This Saturday saved the best for last.
We got some entertaining hoops early in the day. We got some important bubble implications, too. But none of this afternoon's games held a candle to what came this evening, both on the East Coast, in Florida's 70-68 win over Kentucky, and on the West Coast, where Arizona beat Cal in a triple-overtime classic -- final score: 107-105 -- that most of the nation (and most of California, if the complaints on Twitter are any indication) didn't get to see.
But the "College GameDay" matchup in Gainesville, Fla., was the feature presentation of the day, and it didn't disappoint. Florida and Kentucky played a tight, closely contested slugfest for 40 minutes. Florida built a lead. Kentucky battled back. In the end, Billy Donovan's team outlasted the Wildcats after Brandon Knight's 3-point attempt with two seconds on the clock fell short and Kenny Boynton grabbed the rebound as the clock wound to zeros. The Gators got another huge win over a ranked team, held serve on their home court and -- perhaps most importantly -- put themselves in the SEC East driver's seat as we enter the conference season stretch run. Great game, great environment, huge win.
How did Florida make it happen? To the bullets!
To paraphrase Oscar Hammerstein II, let's start with Chandler Parsons; he's a very good place to start. Parsons has always been talented, and he's always been versatile. But Saturday, he had the best, and most important, game of his career. Parsons scored 17 points on 6-of-10 from the field, including a 2-of-4 mark from beyond the arc. He also added 12 rebounds, five assists and a block. But the numbers don't really do Parsons' performance justice. The senior forward was the most consistent -- probably the only consistent -- source of points down the stretch for Florida. His crash-the-glass tendencies gave Florida two huge buckets on missed shots late in the second half. (Any time one of his teammates shot the ball, Parsons flew to the rim; it was a remarkable thing to watch.) His dribble penetration gave Florida its best looks all game long and yielded one of the best passes (an impossibly perfect, blind behind-the-back dropoff) you'll ever see. And his clutch free throw down the stretch -- free throws being easily the worst part of Parsons' game -- helped hold off Kentucky's late run. What do you want from a star? Consistent productivity, a healthy dose of flair, some defense-challenging versatility and clutch plays when they matter most. Parsons delivered on all counts Saturday night. Florida will celebrate as a team, but in many ways, this win was his.
It nearly wasn't, though. The Wildcats never played particularly well on offense Saturday night, but the real surprise was how lenient they were with Florida for the first, oh, 30 minutes of the game. As detailed below, Florida's offense was in rhythm for much of the night; the Gators spent most of the first half getting good medium-range looks. But Kentucky shored up the defensive end in the second half, partly thanks to John Calipari's decision to switch to an extended zone. That was a smart play: Florida struggled (per the usual) from beyond the arc -- the Gators were 6-of-19 from 3 -- and once Kentucky ratcheted up the pressure in the second half, it was able to force the Gators to either take long shots or face the Wildcats' supreme athleticism around the rim. That allowed Kentucky to quickly chip away at Florida's 13-point second half lead. Then, with 5:43 left, Terrence Jones made his only 3 of the night to give the Cats a 59-58 lead. It appeared Kentucky had finally solved the Gators on the defensive end. Parsons and Florida got those key buckets and free throws to hold on, but the defensive performance that preceded the final minutes was impressive. If only the Cats had defended like that for 40 minutes, eh?
Florida has struggled on offense for much of the season, but it appears to be improving in a variety of important ways. The most important? The Gators move. Billy Donovan's spread pick-and-roll offense requires lots of movement, not just from the players on the ball, but from weakside players and post men screening the opposite block under the hoop. When Florida is at its best on offense, it has five players moving, cutting, screening, flashing the post and squaring up for open jumpers. The Gators did that Saturday night, and it's one reason they were able to keep pace with what has been one of the nation's best defenses for much of the season.
Of course, it wasn't all good. Florida is still far too reliant on 3-pointers in its offense despite the fact that the Gators shoot a mere 33.7 percent from 3 as a team. The Gators are much better served getting the ball into the block, or getting into the teeth of the defense with dribble penetration. The Wildcats' athleticism makes them tough to beat off the dribble, but still: Florida is a bad team behind the arc and a good one (50.5 percent on the season) inside it. Shoot less, drive more. Shoot less, drive more. Mantra, Gators. Mantra.
Boynton remains a frustratingly inefficient player. This is not a new observation, but it remains a salient one. Boynton is fully capable of creating his own shot, and if he can get to the rim against Kentucky -- as he did numerous times Saturday night -- he can probably get to the rim against anyone. But Boynton still settles for too many 3s. What's worse, it's not a matter of which 3s Boynton takes. Boynton struggled to knock down both challenged and wide-open 3s against Kentucky -- he was 1-of-6 from beyond the arc and 4-of-12 from the field -- and those struggles aren't anything new. Boynton is shooting 29 percent from long range. This appears to be who he is. When you're shooting 30 percent from 3, it's probably a good idea to put the ball on the floor a little more often. But because Boynton has those hot streaks -- and because opposing defenses, or at least the Wildcats, seem content to leave him open on the perimeter -- the sophomore is likely to keep firing away.
Speaking of frustrating players, it's easy to see why Kentucky's Jones occasionally draws the ire of his coach. Jones is as talented as any player in the nation -- though he would probably benefit from being a bit less reliant on his left hand -- but he still makes plenty of plays that scream "freshman!" in flashing neon lights. He can also be lured into taking 3s, where he is not a particularly effective player. (Jones is shooting 31 percent from beyond the arc this season.) A perfect example: In the first half, Jones caught the ball in traffic, stopped on a dime (all that athleticism comes in handy), fought off a handful of Florida defenders, cleared his own space, dribbled the ball out and appeared ready to reset the offense ... before launching a 3 from the wing. None of this should take away from how consistently productive the freshman has been this season, or the talent that will make him a very rich man in a few months. And, hey, he scored 18 points and grabbed seven rebounds Saturday. Not too shabby. But Jones does have his freshman-esque flaws, and those flaws are emblematic of the struggles that afflict this Kentucky team so frequently on the road.
Are Kentucky's road woes something to worry about? Maybe. I don't think you can worry too much about a two-point loss at Florida, especially when that loss came after a gutty second-half comeback led by a lockdown defensive effort. This was, despite the final score, an impressive effort. But given that Kentucky has now lost three SEC games on the road, you wonder if this Kentucky team's youth will keep it from reaching the heights its freshman talent makes it capable of in the first place. (Is this the unsolvable conundrum of the one-and-done recruiting strategy? Maybe. Maybe not. This was just one game, in the middle of one season. But it is food for thought.)
We should probably mention Knight's ruthlessly efficient 24-point performance, which included a 4-of-5 mark from 3. Knight had four turnovers to go with his four assists, but in every other regard he was the catalyst for much of Kentucky's offense, especially when Calipari's hybrid dribble-drive broke down and someone had to make something happen. Frequently, that someone was Knight. No surprise there; Knight has been this good pretty much all year. If there is a flaw in his game, it's that he doesn't get to the rim quite enough, and Kentucky could probably benefit from more 10 foot pull-ups and fewer 3s. But if Knight's hitting his shots, it's hard to complain too much.
We should probably also mention Ted Valentine's late call on Kentucky forward Josh Harrellson. As Doug Gottlieb noted on "ESPN's College Basketball" Final Saturday night, Valentine was on the opposite side of the floor when Florida guard Erving Walker tried to split a high screen double-team and ran into Harrellson and Kentucky forward DeAndre Liggins. The play looked like a clear tie-up and jump ball, but Valentine sprinted into the play and called a reach-in foul on Harrellson. It's never fun to criticize referees; those guys have as tough a job (at least in terms of mental pressure and split-second demands) as anyone in the country. But Valentine looked wrong there, and his reputation as a referee who likes to be part of the show -- "TV Teddy V" is a well-earned nickname -- probably showed through on the Harrellson foul.
Florida guard Scottie Wilbekin hasn't been much more than a spot reserve for the Gators this season, and he hasn't been the most efficient spot reserve at that, but if Saturday's game was any indication, he has the ability to contribute when opposing defenses collapse on the diverse batch of scorers around him. That's precisely happened in the first half Saturday night. Kentucky left Wilbekin open in a variety of situations, and when the Gators found him, he converted (2-of-2 from 3-point range). Wilbekin also flashed a bit of floor game, drawing a foul early in the half, followed by a nice hanging finish at the rim with about six minutes remaining. Those might seem like minor contributions, but if Wilbekin can add even the threat of scoring, Florida's improving half-court offense will be even more difficult to defend. Plus, if we know anything about these Gators, it's this: They could use a consistent outside shooter.
Finally, if you're possibly interested in any more bubble talk, Florida now appears to be an NCAA tournament lock. The Gators just added a sixth top 50 RPI win to their already impressive résumé. Their computer numbers are strong. Their bad losses (to Jacksonville and UCF) shouldn't matter much. And perhaps most importantly, they're now in the driver's seat to win a regular-season SEC title. Home win or not, close test or not, make no mistake: This was a huge win for the Gators. And well-earned, too.