LEXINGTON, Ky. – There is one college basketball team that has played the top three teams in the nation. That team is the Florida Gators, and they have the tire tracks across their reptilian backs to show for it.
The Gators played third-ranked Ohio State in Columbus in November. They lost 81-74.
The Gators played second-ranked Syracuse in Syracuse in December. They lost 72-68.
And now the Gators have played top-ranked Kentucky in Rupp Arena. They lost 78-58 Tuesday night.
First thought: Schedule from hell.
Second thought: Who better to rank the big three teams that have separated themselves from the national pack than Florida coach Billy Donovan?
I asked. He answered.
"In terms of star power, in terms of talent, one through six or seven, I think Kentucky has the most of anybody," Donovan said. "Ohio State is kind of a three-headed monster with [Jared] Sullinger and [William] Buford, and I love the point [guard] Aaron Craft. Syracuse just has incredible depth.
"I don't know necessarily who would be better. … But Kentucky's got six guys who clearly are first-round NBA draft picks, whenever they come out. I don't know if Syracuse has six first-round draft picks. I think it would be a heck of a game."
Short of putting a ballot in front of Donovan and a pen in his hand, I'd interpret that as 1. Kentucky; 2. Syracuse; 3. Ohio State. And I would agree.
[ Recap: Kentucky races past Florida 78-58 ]
The excessively diplomatic Florida players didn't want to do their own rankings. But it's clear the Wildcats dominated the Gators to a far greater extent than either the Orange or the Buckeyes.
Florida's halftime deficit against Ohio State was three. Its halftime deficit against Syracuse was four. Its halftime deficit here was 12 – and the Gators trailed by double digits for the final 18:41.
This was a dominating performance in every aspect, and it started to answer the last remaining questions about the Wildcats. They hadn't played a ranked opponent since Dec. 31, but a user-friendly January schedule clearly didn't render them soft.
Now the only question left is whether Kentucky can win like this against good teams on the road. There is a trip to Vanderbilt on Saturday. A game at Mississippi State on Feb. 21. And a return engagement with the Gators in Gainesville on March 4.
If the 'Cats play there like they played here, good luck to the home teams. They'll need it.
Job One for future UK opponents will be making sure their point guards aren't inhaled by Kentucky's long, airtight defense. That's what happened to Florida senior Erving Walker, who at 5 feet 8 literally was in over his head Tuesday night. He missed all seven shots he took, going scoreless for the first time since December of his freshman season.
Louisville point guard Peyton Siva, similarly undersized as a maybe-6-footer, can relate. He went 2-of-13 in this building against Kentucky on New Year's Eve.
Then again, the 'Cats aren't much fun to face on the inside, either. They lead the nation in blocked shots and two-point field goal percentage defense.
"We are just sticking to our game plan," Kentucky guard Doron Lamb said. "Make them drive to our bigs and let them block their shots, and contest '3s.' "
[Forde Minutes: The best college hoops week of the season is here ]
Donovan doesn't just know what the best teams of 2011-12 look like, he knows what a national champion looks like. He has coached two of them (2006 and '07) and had a national runner-up in 2000. And a championship coach's trained eye likes the look of this Kentucky team.
"I love their disposition on the floor," he said. "There's a certain disposition you have to have. … A focus level in terms of what really goes into winning that you have to have."
In particular, Donovan singled out center Anthony Davis, forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and swingman Darius Miler. Miller is a steady senior, the other two are brilliant freshmen.
Kidd-Gilchrist is the energy guy who thrives in the open court, flying to the basket in transition and hammering the glass. He finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds.
But Davis remains the game-changer, the difference-maker, the biggest reason Kentucky fans are envisioning their first national title in 14 years. He dunked so often off lobs Tuesday that it must have felt like it was raining Spaldings on the Gators' heads.
He finished with 16 points, six rebounds and four blocks against a serviceable Florida frontcourt. But, as usual, the stat sheet understates his impact. Davis distorts every opposing offense, forcing them to shoot different shots and run different plays than they're accustomed to, just to avoid him.
That's why Davis is my leading candidate for national Player of the Year at this point. He won't put up points like some other contenders, but he will own the paint defensively.
And that can be enough to take a team a long way. Patrick Ewing averaged a fairly modest 12.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game as a freshman at Georgetown, but carried the Hoyas to within a point of the 1982 national title because he was a defensive terror.
It took a Michael Jordan jump shot in the Superdome to beat that Ewing-led Georgetown team. This season's national title will be decided in the same place, perhaps with another freshman shot-blocker playing a key role – but there's no Jordan to contend with in 2012.
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