Florida demands place in No. 1 debate

February, 16, 2014
Feb 16
2:13
AM ET

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- He clearly didn’t want to be there, trapped in the throng of cameras and microphones.

But Julius Randle slouched in a Kentucky blue director’s chair and reluctantly complied with the interview requests that followed his team’s 69-59 loss to Florida on Saturday. The No. 3 Gators had lost six straight at Rupp Arena and the No. 14 Wildcats had won 22 in a row at home.

His responses were brief but telling.

“It’s just basketball.”

“Yeah.”

“I don’t know.”

Sometimes, there were no words, just shrugs.

At one point, he rested his head against the concrete wall behind him and stared at the ceiling. The slumped posture of a dejected young man conveyed the frustration of a program and the entire Big Blue Nation. Thousands of Wildcats fans had risen early for ESPN’s “College GameDay” and returned hours later anticipating a coronation.

Instead, Florida commandeered a place in the discussion about the No. 1 team in America.

“It was surreal,” said Patric Young, who had 10 points and five rebounds and secured the first victory of his career at Rupp Arena. “I couldn’t believe it. When we were walking off the court, it didn’t seem real.”

The Wildcats had survived 10 rounds with Florida and then, the Gators threw a right uppercut that chopped down one of the most hyped programs in college basketball history.

[+] EnlargeBilly Donovan
Mark Cornelison/Lexington Herald-Leader/MCTBilly Donovan isn't ready to make an argument about his Gators or any other team being ranked No. 1 in the nation.
Florida breaks hearts often. Not just on Valentine’s Day weekend.

They fool you. They make you think that you’re on their level. And then they erupt, whether they’re backed by fervent Gators supporters in Gainesville or heckled by 24,425 Kentucky fans in Rupp Arena.

This time, the Gators were down 45-38 with 11:12 to play. And then everything seemed to go their way.

John Calipari drew a late technical foul that interrupted his team’s momentum. Scottie Wilbekin drew fouls and preserved Florida’s lead at the free throw line. Casey Prather, the likely SEC player of the year, scored a game-high 24 points but his most critical play was an offensive rebound over three big Wildcats in the final minutes. Young’s jump shots and hooks fell, too.

They forced turnovers on 23 percent of Kentucky’s possessions and held the Wildcats to eight second-chance points -- a season low, according to ESPN Stats & Information data. Randle failed to record a field goal in the second half when Florida trapped him every time he thought about touching the ball.

Syracuse is No. 1. Wichita State is still undefeated. But Florida is as good as any team in the top 25 right now. Perhaps better.

They were not complete during losses to Wisconsin (multiple players missed the game due to suspensions and injuries) and Connecticut (Wilbekin missed time with a high ankle sprain). But they’ve won 17 in a row since falling to the Huskies in December.

“If it wasn’t for those injuries [and suspensions], I think we could potentially be undefeated,” Young said.

But Billy Donovan doesn’t want to discuss rankings and what-ifs, even though the last time one of his teams won 17 in a row, it also won the national championship in both 2006 and 2007. These Gators aren’t Joakim Noah, Corey Brewer, Al Horford & Co., though.

[+] EnlargeCasey Prather
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesIt was a good night for Casey Prather and Florida.
“That group had three top-10 players,” Donovan said. “I think that was the first time in the history of the draft that three players went in the top nine. … Our talent level on that team was at a totally different level than this team.”

Donovan admits, however, that the conversation about America’s best team is far from definitive.

“I’m not so sure that you can make an argument or a case and say who should be [No. 1] because on any given night you play against different teams, you’re going to have different results,” he said. “I’m not wrapped up in that at all. I’m really not.”

The Gators haven’t had many chances to score quality wins in the putrid SEC. Wins over Tennessee and Mizzou mean much less than they did a year ago. Kentucky is the only SEC team with the manpower to compete with Florida.

And that’s exactly what it did for the majority of the evening.

Calipari tried to establish a favorable narrative for his team prior to the game.

“It’s our 19-year-olds against their 23-year-olds,” he told reporters on Friday.

But this was not just about age. Kentucky was younger but stronger throughout the first half.

Randle snatched rebounds, hit a 3, led a fast break and attacked Young all night. Andrew Harrison (20 points, four assists, four rebounds) played like a future NBA point guard after halftime. James Young scored 19 points.

Kentucky had a three-point halftime lead. Kentucky controlled the game for long stretches. Kentucky would have beaten a bunch of top-25 squads on Saturday night.

But they played, arguably, America’s best.

There is a certain calm that Florida employs amid drama. Every program touts poise and its value in tight games. But the Gators thrive on it.

They were in a one-point game in the final five minutes at Tennessee on Feb. 11. The Gators won by nine. They held off Memphis in a 77-75 win in December. A week earlier, they’d launched a 21-0 first-half run in a win over Kansas in Gainesville.

Kentucky was the first Florida opponent in weeks that could actually fight back, though. So it was a test for a team that hasn’t faced many NCAA tourney squads during its current winning streak.

And it showed.

The Gators kept trying awkward, up-and-under layups in the first half because they couldn’t find any space inside against Kentucky’s length. Randle got to the rim when he wanted in the first half. Andrew Harrison freestyled off the dribble.

It all looked good and promising. But the Gators were just dragging the young Wildcats into deep water, where the value of their experience grew exponentially in the final minutes. Wilbekin and his teammates made plays that national champions make once Kentucky’s vibe died.

“Every time I went up to the free throw line -- it was a stoppage of play -- I would just be like no matter what happens, sprint back,” said Wilbekin, who finished with 23 points. “We’ve gotta get another stop and another rebound.”

With a minute to play and their favorite team down by six points, some Kentucky fans left the building. Young noticed the exodus and sudden silence that had overtaken Rupp Arena.

“It was eerie because all my three years before this, I couldn’t hear myself think,” Young said. “And just seeing fans walking out of the arena with a minute left, I was really shocked. I was like, ‘The game’s not over yet. Anything can happen.’”

There will be plenty of noise around Florida in the coming weeks.

The most prominent sound that the Gators will hear? Men and women climbing onto their bandwagon.

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