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Florida's junior class continues its UK domination

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- As every self-respecting basketball fan knows by now, the history-altering Florida junior class calls itself the Oh-Fours. As in 2004, the year they were recruited to Gainesville.

The Kentucky junior class is altering history, too. In the wrong direction. When it comes to beating the Gators, you can almost call them the Oh-Fers.

The Wildcats' 64-61 loss to the Gators on Saturday night at raucous Rupp Arena was the fifth straight for Kentucky's juniors against Florida's juniors. They won the first meeting, way back in February 2005, and have been skunked ever since.

"Tough to swallow," said one of those Kentucky juniors, guard Ramel Bradley.

Swallow it they must, because the Gators are force-feeding it to them.

This was the Wildcats' first five-game losing streak against a Southeastern Conference opponent since Bernard King and Tennessee thumped them five straight from 1975-77. And given the fact that the next meeting is in Gainesville next month, the chances of Kentucky enduring its first six-game SEC losing streak to the same opponent ever appear fairly strong.

The two junior classes' fates have become intertwined -- and ultimately divergent. Florida's has captured consecutive SEC tournament championships and an NCAA title, and positioned itself strongly for a repeat, while Kentucky's has done little more than tease its fans and its coach.

Along the way Billy Donovan has risen to the top of his profession, while Tubby Smith's future could be tied tenuously to this class.

Thing is, nobody saw this coming 2½ years ago. Nobody.

At midnight madness 2004, Kentucky unveiled a recruiting class ranked No. 1 in America: Randolph Morris, Joe Crawford, Ramel Bradley and Rajon Rondo. After years of uneven talent procurement, Smith looked like he finally had the group that would get him back to the Final Four for the first time since 1998, and possibly deliver him his second national title. It would also be his first without Rick Pitino's players, as a few thousand Big Blue backers would be quick to tell you.

At Florida, meanwhile, nobody was slobbering over Donovan's recruiting class -- for once. The guy who was making quite a career out of stockpiling hamburger All-Americans went light on hype with Taurean Green, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah.

As it has famously turned out, that class has been long on chemistry, basketball IQ and winning attitude.

Somewhere along the way, Kentucky's ballyhooed class slipped behind Florida's undervalued class. And it cannot catch up.

Literally.

The gap between the two looks small on paper: three points Saturday, on a night when Kentucky went blind from 3-point range, missing 18 of its first 19 behind the arc. But consider another set of numbers:

The Wildcats never led in this game. Not for a second. To take it even further, they never even launched a shot that would have given them the lead. Not one.

There were bookend 3-point attempts that could have tied the game: one in the first minute by Bradley, with the score 3-0, and one in the last, with the score 64-61. Appropriately on this night, both missed.

Playing from behind has become habitual for the Cats against the Gators.

They led for only a glimmer of time last year in a 15-point Senior Day loss at Rupp. They were blown out in the second half last year in Gainesville.

Over the last 98 minutes and 19 seconds of basketball time against Florida, Kentucky has led for a total of 1:36.

The ancient roles have reversed here in the SEC. The Gators own the league and the Wildcats are just another bunch of strivers hoping to knock them off.

Yet if ever there were a setup that favored the Cats, this was it: An ESPN GameDay festival atmosphere, a national television audience, a record crowd of 24,465, a 9 p.m. tipoff and an entire blue-blood state that was in the rare position of having to prove itself to an opponent. Nobody in college basketball does XL better than Kentucky, and this was XL at its loudest.

"I expected it to be loud," UK freshman Jodie Meeks said, "but the ground was shaking."

Florida was not.

The Gators threw a 30-14 haymaker at the Cats right out of the box, sucking the enthusiasm out of the gigantic building. Florida moved the ball with its trademark precision, creativity and unselfishness, notching assists on nine of its first 10 baskets.

But with the score 31-16, big man Al Horford picked up his second foul and went to the bench for the rest of the first half. Fellow postman Joakim Noah joined him there two minutes later.

Suddenly, Kentucky had the comeback opportunity it needed. The Wildcats cranked up their admirably fierce defense -- the Gators amazingly never produced another assist the rest of the game -- and the crowd revived. It became a ballgame the rest of the way.

Yet inevitably, the ballgame ended with Florida on top.

Afterward, Kentucky could be happy with its effort while expending a large amount of regret about the open shots it missed. That's understandable. But you cannot simply chalk this up as a cold night at the office.

Think of the opportunity foul-plagued Florida presented the Cats: Noah played just 21 minutes (fewest since a December romp over Stetson) and scored a season-low six points; Horford also played 21 minutes (fewest since a November crushing of Chattanooga) and scored only nine points; and sharpshooter Lee Humphrey went 1 for 7 (his worst game of the year).

And still Kentucky couldn't win. Or lead. Or even so much as tie.

Even with Noah and Horford sitting and watching for much of the game, the Oh-Fours outplayed the Oh-Fers. Florida's junior class combined for 44 points. Kentucky's -- which lost the saturnine Rondo to the NBA last year -- also produced 44 points, but needed 42 shots to get them. Florida's group took just 30.

Morris played another in a series of passive first halves before exploding in the second half. Bradley and Crawford, meanwhile, lobbed bricks all night. They were a combined 10 of 29 from the field and 3 for 16 from three-point range -- with Bradley hitting two desperation threes in the final half minute. Bradley also was just 3 for 8 from the foul line.

Not winning numbers. Especially against Billy Donovan's bunch of winners.

"I never felt like we were in the flow of the game," Donovan said. "But we found a way to win."

Now three games behind the Gators in the SEC East, it looks like Kentucky will remain in Florida's rearview mirror. Still, Bradley sounded an optimistic note.

"We've still got the Wildcat Invitational," he said, referring to the SEC tournament in Atlanta.

That's a dated term. Kentucky won 10 out of 13 league tournament titles from 1992-2004, a run that gave birth to that phrase.

But the Oh-Fers are 0 for 2 when it comes to conference tourney titles. The Oh-Fours, meanwhile, have turned the event into the Gator Invitational, winning two straight -- just another sign of the changed times in the SEC.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.