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Despite loss to Wildcats, Gators still can win SEC Tournament

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Although the Florida Gators lost to the Kentucky Wildcats in Lexington on Saturday, they still have a good opportunity to gain the automatic NCAA Tournament bid in two weeks. Kentucky overcame a 12-point first half deficit to beat Florida, 76-66, snapping the Gators’ nine-game winning streak.

Florida’s defense is often good enough to get them a victory when they shoot poorly, but not on Saturday. Very few come into Rupp Arena and leave with a win, especially those who can shoot only 37 percent from the field, which the Gators did on Saturday.

When Florida makes a respectable amount of their shots, they are extremely difficult to beat. On February 4, they shot 48 percent and throttled the Wildcats 88-66 in Gainesville.

Kasey Hill shot lights out at home against Kentucky, but scored only four points on Saturday. Canyon Barry had 14 points three weeks ago, but only three on Saturday.

As a team, the Gators were more impressive on their home floor than the Wildcats were on theirs. With the SEC Tournament set to be played on a neutral court in Nashville, Tenn., Florida would have every opportunity to beat Kentucky should they meet.

Of course they will have to do a better job of containing prized freshman Malik Monk, who exploded for 30 points in the second half to almost singlehandedly lead his team to the victory. He finished with 33.

“He took the game over. He was amazing,” said Florida Coach Mike White. “It was probably the best performance against us all year.”

Kentucky (14-2 SEC) has all-but-clinched the top seed in the tournament and the Gators (13-3 SEC) are in good shape to earn the second seed. Make no mistake that Big Blue Nation will be well represented at the Bridgestone Arena, but nowhere near the 23,000-plus that crams into Rupp Arena for Wildcat home games.

A UF/Kentucky matchup is no certainty. South Carolina or Arkansas, Florida’s next opponent, will have something to say about it. Georgia played the Gators tough both times they squared off this year.

One thing Florida or Kentucky would wish to avoid is a matchup with the tournament host, Vanderbilt. If the season ended today, Vanderbilt would have the seventh seed, meaning a potential quarterfinal matchup with the Gators. Both teams have road dates with Vandy still remaining before the regular season ends.

While the Gators certainly miss the presence of big man John Egbunu, out for the season with a knee injury, their good defense has seemed to get even better. It needs to stay at this high level for them to have a chance to win the tournament, and earn the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that comes with it.

Many questions remain to be answered, but not matter what happens this week, Florida and Kentucky will be favored to meet again in two weeks.

March Madness is almost upon us.

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Bob Sparks is President of Ramos and Sparks Group, a Tallahassee-based business and political consulting firm. During his career, he has directed media relations and managed events for professional baseball, served as chief spokesperson for the Republican Party of Florida as well as the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and the Attorney General of Florida. After serving as Executive Deputy Chief of Staff for Governor Charlie Crist, he returned to the private sector working with clients including the Republican National Committee and political candidates in Japan. He lives in Tallahassee with his wife, Sue and can be reached at Bob@ramos-sparks.com.

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