No. 23 Kentucky, Florida vying for double bye in SEC tourney
GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Kentucky and Florida seem to be peaking at the perfect time.
The 23rd-ranked Wildcats are the hottest team in the Southeastern Conference, having won four in a row while averaging 87.7 points a game. The Gators, meanwhile, have consecutive victories for the first time in nearly a month thanks to the kind of effort and defensive intensity coach Mike White has been looking for all season.
One of them will keep its streak going Saturday.
Equally important, the winner will guarantee itself a double bye in next week’s SEC Tournament.
“I think anyone that’s got the double bye probably has a little bit of an advantage in winning the tournament championship,” White said.
Indeed, the last five champions — every one since the league went to a 14-team format that included double byes for the top four seeds — were seeded in the top three. The winner Saturday in Gainesville will earn the No. 3 seed in the league tournament in St. Louis.
“That’s really important, but it’s much more of us just focusing on what we need to do going into March and the momentum that we need going into March knowing that this is when the season really starts for us,” Kentucky guard Hamidou Diallo said. “We just need to focus on that and know this is just another big game for us.”
The loser can still get the No. 4 seed, but only if Missouri beats Arkansas later Saturday. If the Razorbacks win on the road, the Kentucky-Florida loser would be the fifth seed.
Neither team expects that given how they’ve played lately.
The Wildcats (21-9, 10-7 SEC) have reeled off four straight following a four-game losing streak. Coach John Calipari’s freshman-laden team hadn’t won four in a row since early December and appears to be learning how to play together in time for the postseason.
“It’s kind of been a combination that guys are more in tune to the team offensively, what they have to do, which makes them more likely to be enthused about defending,” Calipari said.
Even though Florida won in Lexington in January, the Gators won’t have the same number of guys available in the rematch.
Forward Dontay Bassett has been ruled out because of a concussion sustained at Alabama on Tuesday, leaving Florida even thinner than normal in the frontcourt. The Gators have played all season without big men John Egbunu (knee), Isaiah Stokes (knee) and Chase Johnson (concussion). Egbunu, who tore a ligament in his left knee last February, was officially ruled out for the season Friday because of continued swelling.
Egbunu had his knee drained five times and had a cortisone shot in hopes of getting back on the court. He visited renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews last month and had bone marrow removed from his back and injected into his knee to promote healing.
“It’s tough,” he said. “I just feel like everybody’s body is different. There are some guys who can come back from some injuries pretty quickly and some guys that need a little bit longer. My case might have been that I need a little longer. I don’t know.
“I just feel like it would be a great disservice to the team and myself if I go out there and understand that I’m not really ready, and I don’t want to do that.”
Egbunu will be one of three Florida seniors recognized before their home finale. Point guard Chris Chiozza and graduate transfer Egor Koulechov also will be honored before tipoff.
Chiozza is on the verge of becoming the school’s all-time assist leader. He needs one to pass Erving Walker, who has 547.
“It means a lot,” Chiozza said. “It’s not something I ever really thought about when I got here. ... I’d rather get assists than score, so I think that speaks a lot.”
Getting another win would be even bigger.
“There’s a tremendous difference with how hard we’re playing and how unselfish we’ve been playing and moving the ball,” he said. “The major difference is defense. ... We have a reputation where we’ll play good a couple of games and the next game we’re terrible, so hopefully we’re done with that. That’s what we’re really focused on, just playing hard and trying to stay on the rise rather than being a team that’s on a roller-coaster every game.”
AP Sports Writer Gary Graves in Lexington, Kentucky, contributed to this report.
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