UK Men's Basketball

Stakes even higher now

Third place rather than fourth in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division. A better seed to make the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee notice a bigger splash in next week's Southeastern Conference Tournament. An important step toward getting off the metaphorical "bubble."

Kentucky and Florida always play for high stakes this time of year. And Saturday's game in Gainesville is no exception. Hence a 10th straight regular-season ending with the Cats and Gators competing and a network audience watching.

The winner nudges ahead of the loser in the final SEC standings and gets what appears to be a better position in the SEC Tournament: the Eastern Division's third seed aligns with Arkansas (2-13) and Auburn (9-6) in the first two rounds. The fourth seed plays Alabama (6-9) with regular-season champion Louisiana State (13-2) awaiting the winner.

All of which UK Coach Billy Gillispie dismisses.

"We're trying to win every single game," he said. "We always have, and we always will. But we're not doing it for the sake we can get a higher seed. We're trying to win games for the sake of winning games."

That's a big enough chore this season for a Kentucky team that has lost three straight and seven of its last 10.

Florida players, who've also lost three straight (and six of the last nine), spoke of larger implications.

"We have to win every game (to get into the NCAA Tournament, the SEC championship), everything," undersize center Alex Tyus said. "Basically our NCAA Tournament is starting now."

But Gillispie said he hasn't mentioned what's at stake. Why bother? The players know.

The UK coach is content to seek improvement from a team challenged to beat quality teams. So Gillispie saying the Cats practiced as consistently well "as any team I've been around" sounded like a coach saying he can only milk so much blood from this turnip.

When asked to explain the disconnect between consistently good practice and uneven (to be kind) play in games, Gillispie said, "I've never had a team with no seniors to play. I've never had a team struggle at a couple positions as we have. That has as much to do with inconsistent play as anything."

One of those positions is point guard. Gillispie saluted junior Michael Porter for excelling, considering he's a career backup shooting guard forced by necessity to point guard.

"He's done as much on his best nights as anyone could ever hope for," the UK coach said. "On the tough nights, it's a little more challenging. I think Mike Porter has been great for us this year. I'd hate to imagine what our success level would be without him."

Porter probably won't be matched up against Nick Calathes, Florida's point guard and All-SEC talent. That job probably will go to Ramon Harris, the Cats' primary perimeter defender through the bulk of games. If form holds, Harris will hand off Calathes to Jodie Meeks down the stretch.

Kentucky hopes the game gets decided far from the point guards. UK wants to ride All-SEC big man Patrick Patterson against one of the league's least-imposing front lines.

When asked how going to Patterson could enhance Kentucky's chances of winning, Gillispie said, "It always does for us. That's the way we're supposed to play. When we play our best, that's what happens."

Florida's vulnerability around the basket shows in its statistics. The Gators are tied for last in blocks (2.6 per SEC game), 10th in rebounding margin (minus 2.3 per SEC game) and, perhaps most encouraging for Kentucky, a dead-last ranking in offensive rebounds (9.6 per SEC game).

Yielding offensive rebounds has been the soft spot in an otherwise consistently stout Kentucky defense. But that defense has slipped recently. Georgia made 50 percent of its shots at UK on Wednesday. That marked the first time all season an opponent shot so well. And three of the opposition's six best shooting performances this season have come in Kentucky's last six games.

"I don't think we've gotten a stop at the most critical times," Gillispie said. "I don't know that we've done that all year long.

"We have to defend much better than we did Wednesday night to have a chance to win any games."

One of those critical times seems to be at Florida on Saturday. Gillispie promised nothing more than a sincere effort to win.

"I'm very, very, very proud of these guys," he said. "Sometimes there's a magic formula, and sometimes there's a magic philosophy.

"But those things usually come from an outside source."