Florida outworks and outplays Kentucky, throws doubt into SEC title race

Kasey Hill and Florida comprehensively beat Kentucky Saturday. (AP)
Kasey Hill and Florida comprehensively beat Kentucky Saturday. (AP)

It was only two weeks ago that the question wasn’t if, but rather when, and by how much. Could Kentucky go undefeated in the SEC? And how dominant would the Wildcats’ run through one of the weaker power conferences be?

Oh, how John Calipari would love to return to those days.

Florida dealt Kentucky its third loss in four games Saturday, a 88-66 tail-whooping in Gainesville, and it wasn’t just any old tail-whooping. It was intense on one end, and deflating on the other. It was thorough. And it was season-altering.

Kentucky is now dealing with more than just a worrying string of performances. It is dealing with suddenly fading SEC regular season title hopes. Florida sent the Wildcats tumbling into third place more than halfway through the conference season.

Calipari and the preseason favorites are now also dealing with a Florida team that looks very much like a realistic SEC champion. The Gators out-defended, outrebounded, outfought and out-hustled Kentucky. They held a talent-laden roster to 38 percent shooting and 0.84 points per possession, its worst output of the season by a wide margin.

Perhaps most influentially, they held Malik Monk to 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting three days after Monk punished Georgia with 37 points in an overtime victory. The freshman star didn’t score in the first half as the Gators ground to a double-digit lead.

Their success on Monk, and their success on the defensive end in general, was as much about energy and intensity as anything schematic. The Gators charged to every loose ball, to the offensive glass, and out to any Kentucky shooter that was even remotely open. Everything they did was at full speed. Kentucky made 12 of its 17 shots at the rim, but only 25 percent of its midrange and 3-point jumpers.

On the other end, Kasey Hill and KeVaughn Allen enlivened the offense with pep and slick ball movement. The two guards combined for 33 points. Devin Robinson had 16. Canyon Barry added 14. Backup point guard Chris Chiozza had 10 assists and nine rebounds. One of the 10 dimes came at the beginning of Florida’s second-half run the blew the game open:

With Kentucky’s enthusiasm sapped after the break, the Gators hit another gear on offense. They scored 1.31 points per possession, and 54 over the second 20 minutes after leading just 34-26 at halftime.

In fact, Florida’s offense was somewhat stagnant early on. The Gators hoisted 19 3s in the first half and shot just just 34 percent. But they built their first-half lead on the glass, and especially the offensive glass. The first-half rebounding margin — Florida 35, Kentucky 13 — and full game margin — Florida 54, Kentucky 29 — were heavily influenced by Kentucky’s misfiring shooters, but were nonetheless staggering. The Gators pulled in 56 percent of their own misses over the first 20 minutes.

By the end of the 40 minutes, which concluded with Calipari waving the white flag and removing his stars from the game early, there wasn’t a single area of the game that had been won by the Wildcats. There wasn’t a single component of Florida’s dominance that felt like a fluke.

Mike White, in his second year on the job, has rebuilt the Gators into a top-15 team, and perhaps something more. They came into the game at No. 7 in KenPom’s efficiency-based rankings, and that was before Saturday’s 22-point victory. White had a couple outstanding defensive teams in his four years in charge at Louisiana Tech, and the 39-year-old coach has another one this year at Florida.

The Gator’s defensive strength compounded Kentucky’s woes in a four-game rut that is worrying for several reasons. Without consistent fast break offense — the Wildcats had just eight points in transition Saturday night — Calipari’s team has stalled to some extent on that end of the floor. The loss to Tennessee offered the initial warning signals. The home defeat against Kansas could have been written off as a fluke.

But this week’s two games, even the lone win, have solidified Kentucky’s difficulties as a trend. The Wildcats are scoring under a point per possession over the four games. Outside of Derek Willis’ outburst against Kansas, they haven’t gotten enough contribution from players outside of their core group of scorers. And Monk, despite his heroics against Georgia, has been mortal.

All of this leaves us to look ahead to the stretch run, and to a three-way scrap for the SEC regular season crown. South Carolina leads the league at 9-1. Kentucky and Florida are both one game back at 8-2. The Wildcats and Gators have a grudge match later in February in Lexington. That game comes five days after the only matchup of the season between Florida and South Carolina. The Gamecocks avoid Kentucky the rest of the way, but already succumbed to the Wildcats last month.

The race will be tight, but not just because of the current state of the standings. Florida proved Saturday that it can stand up to Kentucky on the court, and proved that it is right in the mix for the conference title.