Five things to know about Kentucky basketball’s next opponent, the Florida Gators:
1. After a late November/early December slump, the Gators appear back on track
After a terrific 27-9 season which included a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight last season, where the Gators lost to fellow conference member South Carolina, Florida hit the ground running in 2017-18.
In the Phil Knight Birthday Party Tournament (PK80) in Portlandia, the Gators smacked Stanford 108-87 and survived Gonzaga 111-105 in two overtimes. They led Duke by 10 points with 4:35 to play in their bracket final only to lose 87-84 to the Blue Devils.
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That loss, however, sent the Gators into a tailspin. Florida lost at home to Florida State (83-66) and Loyola of Chicago (65-59) — yikes — before beating Cincinnati (66-60) in New Jersey, only to lose to Clemson (71-69).
Since then, however, Florida Coach Mike White has the ship pointed back in the right direction. The Gators have won seven of their last eight, the lone loss being a 78-72 setback at Ole Miss on Nov. 13. Florida bounced back to thump visiting Arkansas 88-73 on Wednesday.
So what changed?
“They kind of had to learn early in the season, everybody started out hot from the perimeter and it was a little bit of fool’s gold,” said Kevin Brockway, who covers Gators basketball for the Gainesville Sun. “You beat Stanford 108-87 and everyone is shooting lights out on the team, KeVaughn Allen, Chris Chiozza, Jalen Hudson, Egor Koulechov, everyone was kind of hot at the same time.
“When everyone got cold in that stretch in December, they had a hard time figuring out other ways to win particularly on the defensive end of the floor, scoring inside, etc.”
Brockway says the win over Cincinnati showed the Gators a different way to play. The Gators scrapped, played better defense and rebounded the ball better.
“They’re doing a better job of that,” he said.
2. Transfers Jalen Hudson and Egor Koulechov have played major roles
Hudson, a 6-foot-6 junior who came to Florida after two years at Virginia Tech, leads the team in scoring at 16.5 points per game. Hudson is shooting 48.7 percent from the floor and 43 percent from three-point range, where he leads the team with 46 made threes in 107 attempts.
Hudson has scored in double figures in nine of Florida’s last 10 games. He poured in 35 points in that wild double overtime game against Gonzaga in November. He scored 24 points in the loss to Duke. He had 21 in the win over Arkansas on Wednesday.
Then there’s Koulechov, a 6-5 guard/forward from Volgograd, Russia who came to Florida as a grad transfer from Rice.
Koulechov is second on the team in scoring at 15.1 points per game, but leads the Gators in scoring in SEC games at 17.0. He’s shooting 40 percent from the floor, but 41.1 percent from three-point range. He also leads the team in rebounding at 7.1 per game.
“He’s a hot and cold shooter, but when he’s on he’s a really good shooter. But he’s also given them a little bit of toughness as well. He leads the team in rebounding as a 6-5 guard. He’s a solidly built 6-5 guy, though, kind of a swingman type.”
One note: Koulechov leads the SEC in free throw shooting at 94.1 percent. He made 32 free throws in a row in one stretch.
3. KeVaughn Allen could be busting out of his season-long slump
After averaging 11.6 points per game as a freshman, the 6-2 junior from Little Rock averaged 14 points per game for last season’s Gators. He’s slipped back to 11.3 points per game this season and had made just 29 percent of his three-point shots before Wednesday after shooting 37 percent from three last season.
But Allen might have had a breakout game against his home-state school on Wednesday. Allen made eight of 12 shots, including six-of-seven attempts from three-point range as the Gators ripped the Razorbacks. His previous four games, he had been just 3-for-14 from three.
“With him, it’s always been a question of assertiveness,” Brockway said. “He’s a guy that’s a very shy guy off the court and at times that can carry over on the court, as well, in terms of not realizing how talented he is. I think when Koulechov and Hudson entered the mix in the beginning of the season, and throughout the season, they’re more assertive scorers. So some of the shots were being taken away from KeVaughn that he had last year. He kind of had to learn.”
White, who is 61-29 in his two-plus seasons at Florida, has been prodding Allen to shoot more and shoot with confidence. It will be interesting to see if his big night against Arkansas will carry over Saturday at Rupp, where he scored 24 points last season.
4. As you may have noticed by now, Florida is a perimeter-oriented team
John Egbunu, Florida’s 6-11, 256-pound center, was just cleared for non-contract drills earlier this week after tearing his ACL last Feb. 14 against Auburn. Egbunu, who averaged 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds as a sophomore in 2015-16, underwent surgery last March.
The Gators have also been without freshman Isaiah Stokes, who is also coming back from ACL surgery. The 6-8 center from Memphis has yet to play this season, though he is participating in non-contact drills.
Without Egbunu and Stokes, the Gators have relied heavily on guards Hudson, Koulechov, Allen and point guard Chis Chiozza, who is averaging 12.3 points and 6.4 assists per game.
Heading into Saturday, Florida is averaging 24.8 three-point attempts per game. The Gators are making an average of 9.8 threes per game, which is tied for 34th nationally.
“They’ll come in here and they’ll shoot 30 threes,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari on Friday. “If they’re making 15, 20, guess what, who’s next? It’ll be a hard game.”
Florida went 13-of-25 from three in the win over Arkansas. The most triples the Gators have attempted in a game this season was 36, twice -- 17-of-36 in the double-overtime affair against Gonzaga and nine-of-36 in a win over Incarnate Word.
Overall, the Gators get 36 percent of their points off three-pointers, which ranks 73rd in the nation. By comparison, Kentucky gets just 19.1 percent of its points off threes, which ranks 349th out of 351 Division I-teams.
5. The last three Florida teams to win at Rupp Arena all went to the Final Four
That factoid is courtesy of Brockway, referencing the 2006, 2007 and 2014 Gators. That 2006 Florida team, which won the national title under Billy Donovan, beat UK 79-64. That 2007 team, which repeated as NCAA champs for Donovan, beat the Cats 64-61 at Rupp.
Florida’s 2014 team beat UK 69-59 at Rupp. The Gators won the SEC title that year and reached the Final Four, where they lost to Connecticut. Despite going 0-3 vs. Florida, Kentucky actually reached the finals of the NCAA Tournament before losing to UConn.
This Florida team is currently 13-5 overall and leads the SEC with a 5-1 record. Pomeroy has the Gators ranked 24th overall — 17th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 60th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Kentucky is 29th in kenpom’s rankings — 45th on offense and 34th on defense.
So what does this Florida team have to do to join those previous three Gators teams that won in Rupp?
“I think one of the keys — and with this Florida team it’s asking a lot given their lack of inside play — but trying not to make Kentucky’s bigs too much of a factor,” Brockway said. “At least be steady on the glass. And then obviously hitting shots as well.
“This isn’t a team that’s going to hold you to 50 or 60 points, but it’s a good enough offensive team that they get into the 70s pretty consistently, so if you can hold the (opponent) somewhere in the neighborhood of 60-70 points you’re going to have a chance to win on most nights.”
Florida men’s basketball 2017-18
Florida at Kentucky
When: Saturday, 8:15 p.m. ET
Where: Rupp Arena in Lexington
TV: ESPN with Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas and Maria Taylor
Radio: UK Network with Tom Leach and Mike Pratt
Kentucky-Florida last 10 meetings
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