Asked to parse out factors critical ahead Kentucky’s trip to Florida on Tuesday, South Carolina coach Frank Martin didn’t comb the recesses of his brain.
“Guard play,” Martin said Monday.
Indeed, the Wildcats, who returned to the AP poll at No. 25, and their young backcourt of Ryan Harrow, Julius Mays and Archie Griffin figure to be tested by the Gators senior duo of Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario along with junior Scottie Wilbekin.
With the Wildcats (17-6, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) lurking a game back in second place, the stakes are clear ahead of their tilt at 6 p.m. Tuesday on ESPN.
“It’s a high level game featuring two elite teams,” said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, whose Rebels have lost to both UK and UF.
Despite suffering their first Southeastern Conference loss at Arkansas, seventh-ranked Florida (19-3, 9-1) remained second nationally in overall deficiency, according to KenPom.com. Offensively, the Gators lead the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6) and second in turnover margin at plus-3.20.
Each member of the Gators’ guard core has fleshed out a clear role.
Rosario, a senior transfer from Rutgers, leads the group at 13.4 points per game. Boynton, meanwhile, continues to average 12.2 points per game, but has fleshed out a dual-role as UF’s best distributor by ranking third in the SEC at 4.2 assists per game.
Finally, Wilbekin has proved a nuisance at the point guard spot as a lead on ball defender —a facet that proves most important.
“Florida tests your will with their defense,” Martin said. “If your will is weak, Florida will just jump all over you.”
Considering Kentucky coach John Calipari has frequently critiqued Harrow — for dropping his head after turnovers — and Goodwin — for shot selection — it figures the Wildcats might be at a distinct disadvantage.
On Monday, Calipari clarified his sentiments. He has been pleased with Harrow and Goodwin, but covets more consistency from the pair.
“I’m not down on them,” Calipari said. ‘We’re just raising the bar.”
Over the Wildcats’ five game winning streak, Goodwin has been hit or miss. For example, he followed up a 24-point outing in helping upset then-No. 16 Ole Miss with a mere nine on 4 of 10 shooting against South Carolina.
Harrow, though, has been a model of consistency at 11.2 points per game during the same span but averaging roughly half his average in assists.
The potential match-up between Harrow and Wilbekin, who helped force SEC assist leader in Missouri’s Phil Pressey into 10 turnovers, could prove the most vital.
“It starts on the ball,” Calipari said. “They really play the ball good. As your bringing the ball up, they’ve got a guy that can play great pick-and-roll defense and pressure the ball, and make that first pass very difficult.”
Challenge for Vandy
By now, Vanderbilt’s streak of three-consecutive NCAA tournament trips appears to be over.
The Commodores (9-14, 3-7) knocked off Arkansas by 18-points on Saturday, and coach Kevin Stallings’ group looked competitive over three games proceeding it — losing to Tennessee, Alabama and LSU by a combined six points.
Postseason hopes are dimmer, but Stallings said his job remains tough, only in another facet.
“I don’t know if it’s more challenging,” Stallings said. “The other way is challenging, too. Motivating your team in creative, sensible ways is a challenge when you get to February, especially. If you have a good team you want them to stay on edge and want them to stay ready. If you have a team that’s not as good, you want them to have hope.”
After surviving a bruising 52-46 victory against Texas A&M on Saturday, Georgia coach Mark Fox openly lamented as a “slug fest” in postgame remarks.
It wasn’t hyperbole, and Fox reiterated his appraisal Monday.
“The game’s just gotten so physical and become impossible to officiate,” Fox said. “Guys are so strong, so athletic that every play we’re putting so much contact into the game, it’s almost impossible to regulate that.”
Officials whistled the Bulldogs (12-11, 6-4), who have won five in a row, and Aggies (14-9, 4-6) for a combined 47 fouls and shot 58 free throws. Georgia guards Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Charles Mann along with Texas A&M guard Fabyon Harris picked up technical fouls.
Miraculously, only Bulldogs forward Donte Williams fouled out.
“There’s a lot of talk of how physical the game has become, and Saturday’s game was well officiated. There were a lot of fouls called.”
Coach facing old team
Twenty-two months ago, Mike Anderson left behind Missouri, and a somewhat bitter fanbase, to takeover at Arkansas and a program where he served as chief assistant for 17 seasons to former coach Nolan Richardson.
Now, after professing to a reporter he planned to stay at MU for “a long time, (and) retire here,” Anderson will helm the Razorbacks (14-9, 5-5) against the Tigers (17-6, 6-4) on Saturday.
How does he feel about it?
“They’re in my family, and that’s going to be the hardest part,” said Anderson said Monday. You’ve seen them have some tremendous success, but more than anything else it’s Arkansas vs. Missouri.”
Granted, the lone players remaining from his six-season tenure at Mizzou, where he went 111-57, are junior point guard Phil Pressey and fifth-year senior forward Laurence Bowers.
“There will be probably be some emotion involved,” Anderson said. “I haven’t had a chance to see them play in person, but very aware of what they’re capable of doing.”