It’s here. Well, it will be in about 30 hours from this publishing, but it’s about to be here, anyway.
If you don’t know what I’m talking about, well, that’d be the first of two Florida-Kentucky games, and what most Gator fans see as either the game in which Florida is most likely to lose the rest of the way or Florida’s last chance at a statement win this season, depending on the confidence the individual has about this Gator basketball team. But regardless of how good you think Florida’s chances are in this game, know this: this is more than just a game. It’s another chapter in what pretty much everybody agrees is the SEC’s fiercest (yet admittedly lopsided) rivalry.
Perhaps Billy Donovan summed it up best in this quote tweeted by Florida’s men’s basketball’s twitter handle:
"This is the ultimate test here tomorrow night." – @UFCoachBillyD on UFvsUK #Gators #ItsGreatUF
— Florida Gators Men’s Basketball (@GatorsMBK) February 14, 2014
The 40 minutes of basketball played tomorrow night mean more than any 40 minutes played before them this year, and here’s why.
First, it’s a great test for Florida, to see where they’re really at as a team. Again, Kentucky is the best team Florida’s going to face until the NCAA Tournament, and they’re the best team Florida’s faced since their epic battle with Memphis at MSG (which I was at). So it’ll be worth watching to see if Florida can make the quick step up from facing the teams of far lesser quality like Alabama, Georgia, and even Tennessee and Missouri. The difference between facing Trevor Releford and Julius Randle is glaring (and that’s not a shot at Releford, it’s just saying Randle is that much better) and it’s going to be interesting to watch Scottie Wilbekin go to work on him defensively.
Then come the long term implications. A Florida win would put the Gators in a great position to win the SEC regular season championship. It would put Florida three games ahead of Kentucky, with six to go (including two against the worst teams in the league, South Carolina and Auburn) plus a head start on the head to head tiebreaker with the Cats. And while winning your conference regular season championship is not something that a lot of fans use in terms of bragging rights (as opposed to Final Fours and national championships), the players get a ring for it, and the school can adorn their facilities with one more four-digit number under the list of athletics accomplishments. Florida’s only got six SEC regular season championships, while Kentucky’s got- count ’em- 45 of them. Here’s betting that Florida’s never going to catch Kentucky in that department in my lifetime, but wouldn’t it be nice to at least cut into it- just a little bit?
The other implication of this game is Florida’s draw in the NCAA Tournament. A win, and Florida’s as close to a lock for a #1 seed as you can possibly be in mid-February. More importantly, Florida’s basically guaranteed to play their round 64 and round 32 games in Orlando- Gator territory, and as close to playing a home game as you can get in the NCAA Tournament.
But a loss erases most of the sunniness of that outlook. Kentucky would then control its own destiny to win the conference regular season championship, being one game back, and with another game against Florida to go to pull even- and then they’d have the tiebreaker, and claim it for themselves. A Kentucky victory would put immense pressure on the Gators to win the return game in Gainesville on the last day of the regular season- certainly a doable task (I remind you, Florida’s won 29 straight at home) but at the same time, it’s no sure bet (I’ll also remind you, Kentucky was the last team to beat Florida in Gainesville, albeit with a totally different roster). Plus, I’d rather the conference race be over by then, and not have to sweat that game out as the de facto SEC regular season championship game.
As for the NCAA Tournament outlook, ceding the SEC to Kentucky (meaning losing this game plus the rematch in Gainesville) would be akin to opening up a hurricane on what right now is a beautiful, clear sky. The perception of the SEC right now is bad, very bad, but Florida’s generally regarded as the anomaly; a great team in a terrible conference. The Gators need to keep it that way in the eyes of the people who decide who and where Florida will play in the NCAA Tournament.
If Florida can’t even win that weak conference that everybody likes to jump on, they’re going to really get stung by the Selection Committee, who has not treated the SEC’s second best teams very kindly in recent years: Missouri was a #9 seed last year, Vanderbilt was a #5 two years ago despite winning the SEC Tournament by knocking off arguably the best basketball team (Anthony Davis’s Kentucky) since Florida’s back to back teams, and Kentucky was a #4 three years ago despite blitzing through the SEC Tourney, capped off by thumping Florida in the final. How far Florida will drop by not winning the SEC is anybody’s guess, but it will almost certainly knock them off the one line, and maybe off the two line as well.
Again, for this to happen, Kentucky would have to beat Florida twice, including in Gainesville, but a Florida victory in Lexington tomorrow night can all but eradicate this entire negative outlook by taking the pressure off of the return game in the O’Dome on March 8, the day after I turn 20. So it’s up to Florida to cut the head off the metaphorical snake, to end this SEC race before it really begins, and that’s exactly what a victory over Kentucky tomorrow night will do.
And if nothing I wrote can get you pumped up for another Florida-Kentucky game, maybe this will.
[aspen_youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlfIvh97n0k id=videoid sd=0 w=640/percent=100 ratio=.5625 center=1 rel=0 https=0 privacy=0 see_help_for_others]
Here’s hoping Florida can slam the door on Kentucky’s SEC regular season championship hopes like Casey Prather slammed the ball down on his baptism of Kyle Wiltjer.