2014 SEC Tournament Final: 2 Kentucky vs. 1 Florida, 3:15 pm ET, ESPN
Regular season: 2/15: Florida 69, Kentucky 59; 3/8: Florida 84, Kentucky 65
All season long, two teams stood out above the rest in the conference. Florida and Kentucky: it was meant to be.
These teams are a study in contrasts. One was the preseason No. 1 team; the other is the No. 1 team now. One has a group of seniors leading the way; the other doesn't have a single upperclassman in the regular rotation. One has a coach who's had a number of different jobs; the other has been in the same place 18 seasons now.
In any event, this is the fifth time these two have played for the SEC Tournament final. Kentucky has won three of the past meetings (1994, 2004, 2011) while Florida has won just one (2005). You can count on the crowd in Catlanta being on Kentucky's side, but Florida has already won in Rupp this year.
When Florida blew out Kentucky a little over a week ago, one of the key factors was its ability to effectively double team Julius Randle. The 6-9, 250 lb wrecking ball is not only the best player in this game, but he's physically bigger than anyone in Florida's lineup (6-9, 240 lb Patric Young is closest). Accordingly, one of the top factors in this game will actually be the refs.
Yes, I'm going to the referees as a top issue for this game. SEC officiating has never made many people smile, but now as much as ever, people from every fan base are frustrated with it. It's not just that it can be bad at times. It's maddeningly inconsistent, where the zebras go from letting street fights happen to calling ticky-tack fouls on a whim.
We saw this play out yesterday in the first semifinal. In the first half, Tennessee dominated Florida and became the first SEC team to register a double-digit lead against it. A huge part of the success was its two big men doing good things down low, and they drew a lot of fouls. Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith picked up three fouls apiece in the first half, and all of the Gator forwards were tentative in their play near the basket as a result of the frequent whistles.
Finney-Smith would end up fouling out in the second half, but after calling 16 total fouls in the first half, the refs called half that number in the first 14 minutes of the second half. With the pace of foul calls having slowed, Florida's bigs had a lot more success. The seven-point halftime lead also turned into a two-point Florida lead over that time. Plus, a questionable technical foul that fouled Jeronne Maymon out of the game seriously hurt UT's chances late.
So yeah: for better or worse (mostly worse), the refs really do matter a lot here.
Fortunately the players do too, and the matchup I am looking forward to most is Scottie Wilbekin vs. Andrew Harrison. Both played well in the first meeting of these two, but Wilbekin was better, especially late. In the second game, Wilbekin was better and it wasn't close as Harrison had a miserable 3-14 shooting day. Nevertheless, Harrison has had a great SEC Tournament so far with 11 points and eight assists against LSU and 12 points and nine assists against Georgia. Kentucky must get a good game from him in order to win here, while the SEC Player of the Year is the straw that stirs Florida's drink. Seeing them do battle today should be a treat.
For Kentucky to win this game, the plan is relatively simple. It needs to lean on Randle as much as possible, as he is the most difficult player for the Gators to deal with. When—not if, but when—Florida sends extra help there, the shooters like the Harrison brothers and James Young have to hit their outside looks. I know that sounds pretty generic, but sometimes this stuff doesn't have to be complicated.
For Florida, a good start would be getting off to a good start. The Gators didn't look terribly interested in anything happening in the first half against Missouri, and Tennessee definitely flustered them for the first 20 minutes yesterday. If any of that had to do with motivation, then both Kentucky's presence and the trophy awaiting the winner should clear up any issues there. If UF wants to keep falling behind and relying on a second half surge to take care of things, well OK then. But with how UK has played in Atlanta so far, I wouldn't recommend it.
Ultimately, it's hard to pick against Florida here. It hasn't lost an SEC game yet, and it has thrived in big settings. It doesn't seem likely that the team would remain unblemished this long and then lose it at the end. I don't expect a big win, as the Kentucky team that got blown out in Gainesville doesn't seem to have come to the Georgia Dome. Just as in UF's other two tournament games here, and in the game at Rupp for that matter, I suspect we'll see Florida pull away late to seal the deal.
The pick: Florida 72, Kentucky 65