UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Order restored in SEC basketball

On the eve of the Sunshine State showdown, we are pretty much exactly where we thought we'd be.

One day before Florida welcomes Kentucky back to the O'Connell Center in Gainesville, the Gators and Cats have distinguished themselves as the top two basketball teams in the Southeastern Conference.

One game past the midpoint of the conference schedule, Florida sits atop the standings at 9-1. Kentucky is 8-2. Every other conference team has taken at least three losses.

When you dare to compare, however, the two teams have taken much different paths to reach this expected point.

Kentucky was No. 3 in the pre-season Associated Press poll. Florida was 10th. As of last Monday, the Cats had not been in the poll since Nov. 26. Florida was ranked No. 2 behind Indiana in last week's poll.

Indeed, aside from a shocking 80-69 loss at Arkansas last Tuesday, Florida has been dominating. The Gators had won 10 straight games by 14 points or more before being bounced at Bud Walton Arena.

In a stretch of eight games, Billy Donovan's club held each opponent under 60 points.

Then, in the same week, the Gators lost their undefeated SEC mark and their leader in rebounds.

The 6-foot-7 Will Yeguete, he of the Mohawk hairstyle, underwent surgery to remove bone chips from his knee on Friday and is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season. Florida hopes its key reserve will return for the post-season.

That leaves Florida with just two players taller than 6-6 on the roster.

One of those, forward Erik Murphy, tweaked his ankle in Saturday's 83-58 win over Mississippi State. Murphy left the court with four minutes remaining, but Donovan said Murphy was fine.

On the Blue side, Kentucky has been the king of the close shave. The Cats are on a five-game win streak, but five of their conference victories have come by 10 points or less.

UK won by four points in overtime last Saturday at Texas A&M. Florida won by 21 in College Station.

Even in UK's 72-62 win over Auburn on Saturday, the Cats got just three points from Archie Goodwin, who played a season-low 17 minutes.

And after going 0-for-15 from three against Kentucky at Auburn on Jan. 19, the Tigers were 7-for-13 from behind the line in Rupp.

Still, the data sheets don't show a wide gap between the two teams. Jeff Sagarin's computer rankings for USA Today have Florida at No. 1 and Kentucky at No. 16. Ken Pomeroy's vast array of numbers has Florida at No. 1 and UK at No. 18.

UK was impressive on the road against a ranked team in its 87-74 win at then-No. 16 Ole Miss. And before Saturday, John Calipari's club had held six straight opponents under 40 percent shooting from the floor.

"I'm not worried about first place, second place, fifth place," Calipari said Saturday when asked about Tuesday night's game. "No, just get better."

"That's not our focus right now," UK center Nerlens Noel said, echoing the head coach. "Our focus is on continuing to get better and making sure we stay focused on being able to do what we need to do."

In the eyes of the coach, the Cats are still in discovery mode. He's not as much about a conference clash of the top two teams as he is worried about his own team.

"When we break through, you'll know it," he said.

An upset of the Gators on Tuesday, however, would be by far Kentucky's first real breakthrough win of the season.

Kentucky at Florida

When: 7 p.m. TV: ESPN

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