Florida visits No. 10 Kentucky on Saturday for a Southeastern Conference showdown with NCAA Tournament implications for both teams.
The SEC-leading Wildcats (21-5, 11-2), winners of five straight games, are virtually assured of a seventh straight trip to the Big Dance. Kentucky’s focus during the regular season’s final two weeks will be improving its tournament seed.
The Gators (17-9, 9-4), meanwhile, have won five of six to strengthen their case for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. A triumph at Lexington, Ky., would further the cause.
Kentucky coach John Calipari already has March Madness on his mind.
“I like to have five and six guys have a game of 25 (points) and the reason is, you get in the NCAA Tournament, and you may need somebody to go crazy to win a game,” Calipari said after Tuesday night’s 79-76 win at LSU.
Immanuel Quickley (15.2 points per game), Nick Richards (14.5), Tyrese Maxey (13.9), Ashton Hagans (12.0) and EJ Montgomery (6.3) comprise the starting unit. Richards also averages 8.1 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. Hagans averages 6.6 assists.
Hagans, Richards, Maxey and Montgomery each have scored 25 or more points in at least one game this season. Quickley has not.
“But he’s playing so steady, that I think in his mind, ‘If I have to go get 25, I can,’ ” Calipari said of Quickley.
“I’d like one more guy to be able to step up and have a big game. You just want to be able to go into that tournament knowing that you have a team full of guys and you don’t know who can go for 25. It makes you more balanced and makes you a better team.”
Graduate transfer Nate Sestina (5.8 ppg), freshman forward Keion Brooks Jr. (4.5) and freshman guard Johnny Juzang (2.9) fill out the Wildcats’ rotation.
“We got a will to win, which means you got a chance,” Calipari said. “I like that we got a big guy, a center. I like that we’re playing three point guards.
“But when you’re playing with a shortened rotation … EJ, Nate, Keion and Johnny, you gotta add to the game. You gotta come in and add, you can’t ever take away.”
Calipari said Montgomery and the reserves “probably are the key to where this thing goes.”
Thanks to a current three-game winning streak, the young Gators appear to be in line for an invitation to the Dance.
Florida defeated Arkansas 73-59 at Gainesville, Fla., on Tuesday night, when sophomore forward Keyontae Johnson led the way with 24 points and 10 rebounds.
Johnson (13.7 ppg) and grad-transfer forward Kerry Blackshear Jr. (13.2) are joined by sophomore guards Andrew Nembhard (11.9) and Noah Locke (10.8) and freshman guard Scottie Lewis (8.0) as starters.
Locke has helped open up the interior by shooting 44.5 percent (69 of 155) from 3-point range, and recently, the Gators have displayed better ball movement.
“Chemistry is definitely improving,” said Nembhard, who averages a team-high 5.5 assists. “As long as we play with an open mind and look to share the ball, chemistry will be good.”
Three freshman — guard Tre Mann, center Jason Jitoboh and forward Omar Payne — played double-digit minutes off the bench at LSU.
“It’s great because we’re gonna need them in all these games coming up and going into March,” Nembhard said. “So their contribution off the bench was huge for us.”
Kentucky, which won both meetings last season, leads the overall series 102-40 but is just 19-16 since 2005. The teams will end the regular season on March 7 at Florida.
–Field Level Media