GAINESVILLE, Fla. (WDRB) — On the city buses here in this chillier-than-it-ought-to-be Florida college town, the electronic destination signs first give the name of the route, then flash the words, "Beat Kentucky."
I had to check the calendar to remind myself it isn't football season. Then again, since when has Florida worried enough about beating Kentucky in football to change a bus sign?
In a way, this is a good way to frame Saturday's noon showdown between the No. 25-ranked Wildcats and No. 1-ranked Gators, who are one game away from Southeastern Conference perfection, with only the league's most hallowed obstacle standing in the way. As an added bonus, it's Senior Day in Gainesville — and while that might mean a cheaper meal in the rest of Florida, here it means the Gators not only get what the game is about, but what they must do to win it.
In fact, the bus signs set us up nicely for this contrast in styles. One team knows where it is going and has a good idea how to get there. The other is trying to figure it out, fumbling with its GPS even as the NCAA Tournament exit is fast approaching.
What might surprise you is that Kentucky coach John Calipari isn't too proud to ask for directions. He has spoken to former UK coach Joe B. Hall about his team. He's talked to other people he trusts. It's not like he can type "Final Four" into his iPhone and get a straight answer. Heck, even Siri is picking on the Wildcats these days.
Regardless, what Calipari now is trying to do is press the reset button on his team. In that, he's not alone. There are hundreds of NCAA coaches trying to do the same thing as the postseason draws near. It's a new start. This is what you play for. Doesn't matter if you've taken ten wrong turns along the way, here you are, and what do you do now to make the most of it?
But there's one difference between Calipari and the hundreds of other coaches feverishly pressing their reset buttons. Calipari has seven McDonalds' All-Americans on speed dial.
If you think this team is done, proceed at your own risk. I know Florida is favored by 10 points — and that's after opening as an 8 1/2-point favorite. Florida might win by ten. It's certainly capable. It did in Rupp Arena last month, in fact.
Doesn't matter. Calipari is selling his team on a new start, whether it happens on Saturday — in what would be one of the upsets of the year in college basketball at Florida — or next week in the SEC Tournament.
To the notion that his team is "done," Calipari reacted strongly on Friday.
"I don't believe it," he said. "I mean, a team that has this kind of skill and ability? And other teams have lost four out of five and go on the road and lose, lose a home game to somebody, somebody else has lost, this team has lost. And, ‘OK, wait 'til they get ready for the tournament.' That's what this team is. So let's hope the light goes on. If it goes on this game, fine. If it takes another game, fine. We just need the light to go on. And I've had teams come around at all different times. I believe in this team. I believe in the individual players. I really do."
It has come to this, with the end of the season near: Calipari is telling his struggling team to head toward the light. No, a more accurate picture: He's the Clark Griswold character in Christmas Vacation, getting ticked off in the front yard, karate chopping the plastic reindeer, punching Santa in the face, getting T'd up, getting tossed out of a game at South Carolina, pounding the plug into the outlet, shaking the connection, hoping that at long last the lights will come on and put on their amazing show, and there we will all be, blinded by the brilliance.
Come to think of it, has anyone checked that light switch in the back of the Craft Center?
Here's the deal with this team — if the light comes on, look out.
And if it doesn't? Well, look out then, too. Because we've already seen, the reaction to this team underachieving hasn't been pretty, nor easy for Calipari to deal with.
Certainly, nobody can argue with the basic notion that teams can get hot at tournament time and go on a run. I've listed too many examples in this space over the past two weeks to bore you with repetition. Shoot, after watching the University of Louisville women's team catch fire in the postseason last year, I can't write off any team again.
ESPN's Jay Bilas, on "Pardon the Interruption," sounded doubtful on Friday, noting that, "Kentucky's not a good passing team. . . . They've got NBA talent. But I'm not sure they've figured out how to put it together."
The first step toward making that progress is being honest with yourself. The narrative coming out of UK's loss to Florida at Rupp Arena was that it played 35 good minutes. Calipari even said UK lost the game because of two offensive rebounds.
Here's the truth about that game: UK gave up scores on Florida's last 13 possessions. It went from up seven to down 10 in the game's final 11 minutes. What happened in that game was that UK played well for about 30 minutes, then was outscored by 17 in the final quarter.
That's not coming as close as some would have you believe. Florida went through a rough patch after that game. It had three lackluster single-digit wins after its win in Lexington, but now is playing well, having whipped LSU by 18 and beaten South Carolina in its past two games.
Here's the motivational gold mine Calipari has at his fingertips Saturday. If Kentucky can win at Florida, there's no game it can't win. Florida is No. 1. It has won 22 straight games. It is 17-0 in SEC play, tied for the most conference wins in SEC history. Its senior class is the first in school history to win three SEC titles. And they're the first SEC program to win three outright SEC titles in four years since UK did it in 1995, '96 and '98.
Earlier this week, Florida won by 26 at South Carolina. The same South Carolina that upset Kentucky last weekend. Florida could've won by 46. Michael Frazier had 11 three-pointers in the game. UK has had 11 three-pointers in its past two games (in 45 attempts).
Stats guru Ken Pomeroy gives Kentucky only a 19 percent chance of winning. I don't know that it's as bleak as all that. But Kentucky isn't going to sneak out of Florida today with a win. It's not going to get Florida looking past the game. If it wins, it's as big a win as we've seen in college basketball this season. And if it doesn't?
Here's the motivational follow-shot for Calipari. Even if his team loses, it was a game it was expected to lose, and he gets a second chance at pushing the reset button next week in Atlanta, and may even get a third crack at Florida down the road.
So what does Kentucky have to do to beat this Florida team in Gainesville? Calipari's thoughts:
"You've got to negate the press," he said. "They're going to come after. They press more there than they do on the road. And they'll bring four guys and they'll try to steal. You've got to be strong with the ball and be aggressive. And you've got to be able to play their pick-and-roll offense, because a lot of it is pick-and-roll. Offensively, they do a great job of crowding, so you've got to make some jump shots.
"This is not a game you can go 2-for-22 from the three. Not this game. Because they will give you — their field-goal percentage against the three is like 34 percent. Well why is that? Well, they crowd. They make sure if they're going to give up something, it's going to be a three. Obviously we play a little bit differently than that. So this is a game they force you to make some jumpers."
But there's more. I'm going to keep saying it. This team needs easy offense. It's trying to blast through a brick wall with its head instead of sneaking over the ladder. It's doing things the hard way. Florida's press will afford Kentucky the opportunity to play fast, and to get into the open court and score before the half-court defense is set. If UK moves the ball, attacks the press and gets some easy baskets, all of a sudden half-court offense doesn't seem as hard as a 400-level class to some of these freshmen. All of a sudden a jump shot isn't as confusing as squaring the hypotenuse.
At this point in the season, Calipari would seem to have little to lose. A little ball pressure. A little bit of extension of the defense into passing lanes. For once, Kentucky is the team with nothing to lose.
Wouldn't it be interesting if the Wildcats started to play like it?
It could be the difference between getting hit by a bus, and rerouting the outlook for your postseason.