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Gators becoming state’s second basketball powerhouse

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For the past month, talk of college basketball in the Sunshine State has been dominated by the Florida State Seminoles. Over the past two weeks, the Florida Gators have emphatically joined the conversation.

Saturday’s convincing 88-66 win over No. 8 Kentucky will lift a few eyebrows just a few weeks before March Madness begins. It is no exaggeration to say the Gators, ranked at No. 24 for now, overwhelmed the Wildcats in ways many thought not possible.

Kentucky came into the game averaging 91 points, but was held 25 points under that average by a swarming Gator defense. The Wildcats managed to shoot only 38 percent from the field and earned precious few second-chance points because they were outrebounded by Florida by a staggering 54-29 margin.

“Florida outplayed us, outcoached us, they did everything sideways and deserved to win,” said Kentucky Coach John Calipari.

Yes, they did, but they are far from alone. For what it’s worth, Kentucky came the closest to beating Florida during the last four games.

Since an inexplicable 68-66 home loss to Vanderbilt on January 21, Florida has beaten their last four opponents by a combined score of 371-243. Included are 35 and 32-point road wins over LSU and Oklahoma, respectively.

Following the Vanderbilt debacle, Florida’s second consecutive loss, Coach Mike White called a team meeting to lay everything on the table. At the end of what was described as a “long meeting,” White described it in positive terms.

“I think it was productive at this point,” White said. “We’ll see how much carryover it has.”

They committed to defense, but the only evidence White could provide was from practice. The proof would come, and continues to come, over the last four games that brought about complete dominance.

Kasey Hill is finally living up to the massive hype surrounding his recruitment to Florida four years ago. He has become a playmaker with a little scoring mixed in.

When Hill hits jumpers as he did on Saturday, the Gators are very dangerous. His marksmanship produced a less-than-humble response from Calipari.

“That happens against us. Guys have beer muscles,” said Calipari. “All of a sudden, they are better than they are.”

While Hill is making some outside shots, Florida would still be winning if he were shooting at 35 percent. The reason is because he is getting plenty of help from teammates at BOTH ENDS of the court.

Remember, the twin objectives of basketball is scoring and keeping the ball out of the other team’s basket. Over the past four games, the Gators are fulfilling those objectives in big ways.

Playing as hard and as well as they are makes them a threat to win the SEC regular season and tournament titles. They are now playing for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

A huge test comes their way on Tuesday when they go to Athens to face the Georgia Bulldogs. In the first meeting in Gainesville on January 14, Florida came from behind to take an 80-76 win in overtime.

Florida is now tied for second place in the SEC with Kentucky at 8-2. South Carolina, who comes to Gainesville on February 21, leads with a 9-1 conference mark.

The Gators, now 18-5 overall, will finish the regular season at Kentucky on February 25.

If they are playing as well at the end of the season as they are now, they could be primed for a deep run into the Big Dance.

 

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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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