Once upon a time, long, long ago (before any of us reading this were born), Kentucky welcomed Florida into Lexington and defeated the Gators, 44-36. Nobody knew it at the time, but that was the start of a long, storied rivalry.
Since that day in Lexington over 90 years ago, Florida and Kentucky have faced off 136 more times. Five of those meetings came in the SEC Tournament Championship Game. In at least 24 of them (old records are sort of fuzzy about this) both teams entered the game ranked. And when they weren’t busy squaring off against each other, they were building their programs’ prestige up to among the nation’s elite; Kentucky’s eight national championships are second most all time behind only UCLA, while Florida is one of only 15 schools to have won multiple titles.
Rarely, if ever, have Florida and Kentucky met with the SEC’s official championship on the line. The SEC is required to hand out its auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament to the winner of the conference tournament, but clearly states that the official conference champion is the team with the best regular season record. And if you want to make the parallel to football, most conference rivals are labeled as rivals because they frequently play with the conference title on the line. Or at least the division.
But for the SEC’s most prominent basketball rivalry, this is uncharted territory. These two schools are playing in a de facto SEC Championship Game tomorrow: if Florida wins, they’re one game ahead of Kentucky with two to play and the head to head tiebreaker in hand, and if Kentucky wins, they’re one game ahead of Florida with the head to head split but the second level tiebreaker (head to head against the conference’s next best team) on their side. So in order for the loser of tomorrow’s game to claim the official SEC Championship, they would have to win both of their remaining games and the other one would have to lose both of their remaining games, the former of which is likely but the latter of which is not for the same reason: the remaining opponents are not of particularly high caliber.
This was what the Florida-Kentucky rivalry has always been lacking. All great rivalries have some games of higher stakes than others, and now this one is finally going to get one.