Kentucky gives Florida ultimatum: win SEC Tournament, or head to NIT

As I noted after the LSU loss on Saturday, Florida has suffered quite a fall from grace since viciously pounding West Virginia on January 31st. Getting embarrassed by the Tigers gave the Gators two different paths to the NCAA Tournament: beat Kentucky and Missouri to finish the regular season, or win the SEC Tournament.

So much for that first one. Now, they’re faced with another fork: complete that second task, or enjoy the NIT.

As they’ve done many times before, Kentucky walked into Gainesville and spoiled Florida’s senior night with an 88-79 victory. It’s the fourth straight loss for the Gators, and perhaps more embarrassingly, the third straight game in which they’ve surrendered more than 85 points- a dubious feat that hasn’t been “accomplished” since 1988.

The weird thing about this game was that big man John Egbunu had by far his best night as a collegiate athlete. The USF transfer dominated in the paint, finishing with 27 points and dunking nine times, and Kentucky never did find an answer for him down low. But the rest of the Gators’ active lineup didn’t exactly help out. Subtract Egbunu’s stats from the mix, and Florida ended the night a dreadful 17-53 from the floor as a team (most notably, KeVaughn Allen and Chris Chiozza combined to go 6-25 from the field).

Worse yet, as the 88 points Kentucky scored suggests, Florida failed to play defense. You know, again. The Cats’ entire starting five finished in double figures, and Jamal Murray and Tyler Ulis finished with 40. It’d be one thing if these guys were all draining contested shots, and sure, give guys like Skai Labissiere credit for making shots when relied upon to do so, but Florida’s defense rarely rotated or defended the perimeter. And thus, Florida was in trouble from the get go.

Kentucky wasted little time building a 32-18 lead. The Gators climbed back to bring it within two right before halftime, thanks to a cold spell for the Wildcats. But then it was Florida who went cold, and stayed cold, for the rest of the game. When Murray buried a three to put Kentucky up 64-51, the game was over, and the threes Florida hit to reward the loyal fans for sticking it out to the bitter end were more tokens of appreciation than anything else. It got so bad that Mike White pulled Dorian Finney-Smith out with a minute to go so he could get one final standing ovation, even with the game well out of reach. Not the way he wanted to say goodbye to the O’Dome, that’s for sure.

The season, of course, is far from over. Florida gets what’s been relegated to a warm up game against Missouri on Saturday, and then it’s SEC Tournament time. Yes, that under appreciated extended weekend tournament that last place Georgia team won in 2008 to grab the conference’s auto-bid to the Big Dance while the rest of the country fell out of their chairs laughing at the insanity of it all. Thanks to the wonderful world of conference tournaments providing a last call for NCAA Tournament applications by handing the winner its own ticket, Florida still has a chance to go dancing.

But now, there’s really no doubt about it: that’s Florida’s only path to the tournament now. Their chances of snatching an at large bid have all but dissipated; even if the Gators were to reach the SEC Championship Game, there’d still be major question marks about the 13 losses that have piled up, lack of big wins aside from St. Joe’s and West Virginia (though to reach the final, they’d probably have to beat either Kentucky or Texas A&M) and the way that they’ve trended the wrong way as the season wound down.

No, the Gators have really gone and done it this time. They’ve dug a hole for themselves that anything short of winning the SEC Tournament next week cannot and will not fix.

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