UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky looking to unleash its 'thoroughbreds' against veteran Gators

Kentucky forward Julius Randle pushed his way into the lane Tuesday against Texas A&M.
Kentucky forward Julius Randle pushed his way into the lane Tuesday against Texas A&M. Herald Leader

Going into Saturday night's game against Kentucky, the number of game minutes of the six players who make up Florida's veteran core adds up to 12,681. That's the equivalent of playing basketball continuously for almost nine days and nights.

Kentucky, which has started four freshmen all season and a fifth in the last four games, must overcome that kind of seen-it-all experience to prevent Florida from making the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship a foregone conclusion.

To distill the essence of Florida's senior-laden team, UK Coach John Calipari said, "Most of it is the discipline they play with."

Yes, the Gators are good, as evidenced by a 22-2 record (11-0 in the SEC), 16-game winning streak and No. 3 ranking. "But they do it for 40 minutes," Calipari said Friday. "We haven't been able to do that ... because of our lack of experience."

Experience isn't everything. Calipari has frequently noted how he'd take talent over experience, generally speaking. UK players downplayed any advantage experience might give Florida.

"Once the ball tips, all that goes away," said Dakari Johnson, the fifth freshman to join UK's starting lineup. "All their experience goes away. We just have to play for 40 minutes. Whichever team plays the hardest will come away with the win."

Teammate Alex Poythress, one of the graybeard sophomores coming off Kentucky's bench, said he saw no advantage or disadvantage to having played or not played a lot of college basketball.

"We've been playing half the year already," he said. "So we've got no freshmen no more. We have experienced players."

Jay Bilas, one of the ESPN analysts in Lexington for the GameDay show originating in Rupp Arena on Saturday morning, said he jokes with castmate Digger Phelps about whether freshmen remain freshmen throughout their first year of college. Phelps, the former Notre Dame coach, takes the side of a partial season elevating freshmen to a significantly higher plane.

"So what does that make seniors? A graduate student? Or Ph.D?" Bilas said he counters. "... They're still going to be put in situations they haven't been put in before, especially when they get to the SEC Tournament and NCAA Tournament. It's all new. Having been there before is of value."

Kentucky (19-5, 9-2), has been in games similar to the long-awaited showdown with Florida. The Cats stood up to Michigan State in the season's third game and later played Baylor in the Dallas Cowboys' stadium, at North Carolina and in a charged Rupp Arena against Louisville.

UK lost all those games except against Louisville, but only by a total of 14 points.

Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said of Florida senior center Patric Young, "He's a grown man." Young is also a wise man, or, at the least, a sober-minded judge of teams. He cautioned reporters at the SEC Media Days in October not to expect Kentucky's ballyhooed freshmen to dominate. Recruiting hype meant nothing when competing against seasoned college players.

"They'll see it's not a walk in the park," Young said.

From the vantage point of four months later, Young looks downright prescient. Who better to explain Kentucky's growth curve this season?

"Before the season, everyone was hyping them up," Young said of the hype surrounding six McDonald's All-Americans in UK's freshman class. "I understand where everybody is coming from. (But) ... They had never experienced scouting yet or played other players who have been through it all.

"They're definitely a lot better team now because they have almost a full year under their belt now."

Bilas noted how the Kiddie Cats take better shots, rotate better on defense and generally play more efficiently than early this season.

Earlier in the day, Calipari explained the ups and downs of UK's season.

"We get up and they revert back," he said. "That's what I think they do, and I don't have an answer for it."

Conveniently enough, the answer, at least temporarily, might be the challenge Florida presents. It can galvanize and inspire Kentucky's freshmen, suggested another ESPN analyst, Jay Williams.

After acknowledging Florida's greater experience, he said, "One thing I know for certain is Kentucky will come to play. They might be young, but you guys have thoroughbreds. And when those thoroughbreds actually buy in and they've been invested and they want to play with that kind of energy and passion, they're a different basketball team. They go to a different level."

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