Florida hasn’t looked like the most inspired team since clinching the SEC title last week.
With their hopes for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament seemingly dwindling by the moment, the fifth-ranked Gators will try to snap out of their slump when they host Kentucky on Sunday in the regular-season finale for both squads.
The Gators (25-5, 12-3) have won the last five meetings with Kentucky, the first SEC school to accomplish that feat in 30 years. No conference school has ever beaten the Wildcats (20-9, 9-6) six consecutive times.
“Any team that would beat you five straight times makes you mad, makes you upset,” Kentucky guard Ramel Bradley said.
The Gators need to have some of that fire Sunday. They’ve lost three of their last four, including two in a row since wrapping up their first outright SEC title since 1989. Florida lost 66-56 to LSU on Feb. 24 and was beaten 86-76 at Tennessee on Tuesday, trailing by as many as 27 points in the second half.
Before this slump, Florida had won 17 in a row and spent five straight weeks as the top-ranked team in the country.
“I think our team is in a no-win situation right now,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “If we had won every game, the questions would have been: Do you think a loss is good for this team, do you think you have won too many games, can they handle this, is it good to be playing your best basketball right now?.
“And I think when you lose, the questions become: Does this team have a problem, they are not playing very well, and why? It is a no-win situation because people want great drama.”
Despite winning the SEC tournament and a national championship in 2005-06, and the SEC title this season, the Gators still have something to play for against Kentucky.
Florida is trying to finish unbeaten at home for the first time since 1993-94, when it went 13-0. The Gators have already set a school record with 17 home victories this season, winning those contests by an average of 26 points.
The Wildcats, who had lost four of five before beating Georgia 82-70 on Wednesday, are hoping to catch Florida in a vulnerable position. Kentucky was 15-3 after beating South Carolina on Jan. 16, but its late-season slump has intensified the pressure surrounding coach Tubby Smith’s job.
A win over the Gators would likely ease some of that pressure and give the Wildcats a boost heading into the SEC tournament, which begins Thursday in Nashville.
“There is definitely a window of opportunity for us at this point,” Kentucky center Randolph Morris said. “I think they (Florida) were able to clinch the division early, and they may have lost focus. We can’t count them out, even though they have lost a few games. They are going to get every team’s best shot, and that’s what’s been happening.”
Despite Florida’s winning streak, Kentucky still leads the all-time series 84-29.