The season began with a split amongst SEC media and coaches as to whether Florida or Kentucky should be considered the conference favorite. And after Saturday’s SEC tournament semifinals in Atlanta, both teams have one game and a conference title on the line to settle the debate once and for all.
Kentucky made the tournament finals after cruising to a 72-58 victory over Alabama. The Cats jumped on the Crimson Tide early and never looked back, thanks to their most complete and diverse offensive game of the season. With Kentucky’s two top players, Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight, experiencing off nights, it was the Cats' lesser-known players who picked up the slack and put forth some of their best games of the season.
Doron Lamb finished with 15 points, after scoring 10 of Kentucky’s first 14, through a deadly combination of three-point shooting and quick penetration to the basket. The veteran duo of Josh Harrellson and Deandre Liggins each scored 14, giving significant offensive output from what are normally unlikely sources within the Kentucky offense. John Calipari’s team was so efficient on the offensive end that he said afterwards, “we’d have smacked anybody the way we played.”
The problem for Kentucky will be whether they have the manpower to have a repeat performance against Florida tomorrow. Even though Alabama was down by nearly 20 with just a couple of minutes to go, the Tide continued to apply pressure on defense. That led Calipari to leave in his starters until the very end, causing two freak plays in the final moments. As the clock wound down, both Lamb and Liggins fell on another player’s foot and each suffered a significant ankle sprain . Both had to be removed from the game, with Lamb having to be carried off by two of his teammates. Liggins is listed as probable for the Florida game, while Lamb's injury is more severe, causing him to be doubtful to see action. If Lamb does not play, it will leave Kentucky with only five players who regularly see significant minutes available for action.
In the game’s other semifinal, Florida battled back from an eight-point halftime deficit to defeat Vanderbilt 77-66 and advance to the conference championship. The Gators were led by their explosive backcourt duo of Kenny Boyton and Erving Walker, who combined to score 41 points against the Commodores. Billy Donovan’s pre-game goal of limiting Vanderbilt’s three-point shooting was executed perfectly throughout the game. The Commodores only shot 18% from behind the arc, finishing 6-33 and ending any chance they had at advancing to the school’s first SEC tournament final since 1951.
The championship game on Sunday will be the rubber match on the season between the Gators and Wildcats. Both teams won on their home courts earlier this season and in both games, the play of Florida’s Chandler Parsons was the deciding factor. When Parsons is able to get into the lane and grab offensive rebounds, the Gators become a tough team to beat. In Gainesville, Parsons twice scored on crucial late putback attempts thatwere the key points in giving the Gators the victory. But then in Lexington, Kentucky kept Parsons and the rest of the Gators shooting from behind the arc and off the offensive glass, leading to a comfortable 8 point win.
Both teams are fighting for a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament and with similar resumes, the winner of Sunday’s game is likely to see an advantage later in the afternoon when the brackets are announced. Both teams have dominated the SEC over the last decade and they both have been the clear standouts of the conference throughout this season. If Kentucky is without Doron Lamb, it will be very difficult for the Wildcats to keep pace with Florida and I would expect to see the Gators pushing tempo and trying to create a shootout in Atlanta on Sunday. If the Gators are able to control tempo and get into Kentucky's bench, they have a strong chance of completing the regular season-conference tournament sweep and getting the highest seed of any SEC team heading into March Madness.
Posted by MATT JONES
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