UK Men's Basketball

UK halted slide, Florida rose sharply in games leading into Saturday showdown

The rolling narrative of a college basketball season finds Kentucky playing at Florida on Saturday night.

Each team has experienced the ups and downs typically present in a sport that hasn’t had an undefeated Division I team since 1976.

It could be said that Kentucky came within a Malik Monk jump shot of carrying a three-game losing streak to Gainesville. In the midst of losses at Tennessee and to Kansas that preceded a come-from-behind victory over Georgia on Tuesday, UK Coach John Calipari spoke openly of freshmen hitting a metaphorical wall.

When asked Friday about players hitting this wall, senior Derek Willis said, “Right now, we’re just kind of in a tough spot.

“All our fixes, I feel, they are simple. I stand by my statement. We’re the most talented team in the nation, and we can go as far as we want to carry ourselves. We just have to crack down on some things, and we’ll be all right.”

Assistant coach Joel Justus, who substituted for Calipari, spoke of the need to improve on-ball defense and limiting the times an opponent gets into the lane. Coincidentally or not, UK used a zone defense against Georgia. Justus called the zone “a game-changer.”

Willis said UK communicated more in the zone, which Justus said was part of the process of players taking greater responsibility.

“I don’t think anybody around here is looking at that as a bad thing,” Justus said of Kentucky beating Georgia. “At this point of the season, wins or losses, you’re going for lessons learned. And our guys are embracing every day those lessons.”

Justus also spoke of UK’s transition defense needing to improve.

“Where you don’t even have the defense back there,” he said. “Live-ball turnovers where they have two-on-none, one-on-none, three-on-one. You want to give yourself a chance to have a stop.”

Illness has been another factor that roiled this Kentucky season. De’Aaron Fox, Sacha Killeya-Jones and Mychal Mulder all missed the Georgia game because of illness. Mulder did not play in the last four games.

“It’s a college basketball season and those things happen,” Justus said. “ ... It’s a bit of a thing about attrition.”

Justus said he did not know which players might be practicing. Killeya-Jones and Mulder happened to walk by during the news conference and appeared to be preparing to practice.

Kentucky sports an 18-4 overall record (8-1 as in the Southeastern Conference).

Florida is a game shy of equaling UK’s record. The Gators are 17-5 overall and 7-2 in the SEC.

Florida has had its own illness issues. Freshman Keith Stone did not play against Missouri because of a viral infection. Stone has not been cleared to play Saturday, Coach Mike White said.

Florida’s dispiriting stretch of the season came in losses at South Carolina and home to Vanderbilt two weeks ago.

After the loss to Vandy, Florida held a two-hour team meeting. White called it a “fork in the road.”

Apparently, the Gators took the right fork. Since then, Florida has won at LSU and at Oklahoma and against Missouri on Thursday. Each game was won by a margin of more than 30 points.

“We’re in a good place,” White said after Florida mauled hapless Missouri 93-54. “ ... Doesn’t guarantee anything. But those past few games have gotten us into a very good place, which gives us a chance to play well in the next one.”

That one is Saturday night against Kentucky.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Saturday

No. 8 Kentucky at No. 24 Florida

When: 8:15 p.m.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1

Records: Kentucky 18-4 (8-1 SEC), Florida 17-5 (7-2)

Series: Kentucky leads 99-37

Last meeting: Kentucky won 88-79 on March 1, 2016, in Gainesville, Fla.

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