John Clay: Gators offer chance to see how new-and-improved Cats measure up

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistMarch 15, 2014 

ATLANTA — The decisions will be made. The seeds will be decided. The work will be done.

The suits in Indianapolis will have put their heads together, crunched their computer numbers and filled out the bracket for the NCAA Tournament by the time Florida and Kentucky tip it up for the SEC Tournament title at the Georgia Dome at 3:15 p.m. Sunday.

So does the championship game even matter?

Yes, it matters. For Kentucky, it matters. It matters as a matter of measure.

Here in Cat-lanta, past the disappointments of the regular season, John Calipari's club has turned the black skies blue again, running roughshod over LSU on Friday night, then doing the impressive dirty work Saturday to complete a 70-58 win over Georgia to earn a title date with Florida.

The Gators are the measuring stick by which teams in this conference, if not the nation, are judged this year.

"It's almost an honor to play a team like that," Calipari said Saturday of the Gators.

You can dismiss that as classic Calipari hyperbole if you wish, but he is a coach and Florida is a coach's dream, a team led by unselfish seniors who do whatever is necessary to assure success.

The Gators did just enough of that in Saturday's first semifinal, overcoming a 10-point deficit to take down Tennessee 56-49. Trailing 43-38 with 12:15 to go, Florida held the Vols to one field goal the rest of the way.

Kentucky has felt Tennessee's pain, more than once.

In Lexington on Feb. 15, the Gators scored on their final 13 possessions to turn a 45-38 UK lead into a 69-59 Florida victory.

In Gainesville just last Saturday, Billy Donovan's club creamed the Cats in the first half, surrendered a 15-0 Kentucky run in the second, and still walked away with a 19-point victory to complete the regular-season league schedule 18-0.

"They absolutely bashed us," was how Calipari described the Gainesville game on Saturday.

And yet, that game closed the door on a regular season of disappointment and opened the door on a fresh start of possibilities, which has made all the difference — Calipari's mysterious and much-publicized "tweaks" aside.

Were you confident these tweaks, whatever they were, would work?

"Would I have said anything if I wasn't confident?" Calipari replied. "That's why you don't give me a good team because you see I say stuff when I have a good team."

The past two games, Kentucky has played the part of a good basketball team.

Saturday's grinder was in ways more impressive than Friday's welcome burst of energy. Georgia slowed the pace to a foul-fest that never broke UK's young will.

The Harrison twins were terrific. Aaron scored 22 points. Andrew contributed a career-high nine assists.

"One of the things we banked on today is that they wouldn't shoot the three well, and they made shots," said Georgia Coach Mark Fox. "They made three-point shots today, and that's the difference in the game."

"We're not the same team," Calipari said. "You've seen us now, we're not the same we were two, three weeks ago."

Has this sudden change made UK a team worthy of beating a No. 1-ranked Florida no SEC member has tamed this season — in 20 tries — and no team has beaten since Dec. 2?

Can it be competitive with a team it was not competitive with just eight days ago?

Forget the brackets and the seedings and what the committee comes up with at 6 p.m. Sunday, what the new-look Cats can do with a third crack at Florida will be both interesting and informative.

"My players can all say what they want," Calipari said when informed at least one member of his team said he wanted to play the Gators again. "I'm not looking forward to playing Florida again.

"But you know what? We are here, I don't think they're going to let us leave, so we're going to have to play this game and see what happens."

John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: jclay@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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