SEC heavyweights collide in Top 25 showdown

 

The Sports Network

Lexington, KY (SportsNetwork.com) - A marquee showdown between the SEC's two best teams is on tap for Saturday night at Rupp Arena, as the 14th-ranked Kentucky Wildcats play host to the third-ranked Florida Gators.

Florida survived a scare at Tennessee on Tuesday night and took down a 67-58 decision for their 16th consecutive win, one shy of a school record, to improve to an outstanding 22-2 overall. The Gators are a perfect 11-0 in the SEC, which matches their best league start with the 2006-07 squad, a team that went on to win the national title.

Kentucky has been stellar in its own right at 19-5 overall, but it still lags behind Florida in the league standings at 9-2. The Wildcats are currently winners of four in a row, most recently downing Auburn on the road on Wednesday night, 64-56, and now they return home to Rupp Arena where they are 14-0 on the campaign and have won 22 in a row dating back to last season.

The Wildcats lead the all-time series with the Gators, 94-34. The teams split last season's series, with each squad winning at home, and they will meet again in Gainesville in the regular-season finale on March 8.

The Gators trailed heading into the half of their most recent game but quickly took control after intermission and pulled away late thanks to a 9-1 run. They were actually outshot from the field, 45.8 percent to 36.2 percent, but knocked down eight 3-pointers, forced 15 turnovers and outscored the Volunteers at the free-throw line, 17-9. Scottie Wilbekin was busy at the foul line (10-of-12) on his way to 21 points to go with six assists and four steals, while Michael Frazier (11 points) and Casey Prather (nine points, eight rebounds) were also solid.

Florida has risen to elite status this season behind the strength of its outstanding scoring defense (57.9 ppg), which ranks fifth in the nation. Its offensive performance has been good as well, as it shoots 46.1 percent from the field for 71.2 ppg, while also living in the green in terms of its rebounding (+5.8) and turnover (+2.4) margins. Prather shoots a lofty 61.2 percent from the field for a team-best 15.3 ppg. Wilbekin nets 13.0 ppg and hands out 3.7 apg, Frazier (12.6 ppg) has drained 68 3-pointers at a 42.8 percent clip and Patric Young (10.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg) and Dorian Finney- Smith (9.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg) have been strong in the paint.

The Wildcats also had a difficult road test earlier in the week, as they actually trailed Auburn by one with under eight minutes to play, but they promptly ran away from the Tigers with a 9-0 run and held on for the eight- point victory. It was a dreadful shooting night for the Wildcats, as they made only 30.9 percent from the field, but Auburn was nearly as bad (.327) and they made up for it with a 25-of-40 showing from the charity stripe and a 49-36 rebounding advantage. Julius Randle notched a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds, Andrew Harrison poured in 16 points and Aaron Harrison added 10 points.

Kentucky has shown very little weaknesses this season, shining on both ends of the floor by shooting 46.8 percent from the field for 78.8 ppg while allowing just 66.2 ppg on 39.5 percent shooting. Its +10.3 rebounding margin is the third-best in the country, but while it drains nearly 21 free-throw per game, it shoots a mere 67.5 percent from the stripe. Randle is the heartbeat of the squad from the frontcourt with 15.8 ppg and 9.9 rpg, while fellow first-year players James Young (14.1 ppg), Aaron Harrison (13.8 ppg) and Andrew Harrison (11.0 ppg) round out an outstanding freshman class. Willie Cauley-Stein (7.8 ppg, 6.4 rpg), a sophomore, is a great defender with 3.0 bpg and 1.1 spg.

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