This time, another defeat could drop the Wildcats out of the AP Poll for the first time in coach John Calipari’s two seasons there. Playing at home, however, could provide the difference.
With their status among the elite possibly on the line, No. 22 Kentucky attempts to extend its winning streak at Rupp Arena to 33 against the 13th-ranked Gators on Saturday.
The Wildcats (19-8, 7-6) have split their last 10 games, but the losses have come by an average of just 2.2 points. That stretch includes a 70-68 defeat at Florida (22-5, 11-2) on Feb. 5, when then-No. 10 Kentucky blew a slight lead with three minutes to play before Brandon Knight missed a 3 as time expired.
While the Gators have since secured at least a share of the division title and a first-round bye in the conference tournament, the Wildcats are reeling from Wednesday’s 77-76 overtime loss at Arkansas. They missed two shots at the end of regulation and three more in overtime that could have won the game.
Now, another loss could drop Kentucky out of the Top 25 for the first time since the end of the 2008-09 regular season, the season prior to Calipari replacing Billy Gillispie.
“You’ve got to want it worse, bottom line,” said Calipari, who benched freshman guard Doron Lamb on Wednesday for a perceived lack of effort.
Lamb, averaging 13.3 points, made 1 of 5 shots to finish with a season-low two points against the Razorbacks after totaling 38 over the previous two games - both home victories.
With three games left in the regular season, Calipari wants to see an improved effort and determination from his team.
“Some guys come in with it, come in with a rage and a viciousness to it where ‘If I don’t play harder than this guy I’m losing this game,’” Calipari said. “There are games we’ve done it and we’ve won. There are games we haven’t done it and they’ve won.
Playing at Rupp Arena could be just what the Wildcats need. They’ve won 32 in a row there, including a 74-66 victory over the Gators on March 7, running their home winning streak in the series to three.
The Gators, however, aren’t likely to be intimidated. They ended Xavier’s 30-game home winning streak on New Year’s Eve and are 5-1 on the road in conference play.
Florida is also hot, winning six in a row for the first time since starting last season 8-0. The Gators, who have won 14 of 16, kept rolling with Thursday’s 71-62 win over Georgia.
The Gators’ rise comes a year after they finished fourth in the East behind first-place Kentucky, which went on to win the SEC tournament.
“It says a lot about this team,” said guard Kenny Boynton, who scored 18 points Thursday. “We’ve grown. Last year, we weren’t even close to this position. We came in focused when the SEC started and we’re on a mission. We just want to win it all.”
Boynton is averaging 16.3 points in eight victories over the last nine games. He was limited to 11 on 5-for-14 shooting in the last visit to Lexington, though.
Knight, Kentucky’s leader with 17.7 points per game, scored 24 in the loss to Florida. The freshman guard labored to score 26 Wednesday, going 8 for 23 from the field—including 1 for 8 from 3-point range—but did hit all nine of his free throws.