You might think it would be a scary proposition for this 12th-ranked Kentucky volleyball team to take on defending NCAA runner-up and 11th-ranked Florida on Halloween night.
“I think Florida and us wish we played twice,” said UK Coach Craig Skinner on Tuesday, previewing Wednesday’s 7 p.m. match between the two SEC powers in Memorial Coliseum on ESPNU. “We typically play twice; this year we’re only playing them once.”
You wish you played twice?
“You need to be prepared to play in the NCAA Tournament,” Skinner said. “You need to play high-level teams. You need to be tested. You need to find what your weaknesses are. You need to find what your strengths are.”
Florida can do that. The Gators have won 23 SEC titles under longtime coach Mary Wise. They finished 30-2 last year, losing to Nebraska 3-1 in the NCAA Tournament finals. This year, the Gators are 19-4 overall and second in the SEC at 10-1.
Kentucky leads the SEC at 10-0. After starting 0-3, Skinner’s club has rebounded to be 16-4 overall on the strength of 13 straight victories.
“It’s a high-level match between two great programs,” Skinner said. “It’s an opportunity for both teams to see where they’re at in the middle of the conference season with several matches to go.”
And the programs have developed a respectful rivalry over the past few years. They tied for the conference title last season at 17-1. UK won in Gainesville. Florida won in Lexington. Florida finished 16-2 and Kentucky 15-3 in 2016. When Florida went an undefeated 18-0 in 2014 conference play, UK finished second at 15-3.
“I’ve played with three or four of the girls on (Florida) and they’re all really cool,” said UK setter Madison Lilley of her USA Volleyball summer experience. “It’s fun to build relationships with other girls and then competing against them, obviously it’s ‘Game On.’”
This season, Florida’s strength is defense. The Gators lead the SEC in opponent hitting percentage (.152) and blocks (2.87 per set). “Florida has got to be the tallest team in the country; if not, top two or three,” Skinner said.
Kentucky’s strength has been offense. UK is first in the league and fifth in the nation in hitting percentage (.295). The Cats lead the SEC in assists (12.76 per set) and kills (13.89 per set).
“Our defense has started coming around,” Skinner said. “It’s going to be kind of a real intriguing matchup with a little bit contrasting styles.”
“I would love to play them twice,” said Lilley. “But I’m happy that the one time we’re playing them it’s here.”
On Halloween night.
“I just saw about 500 boxes of candy go through the marketing hallway, so we’ve got that going for us,” said Skinner, adding that there are different promotions going on, including costume contests. “It’s going to be a fun atmosphere. Last time we had a match on Halloween I think we had students riding dolphins in the student section. It’ll be fun.”
No. 11 Florida at No. 12 Kentucky
When: 7 p.m.
Records: Florida 19-4 (10-1 SEC), Kentucky 16-4 (10-0)