Kentucky has more to lose in Billy Bowl III

It was on Feb. 8, 2005, in this very space, that I castigated ESPN for hyping a Kentucky-Florida basketball game as part of its "rivalry week" promotion.

I said then Florida had not done enough as a basketball school to merit the mantle of a Kentucky rival. That night, Tubby Smith and Co. went out and tamed the Gators for the 10th time in the last 11 meetings.

The proverbial worm was about to take a rather dramatic turn.

Joakim Noah and the '04s ignited one of the great two-year runs in modern college basketball history, one that would put not one but two NCAA crowns (2006 and '07) on Billy Donovan's coaching résumé.

Especially grating to local sensibilities, Florida was about to embark on a run of seven straight wins over UK. Before it was finally snapped by Billy Gillispie in Rupp Arena last March, it was an unprecedented streak of basketball dominance for an SEC foe against regal Kentucky.

Which brings us to Billy Bowl III Tuesday night in Rupp. The third head-to-head matchup between D and G — Kentucky's first choice to replace Tubby Smith and its actual choice — features two programs seeking to regain paradise lost.

That need to recapture past glory is far more acute for Kentucky. But Florida has things to prove as well.

In the five years before the firm of Noah, Horford, Brewer and Green carried him to those national titles, Donovan lost to a lower-seeded team on the NCAA Tournament's first weekend five times.

At an authentic basketball school, that's the kind of thing that gets a coach fired.

Last season, the first year after his championship-winning stars left for the pay-for-play, Billy D. missed the Big Dance altogether.

Whether it is fair or not (and I think it's not), both of those factors give ammunition to a school of thought that sees Billy D. as a good, not great, coach who happened to catch lightning in a bottle with one special class of players.

In the big picture, the more elite-level achievements Donovan can add to his coaching pedigree post-Noah and Co., the more ammunition there is to shoot holes in the good-not-great coach argument.

From the short view, with Florida (19-4, 6-2 SEC) one-game clear of all other SEC East schools in the loss column, a victory in Rupp could give the Gators the impetus to secure at least a divisional championship in 2009.

Yet there is far more at stake for UK.

Riding a dispiriting three-game losing streak with the toughest part of its SEC schedule still ahead, a Kentucky defeat Tuesday may well spell doom for UK's 17-year NCAA Tournament participation streak.

Asked last week if Florida is now a must-win game, UK star Patrick Patterson said, "I think it is. We have to beat Florida."

From a long-term perspective, what we've learned in recent years is that not even Kentucky basketball is too big to "fail."

Already with seven losses (16-7), UK seems headed to a fourth straight season of double-digit defeats for the first time in school history.

Kentucky hasn't advanced past the first weekend of NCAA tourney play since 2005.

Other than the scandal and NCAA probation-impacted years of 1989-91, this is the longest UK has gone without making the second week of the NCAA tourney since the event expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Then there is Kentucky's coaching situation. Gillispie proved beyond any doubt with his success at UTEP and Texas A&M that he is a good basketball coach.

However, the jury remains out on whether the coach's penchant for mind games with players and, from the outside, his counter-intuitive substitution patterns are the right fit long-term for a Kentucky job where even the smallest moves are scrutinized to a pulp.

A victory in Billy Bowl III doesn't answer long-term questions, but it does make Kentucky's tournament hopes continue to seem viable.

It would give Billy G. a win over a program his fan base fervently wants to beat (and help people forget the 1-5 record so far against North Carolina, Louisville and Indiana).

Mostly, it would be a victory in the kind of high-stakes game Kentucky used to win with regularity.

Which is why — unlike in February 2005 — when the Cats and Gators get together Tuesday night, it is the Kentucky program that has far more to prove.

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