Kansas ended their three-game losing skid last night and announced loudly that they are still a contender in this year’s toss-up that is college basketball. Their beat-down of fierce in state rival Kansas State was a crushing loss for the Wildcats, whose fans take the “rivalry” much more seriously than do Jayhawk fans. For example, ask a Kansas fan who their biggest rival is and you might get a dozen different answers. Ask a K-State fan the game they have circled? It’s Kansas every single time.
Now the Wildcats will have to circle the wagons and regroup, as they are now in a tie with Kansas (an Oklahoma State) for the top spot in the conference and six teams are within one game in the loss column. It’s going to be a good battle for the Big 12 crown.
Whether or not the SEC will enjoy the same battle down the stretch that the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac 12 are enjoying will largely come down to tonight’s enormous showdown in Gainesville. Can Kentucky finally take their enormous talent and put it together in a showcase game, or is the trip to G-Ville the enormous THUD back to the reality that this year’s team just doesn’t quite have that magic?? Let’s take a closer look at tonight’s marquee matchup in today’s free pick…
Kentucky Wildcats at Florida Gators -10
Florida showed their first glimpse of conference vulnerability last week, inexplicably getting rocked at Arkansas in a game they trailed by double-digits nearly the entire way. However, if you exclude that blip on the radar, the Gators are 9-0 in conference play and have won every other game by AT LEAST 14 points. That is insane domination that not even Billy Donovan’s back-to-back champs could muster.
Look at some of Florida’s results: @ LSU – where Kentucky struggled – Florida won by 22. @Texas A&M – whom Kentucky struggled against both home and away – Florida won by 21. It goes on… Ole Miss by 14, Georgia by 32, Missouri (who is good) by 32. A completely jaw-dropping resume. It seems reasonable to think that they should dispatch Kentucky with the same casual aplomb.
However, Kentucky has one thing none of those other teams have. Nerlens Noel, the leading shot blocker in the country. They also have no less than four other future pros and a ridiculous amount of talent that, while not blowing people out, IS very quietly 8-2 in the SEC and only one game back of the first place Gators.
Kentucky has won five in a row, avenging their earlier home loss to Texas A&M by going on the road and winning, as well as an impressive 14-point win at Ole Miss. Kentucky has been a pretty lousy bet against the spread this season (8-12 ATS), but much of that is because of overly-high expectations early in the season. If judged neutrally, this is a pretty good basketball team and a #5 seed if the tourney was slotted today.
I am not sure Kentucky goes in to Florida and wins, where the Gators have been flat-out untouchable this season, but giving an improving Kentucky team a full ten points seems like a ton. Maybe it is that I’m still not sold on the Gators as being a team that can cut down the nets over Indiana, Michigan, Kansas, Louisville, Syracuse and the likes. It feels like they lack that dynamic, break-you-down offensive threat – name the last national champ without a first-round NBA pick on the roster (you probably can’t)…. Maybe it is that I am still intrigued by the potential of Kentucky.
Either way, I like this to be a good basketball game tonight. Kentucky handled a similar road environment and a similarly defensive styled and oriented team in Louisville fairly well a few months ago (losing by just 3). I think they can muster some of that same poise and composure again tonight. They’ll be the most physically gifted team Florida has faced this season, and I think Kentucky can give Florida’s smallish guards some difficulty. I’m taking the Cats plus the ten points.
Free Pick: Kentucky Wildcats -10