When Kentucky meets Florida on Sunday at noon in the regular-season finale, not a whole lot will be on the line for UK’s postseason standing.
The Wildcats, as the outright Southeastern Conference champions, have already locked up the No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Wildcats aren’t a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
In terms of achieving greatness, however, Sunday’s game in Gainesville, Fla., has history-making implications, chief among them, a chance at SEC perfection.
With a win on Sunday, top-ranked UK (29-1, 15-0 SEC) would become just the third team since 1956 to navigate through the SEC without a loss. The two previous teams were the 1996 and 2003 Kentucky teams.
The opportunity at history likely means something to the UK fan base, but John Calipari and his team aren’t focused on going 16-0.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about making history,” Calipari said. “The stuff here, there’s no setting records. This is trying to be the best team you can be, trying to establish the excellence of a program.”
And for Coach Cal, that means prepping his team for the postseason and making sure his players are focused only on the type of history that counts to them: a run at a national championship.
What: No. 1/1 UK (29-1, 15-0 SEC) vs. No. 16/13 Florida (22-8, 10-5 SEC)
When: Sunday, noon ET
Where: O’Connell Center (12,000)
Game notes: UK | Florida
Video interviews: Cal, Teague and Jones
Record: 22-8, 10-5 in SEC
Head coach: Billy Donovan (382-153 at Florida)
Player to watch: Kenny Boynton (17.1 points, 2.5 assists, 101 3-point FGs)
Series history: UK leads 91-33
Last meeting: UK won 78-58 on Feb. 7
“It’s something we want to do,” freshman guard Marquis Teague said of going 16-0. “You never want to lose any games, but that’s not something we really focus on a lot. We’re happy that we have a chance to do it.”
For the players, the pursuit of perfection is just another step in the season and another mark of validation.
“It’s a special thing to happen and I think we’re a special team with a lot of great players,” sophomore forward Terrence Jones said.
In terms of history, there are a couple other special achievements up for grabs Sunday. A victory would mark the first time UK has won 30 games before the postseason, not to mention it would be Calipari’s eighth 30-win season as a college basketball coach.
And yet, Calipari said his team will treat Sunday’s regular-season finale “like every other game.”
“One way you look at it is, you say it has no bearing on anything,” Calipari said. “Will we show up and play? Or will we let go of a game? We’re going to find out about our guys. My thing is you just want them to compete, compete. If that’s not good enough – Florida can make 25 3s on you. And so if they come in and they make 20 3s, alright, we go on to the tournament as the one seed.”
For Florida, Sunday’s outcome will have major bearings on the rest of its season.
Losers of their last two games, the Gators need an upset of the Wildcats to clinch the No. 2 seed in the SEC Tournament. A loss would drop Florida to the No. 4 seed and damage an already sliding stock.
UK won the first meeting handily in Lexington, limiting the long-range shooting Gators to 6 of 27 from the 3-point line en route to a 20-point blowout.
“We just contested with high hands, tried to pressure them and make them take tough shots,” Teague said. “We knew they would make some but we just wanted to make it as hard as possible.”
Florida will be without sophomore forward Will Yeguete, who is out for the rest of the season with a broken foot, but the Cats have dropped six of their last seven games in Gainesville. Also, UK’s visit will mark the first time the No. 1 team in the nation has played at the O’Connell Center.
“I don’t know if it’s Cup Day, Bat Day, Ball Day, Hat Day, whatever it is, I imagine it’s some day,” Calipari said. “Family Night, Senior Night, whatever it is it’s going to be a hyped game.”
It’s actually Senior Day for Florida star Erving Walker.
“It’s a pride game,” Calipari said. “Let’s figure out who we are.”
Since he’s fairly certain of the mettle of his team with everyone on the floor at this point, Calipari has been experimenting in practice recently with emergency-like scenarios.
Because there’s no way to prepare against a team making 20 3-pointers or a bad day at the foul line, Calipari is tinkering with a lineup he would have to use in the rare circumstance National Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis gets in foul trouble.
Placing Davis with the second team, Jones has slid over to the five position in place of Davis.
“For me it just makes me more of an impact defensive player,” Jones said. “Coach wants me to be there for the majority of the blocks that he’s usually there for. It just makes me more aware. Guarding the five more, I’m closer to the paint where he is for the blocks. It’s just his role that I’m trying to get used to playing in case that’s what Coach needs me to do.”
Davis has only fouled out twice this season, but there’s no harm in preparing for the unexpected in a one-and-done scenario.
“Fate intervenes,” Coach Cal said. “You got a guy in a game and all of a sudden that’s a foul, that’s a foul, Anthony you sit down. There’s a close call and it goes against you twice. …You look at it and it’s fate. It intervenes in what you’re doing here. All I’m trying to do is say we’re in the best frame of mind, we’re physically ready to go, let’s go play the game. Whatever happens is going to happen at this point and it’s one game. It’s not a best of five, best of seven.”
The rest of the nation is searching a chink in Kentucky’s armor, but outside of Davis getting into foul trouble, one hasn’t emerged yet.
“People want to talk about our bench,” Calipari said. “I’m almost like, ‘Man, are you just trying to grab anything?’ I’ve got two players that come off the bench that can score 25. If there is any other team in the country that has two players that can come off the bench and score 25, tell me who they are. Maybe it’s Syracuse, maybe it’s Ohio State. I don’t know who it is, but those two can score 25.
“You talk about our 3-point shooting, we don’t rely on it, yet we’re one of the best 3-point shooting teams in our league. Now, if we make 15 we’re going to beat you by 30. If we make five, it appears we’re going to beat you anyways. All I’m trying to do is say, how good can we be as a team? How much better can we try to get individually? Can we get in better shape? Can we get a little bit stronger? I’m trying to really encourage these guys.”
Notebook: Senior Night experience like ‘heaven’ for Vargas