SEC Championship Preview: Kentucky vs. #1 FloridaPosted by CD Bradley on March 16th, 2014
After four-plus months of basketball, we got the matchup we expected in the SEC Tournament final: Florida versus Kentucky. That’s about all that went as expected. It was supposed to be Kentucky as the favorite, the team whose coach publicly discussed the possibility of going 40-0, the team with the best recruiting class in history. Florida had the Wildcats on experience, but it was a group that couldn’t quite make it over the hump, having lost in the Elite Eight the past three seasons. Fast forward to now, and the narratives have flipped. It’s Florida who’s #1 in the polls, the team that has won 25 straight games and become the first team to go 18-0 in the SEC, and which, for the first time ever, has a shot at beating Kentucky three times in a season. It’s Kentucky that has struggled, that has lost when it shouldn’t, that has the coach (the one who talked 40-0, recall) who now explains that his is a team relying on freshmen. Just eight days ago, Florida smashed Kentucky in Gainesville. Now they meet again.
Can Kentucky change the result? Well, they have played better in Atlanta this week than they have perhaps all season, thanks in no small part to the emergence of the Harrison twins, Aaron and Andrew. The hugely anticipated duo struggled throughout their freshman year, showing flashes of talent along with a lot of pouting and inconsisten play. Andrew Harrison, the Wildcats’ primary ball-handler, totaled 23 points and 17 assists in his first two tournament games, while Aaron scored 36 points and hit more than half his three-point tries. John Calipari famously “tweaked” the offense, and whatever he did, the Cats have played two great games.
Neither, however, was against a team that will hear its name called when the brackets are unveiled later today. Florida is a different matter altogether. They are the odds-on favorite to be the #1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament; they’re riding a 25-game winning streak; and they have beaten the Wildcats by double-figures twice this season. Calipari joked Saturday that Florida has had the same players for six years now, but it is true that Billy Donovan’s squad has a surplus of experience. Four seniors play more than half of the team’s minutes, and all four have played on three teams which have reached the Elite Eight; the two most important – point guard Scottie Wilbekin and center Patric Young – played in each of those games (vs. Butler, Louisville, and Michigan).
So what are the keys to Sunday’s SEC championship game? In both wins over Kentucky, Florida has won the turnover battle; that’s no doubt in part because Kentucky is one of the worst teams in the country in forcing turnovers, ranking at #303. Calipari’s team, however, is the best offensive rebounding team in the country, and Florida is good but not great at defensive rebounding, ranking #68 in that metric. That’s likely to be a key battle, because the Gators are excellent at forcing teams to miss shots (#29 in effective field goal defense and #17 in opponent’s two-point field goal percentage) and Kentucky is only so-so at making shots (#144 in effective field goal percentage). If Florida can limit the Wildcats’ second-chance opportunities while minimizing their number of possessions by not turning the ball over, they will will almost certainly win. On the other hand, if Kentucky can somehow force turnovers while maximizing scoring opportunities on the offensive boards, they might finally top the Gators. Florida is clearly the favorite (KenPom projects a 72 percent chance of a Florida win), but Kentucky might yet just tap into that limitless potential and break a two-year streak of not winning the SEC Tournament.