ATLANTA -- It’s the matchup that both sides wanted. It’s what fans lurking inside and outside of the Georgia Dome wanted.
And it’s what anyone with any interest in seeing the SEC tournament final wanted.
Florida and Kentucky.
It’s the nation’s No. 1 team against the preseason favorite to win it all. It’s the talk of “40-0” versus the whispers of Florida possibly making another Elite Eight run.
Kentucky, with all those fancy freshmen, was supposed to waltz through this season on the way to its ninth national championship in school history.
Florida’s road was built with so many unknowns that many still aren’t sure how the Gators got into the position of being the country’s top-ranked team and staring at the No. 1 overall seed, regardless of what happens Sunday.
With the Gators’ feisty 56-49 win over Tennessee and Kentucky’s 70-58 victory against Georgia on Saturday, the stage is set to showcase the SEC’s best teams and the league’s only assured NCAA tournament locks on Sunday.
“I've had enough of Florida,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said jokingly Saturday. “For four years I've seen the same guys. Some of them I think five years. I think they got a special program down there where they keep guys for six years.
“But what a great team. What a great story. What a great coaching job. You're talking about a team that it's almost an honor to play a team like that.
“My players can all say what they want. I'm not looking forward to playing Florida again.”
Calipari laughed when he said that, but no one would be shocked if that statement carried more truth than anything. The Gators swept Kentucky during the regular season for just the fifth time in school history. The first game was a rugged 69-59 win in Lexington, Ky., while the second was an 84-65 shellacking in Gainesville, Fla., during the Gators’ senior night.
It was a game that stamped a 1-seed on Florida’s Gator head logo and left many wondering if Kentucky could even make any sort of postseason run.
“We played as a bunch of individuals on their senior day,” Kentucky forward Willie Cauley-Stein said. “Now, we’re sharing the ball, and that’s been our turnaround.
“It’s going to be a different feel, like it’s not even the same team.”
After two impressive team wins by the Wildcats and two slow first halves by Florida, Kentucky appears to be a more formidable opponent for the nation’s No. 1 team.
“We want this game bad,” said Kentucky guard James Young, who has averaged 17.5 points in two SEC tournament games. “We’re just going to treat it like every other game and just come out and fight.
“We’re going to come out with a little bit more energy in this game than what we had in the last two games.”
Florida got here with minimal flash and a bevy of teamwork, while the Wildcats took a bumpier, more frustrating path that seems to have smoothed a bit in Atlanta. The Gators have been a cohesive unit for most of the season, leading them to a school-record 25 straight wins and an unblemished conference record for the first time ever. Florida also became the first SEC team to go undefeated during an 18-game SEC schedule.
The question now is if Florida has hit a bit of a wall. The wins continue, but back-to-back shaky first halves have shown holes in the Gators’ armor. A loss Sunday wouldn’t jeopardize Florida’s seeding, but players say they’ve come too far and want the streak to continue into April with a trip to the Final Four and national championship.
“That’s the plan, but we have to do a better job of coming out ready to play because the deeper we get into the season -- the deeper we get into the tournament -- the teams are going to get better,” Florida guard Michael Frazier II said. “So we have to do a better job of being ready to play from the start.”
The thing about these two teams is that they operate in completely different ways. Until recently, the Wildcats have had too much individual play, while Florida has always focused on the unit. Kentucky has a core of high school All-Americans, while the Gators have greatly improved veterans.
Kentucky basketball is exciting and high-flying when it’s clicking. Florida ball is all about fundamentals, defense and control.
Think Miami Heat versus the San Antonio Spurs.
After two days, Kentucky has a little hotter hand, but Florida’s blue-collar approach hasn’t failed the Gators yet.
“We keep pounding the brick, keep pounding the brick,” Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “Eventually, we’re going to break through the wall.”