LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Top-ranked Kentucky is one game away from clinching its first unbeaten regular season.
The Wildcats (30-0, 17-0 Southeastern Conference) expect Florida to make that pursuit tough for them on Saturday, especially since the Gators will be back at full strength. Leading scorer Michael Frazier II returns from a seven-game absence because of a high ankle sprain he suffered in last month’s meeting in Gainesville.
How much he’ll play remains to be seen, but Kentucky coach John Calipari is preparing his team for a different look from a Florida team that gave the Wildcats all they could handle the first time.
“He spreads the court, and what they are doing in their pick-and-rolls is just keeping everybody away from the basket,” Calipari said Friday, “trying to get rim baskets or 3s, or moving the ball from there and driving. (Florida coach) Billy (Donovan) has done a great job with this team.”
Of course, being on the cusp of a milestone says a lot about Kentucky’s performance under Calipari.
Big Blue Nation never expects their beloved Wildcats to lose. But running the table would be an achievement few foresaw even for a program that always has lofty expectations.
The journey hasn’t been pretty and capping it off won’t be easy.
The Wildcats have had near-flawless performances along with gut checks along the way.
That includes Tuesday night’s late escape against Georgia in their last outing.
Now, all that stands in the way for Kentucky to go 31-0 is Florida (15-15, 8-9 SEC). The Wildcats see it as just another hurdle in their quest for the ultimate reward.
They understand, though, others don’t see just another game.
“Every game seems to be an event,” Calipari said as he tried to downplay its significance. “This will be another event.”
The Wildcats have been ranked No. 1 all season and are beating opponents by nearly 22 points per game. They’ve trailed for just 165.1 of 1,215 minutes this season.
Some of Kentucky’s best efforts have come against marquee opponents — beating Kansas by 32 points and UCLA by 39. They also have double-digit wins over Top-25 opponents including Texas and North Carolina. They toppled the Tar Heels after losing starting forward Alex Poythress to a season-ending knee injury two days before that showdown.
Still, unheralded schools such as Buffalo, Boston University and Columbia made the Wildcats work harder than expected. The first week of SEC play was especially tense as Mississippi and Texas A&M pushed Kentucky to overtime before the Wildcats gutted out wins using their length and depth.
Kentucky has embraced the challenges along the way.
When trailing by nine points with nine minutes left at pesky Georgia, Calipari told his team in a huddle that he hoped they fell behind by 10 so they could see how they’d respond. They won 72-64.
“Nobody panicked, everybody just stayed doing what they do,” 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein said. “You’ve got to come up and make plays when it’s like that, and that’s the NCAA Tournament right there. That was a great test for us.”
Now, they’re just one win away from achieving something that all those past great Kentucky teams couldn’t.
Former Wildcats forward Kenny Walker said it’s impressive with all the parity in college basketball and players leaving school after a year or two. Indiana was the last unbeaten NCAA champion in 1976, though several teams have won their first 30 or more games — most recently last year’s Wichita State squad that began 35-0 before falling to Kentucky in the third round.
“You’ve got to try and get it done in one or two years, and that’s even more difficult,” said Walker, a two-time All-American who played for Kentucky from 1983-86. “What Kentucky is doing is really going beyond anything that we’ve seen. If they can keep it up, it can go down as one of the greatest seasons in college basketball because of the number of games they’d have won to do it.”
Kentucky will have to earn it with a second win against Florida this season. The Wildcats will have 6-foot-10 freshman Trey Lyles this time around after he missed the previous meeting with strep throat.
The Gators feel they let one get away in last month’s 68-61 loss.
“You have to play a game where you can’t be inconsistent at all against them,” Donovan said.
And with Frazier (13.2 points) back for the game, the Gators have no interest in becoming a footnote in Kentucky history.
“We’ve just got to go in there, accept the challenge and go in there to win the game,” junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “We can’t get frustrated when things don’t go our way.”
AP Sports Writer Mark Long in Gainesville, Florida, contributed to this report.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.