Kentucky Wildcats vs. Florida Gators Pick & Prediction JANUARY 31st 2024

Kentucky’s offense has been shut down in the last two games.

But its defense stepped up when it needed to Saturday at Arkansas, a good sign for a young team that will need to win a March game or two on that end if it’s to make the deep NCAA Tournament run some of its fans consider a birthright.

The 10th-ranked Wildcats will look for another good defensive effort while getting their high-powered offense back on track Wednesday night when they host Florida in a Southeastern Conference matchup in Lexington, Ky.

Held in the 60s for the second straight game, Kentucky (15-4, 5-2) still came home with a 63-57 victory against Arkansas. Its defense limited the struggling Razorbacks to 33.3-percent shooting from the floor, including 4 of 19 from the 3-point arc, and held them to just over 0.8 points per possession.

Their defense hasn’t been close-your-eyes bad — 70th in adjusted defensive efficiency on — but it hasn’t been the lockdown defense that the top John Calipari teams generally boast.

“We were able to grind it and figure it out,” he said.

Playing well on defense against a free-falling team such as Arkansas is encouraging but not necessarily proof that the issue is fixed. Repeating that performance against a more capable offensive team such as Florida would be a more decisive step in the right direction going into Saturday’s showdown with No. 5 Tennessee.

The Gators (14-6, 4-3) possess roughly the same general strengths and weaknesses as Kentucky — excellent on offense, above average but nothing more than that on defense. They rank eighth in Division I at 85.4 points per game, boosted by their 102-98 overtime win over Georgia on Saturday.

Florida would have preferred not to reach triple figures but it blew a 13-point halftime lead, allowing 51 second-half points and enabling the Bulldogs to sink 11 of 26 3-pointers. The Gators couldn’t find a scheme to contain RJ Melendez, who hit 6 of 10 3-pointers and scored a game-high 35 points off the Georgia bench.

But they did unleash 7-foot-1 center Micah Handlogten on Georgia and he finished with 23 points and 17 rebounds, creating a potential dilemma for Kentucky.

Handlogten is averaging just 7.4 ppg in 19.9 minutes but is shooting 67.4 percent from the floor. And Wildcat centers haven’t played strong of late.

Handlogten collected six offensive boards on Jan. 6 in Gainesville when Florida lost 87-85 to Kentucky. He had seven against Georgia.

“You don’t give Georgia a 23-and-17 unless you’re a dude,” Gators coach Todd Golden said. “A lot of his plays are off effort and hustle. He’s still fighting physicality around the rim and when he plays like that, obviously, it just gives us a huge lift.”

Iona transfer Walter Clayton Jr. is averaging 15.9 points to lead five players in double figures for Florida this season.

Antonio Reeves continues to pace the Kentucky attack at 19.5 points per game and is coming off a 24-point effort at Arkansas.

–Field Level Media

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