky showed us what playing great defense can do. We've focused more on that this year because we understand that's what it takes to win games late in the year."

Smith hopes the faster pace that Florida prefers to play might actually help his team, which has had trouble against physical, half-court defense in recent games.

"We seem better in transition than against a set defense," Smith said. "But we've got to find a way to be a better half-court offensive team. It's something we've struggled with all year."

Smith has said he might tinker both with the starting lineup and playing rotation for tonight's game. He's calling for his team to play smarter as well as more physical.

He also stressed he was not in "panic mode" and that his team had responded well to adversity, even during most games when it has let a lead slip away. He's hoping the challenge of playing Florida on national TV will inspire his team tonight.

"I think we do have a tendency to play better then," Smith said. "We have recovered from adversity well this year.

"The one thing we did not do Saturday was make plays. It has been the same MO (method of operation) every game pretty much. We had more defensive breakdowns at Vanderbilt than we've had. We had open looks that did not drop, but we also took bad shots. We are just trying to regroup and move on."

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