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Game Preview: Florida kicks off SEC play at home against Kentucky

Florida basketball finished the non-conference schedule with a 10-3 record, including a pair of Quadrant 1 and 2 wins against Pitt and Richmond.

But now it is time for conference play to begin, and Florida will regularly face other SEC teams with the NCAA Tournament in their sights. So far, Todd Golden’s group has looked every bit the part of a Tournament team, but this is where an at-large bid can be locked up.

Make no mistake, starting off 2024 with an upset win over No. 6 Kentucky would provide a massive confidence boost to Florida’s roster.

It won’t be easy, though. The Wildcats are ranked in the top 10 for a reason, and John Calipari has assembled an incredibly talented (yet young) team.

Here is everything you need to know before the game on Saturday.

Starting lineup: Florida Gators

Player

Pos

H/W

Class

Min.

Pts.

Reb.

Walter Clayton Jr.

G

6-2/195

Junior

29.3

15.2

3.8

Zyon Pullin

G

6-4 /206

Sophomore

29.1

14.1

3.5

Will Richard

G

6-4 /206

Junior

29.8

11.8

3.8

Tyrese Samuel

F

6-10/239

Graduate

27.5

14.3

8.8

Micah Handlogten

C

7-1/235

Sophomore

17.8

6.8

7.1

Note: The expectation is for Riley Kugel to rejoin the starting lineup on Saturday against Kentucky, likely in place of Pullin who is still listed in the game notes as a starter. Todd Golden works the rotation well to get all four guys adequate time on the court.

Starting lineup: Kentucky Wildcats

Player

Pos

H/W

Class

Min.

Pts.

Reb.

D.J. Wagner

G

6-4/192

Freshman

26.8

11.9

2.1

Antonio Reeves

G

6-6/195

5th-Year Senior

30.5

19.0

4.3

Justin Edwards

G

6-8/203

Freshman

24.5

9.8

4.6

Tre Mitchell

F

6-9/231

Graduate

33.6

12.8

7.1

Aaron Bradshaw

F

7-1/226

Freshman

19.5

11.9

2.1

 

Key Player: Riley Kugel

Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner
Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner

Riley Kugel didn’t play his best against the non-conference schedule, but facing some serious competition could bring out the best in him to start 2024. Kugel’s shot was off through the first two months of the season, but he never stopped heaving it up from three-point range.

For Florida to pull off the upset, they need their future pro to start scoring more. Kugel’s defense and playmaking ability has notably improved, but scouts won’t be happy if that comes with him scoring less often and less reliably. A 20-point night against Kentucky would erase most of the doubt built up over the past few months.

Key Player: Rob Dillingham

Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports
Jordan Prather-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky’s most-talented player will likely come off the bench. Freshman guard Rob Dillingham is second on the team in scoring with 14.3 points per game and is adding 4.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds per contest.

A projected top-10 pick in the 2024 draft, Dillingham doesn’t mind making an impact off the bench, and he is still getting the kind of national recognition players come to the SEC for. Here’s hoping he and Kugel can put on a show, pushing one another to the limit.

Prediction

Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports
Matt Pendleton-USA TODAY Sports

This one feels like a toss-up, but being at home could help sway the game Florida’s way. The Rowdy Reptiles aren’t named as such because they are polite to visiting teams. Kentucky will be at a disadvantage, but there are too many potential future NBAers on that roster to count them out.

Prediction: Florida sneaks by Kentucky, 83-81

How to Watch

BPI Prediction

ESPN is projecting Florida to beat UK in the O-Dome. According to the latest projections using the Basketball Power Index (BPI), Florida is a  3.6-point favorite over Kentucky with a 61.9% win probability.

ESPN projects Florida basketball to upset No. 6 Kentucky

Read more

Todd Golden talks ahead of SEC opener vs. Kentucky Wildcats

Florida basketball goes undefeated in December, but voteless in AP poll

Florida voteless in USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll heading into SEC play

Gators take slight dip in NET rankings leading up to Kentucky game

Florida stays put in ESPN’s Basketball Power Index ahead of SEC play

Gators drop couple of spots in first KenPom ratings of 2024

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Story originally appeared on Gators Wire