LEXINGTON — Even before his team lost 77-67 at Vanderbilt on Tuesday, Florida coach Billy Donovan was already impressed with both the Commodores and Kentucky because of what he saw when the two teams played each other Feb. 25.
“I thought it was a game played at a very high level. I thought both teams played exceptionally well. Kentucky really answered the bell and Anthony Davis made some incredible plays down the stretch,” said the Florida coach. “Vanderbilt ended up with a loss and played very good and maybe more so than anybody in our league has played them.”
Now No. 16 Florida (22-8, 10-5 SEC), reeling after consecutive losses, gets its chance at No. 1 Kentucky today, which will be trying to end Southeastern Conference play unbeaten with a win at Florida. Kentucky (29-1, 15-0 SEC) can set a school record for regular season wins in one season if it beats Florida.
Freshman Bradley Beal led Florida with 16 points at Vanderbilt while guards Erving Walker had 15 and Kenny Boynton 11.
Kentucky coach John Calipari says Beal is a perfect two-guard for SEC play.
“What he can is he plays above the rim obviously and is a knockdown shooter. When you do pick and rolls with him in the game, you have to play him and that opens the game for everybody else,” Calipari said. “And he rebounds the ball. He is good. One big issue for us is rebounding. He rebounds and goes after balls. He is a terrific player.”
Rival coaches marvel at the way Beal has played and perhaps turned into Florida’s best player.
“He is very good around the rim, terrific in transition but he also seems for a freshman to play with a good pace and balance. He brings great versatility with his ability to go around the basket and also go on the floor and put it down. He has probably been a little overlooked because of success Kentucky has had and how good their freshman are,” South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said.
“Beal was so physical and ready for this level of play. He shoots the 3 and is strong enough to score at the rim. I think he is dynamite,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said.
Florida hurt Vanderbilt with its press, forcing 12 turnovers the Gators turned into 17 points. But the Commodores, who attempted only three free throws in the first half, did a better job of driving to the basket in the second and wound up outshooting Florida at the line 19 of 26 to seven of 11.
Calipari acknowledges that a season-ending injury to Will Yeguete has impacted Florida.
“That hurts them because they have to go small, which in another sense could help them, because now they could have five 3-point shooters on the floor if Erik (Murphy) is at the five,” Calipari said. “He (Yeguete) is that guy off the bench that was physical and could so some things. It is just unfortunate for the kid; I wish he didn’t get injured.”
The Wildcats know they have to be aware of Florida’s 3-point shooting. Boynton has made 101 treys to lead the team.
“We just want to contest their shots with high hands, try to pressure them, and force them into taking tough shots. We know they are going to make some, but we just want to make it hard as possible for them,” Kentucky freshman guard Marquis Teague said. “We know that they are going to come out ready. They are going to want to get their seniors a win for their last game. We know that we are going to have to come out and play harder than them.”
Calipari joked Saturday that he had a hard time finding flaws in his team’s 30-point win Thursday over Georgia.
“We did a lot of good stuff. The breakdown tape yesterday, there wasn’t a whole lot of stuff I could show them. I picked out some stuff like how a guy went and got water and this guy wasn’t cheering on the bench, but it was hard to pick out stuff,” Calipari said.
Calipari’s team has clinched the SEC championship no matter what happens against Florida, but Calipari says this is not a throw-away game for Kentucky.
“It is a pride game. Let’s figure out what we are. I let them know that it would be a physical game and that they would in all likelihood come out and be physical,” Calipari said. “They will play at their best and they will be so hyped and the building will be sold out. I don’t know if it is cup day, bat day, ball day, whatever it is. I imagine it is some day. Family night or senior night, whatever it is, it will be a hyped game.”