The pressure is off.
Kentucky, which desperately needed to beat Ole Miss Wednesday night to remain in contention for a double-bye in next week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament, can claim a No. 3 seed with a win over Florida Saturday.
The Wildcats and Gators, along with Arkansas, are in a three-way tie for third in the current conference standings going into the final weekend of the regular season. The Razorbacks take on Missouri at 6 p.m. Saturday in Columbia.
“It (the win over Ole Miss) took everything off the next one, so we can just go play a basketball game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I don’t know if we’re good enough to win or not, but we didn’t need anything else on our plate. Let’s just go play this game. I knew that was the next game and it’s the very last game of the season and all that was, it was going to be and we have gone down there and gotten smashed a couple of times, like smashed. I know how hard it will be and I’ll try to relay to these guys that this is going to be a hard game. Good team, good players, well-coached in that environment. Would you want it any other way though? You’re at Kentucky, let’s go see what happens.”
Prior to his team’s 96-78 win over the Rebels, Calipari never hinted at the importance of beating Ole Miss. Although the stakes were high, Calipari was mum on the significance of the feat, the team’s ninth straight win over the Rebels.
“It was a win that we had to have and I told (the players) after the game — I didn’t want to tell them that — this was like the biggest game of the year for us," he said. "This was it. We had to win this game. If I had approached it that way, you all know they would have peed (on) themselves.”
The players were unaware of the importance of closing out the home portion of the schedule with a victory. Kentucky finished 16-2 at home this season and both setbacks (Tennessee and Florida) were by a combined margin of four points.
“We weren’t aware of (how big the win was) until (Calipari) came and told us after the game,” Wenyen Gabriel said. “We found out how big that win was for us and our team, going forward, that was really good for our morale. It was a big win for us.”
The Gators defeated the Wildcats 66-64 on Jan. 20 at Rupp Arena, but things have changed since the first meeting of the year between the two conference foes. Kentucky closed out February with four straight victories, a string of wins that included an 87-72 rout of Arkansas in Fayetteville on Feb. 20.
“A lot across the board completely (has changed since the first game against Florida)," Kentucky guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We have contributions from a bunch of guys (and) Jarred Vanderbilt has helped us out a lot. He adds a different dynamic and I think we’re a completely different team because if him.”
Gabriel said the team’s current four-game winning streak, currently the longest in the league, is the result of a renewed emphasis on offense.
“We decided to start playing our game through a couple of guys,” he said. “We started running our offense through a couple of guys and everybody else was just going to eat off that. We all figured out our roll (and) as time came on, you don’t think about it as much, because you know what kind of shots you’re going to get and where you’re going to get it. Guys are just more confident out there and when they know what they’re going to do and what they’re going to get. Now, we just have to go out there and play hard.”
That’s what it will take to avenge an earlier-season loss to the Gators this weekend.
“We’re in the position we want to be in, to see if we can go and do something special,” Calipari said.
Keith Taylor is a veteran and award-winning sports writer based in Richmond, Ky. He has been covering University of Kentucky athletics for daily newspapers and web-site publications for the past 25 years. Taylor currently is sports editor for Kentucky Today and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.