LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky forward Julius Randle stared ahead and barely pondered the question. Had Florida's experience made the difference in the Gators' 69-59 win Saturday at Rupp Arena? "We're pretty experienced right now," Randle said. "We're 20-plus games into the season. We've just got to finish the games off better, and we didn't today."
Randle and the rest of Kentucky's starting five have combined to play 124 games. The four Florida seniors (Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather) who had spent the previous few minutes explaining how the Gators won, have combined to play 491 games. That group had already played three games at Rupp, and had lost all three. In fact, Florida hadn't won in Lexington since 2007, when Al Horford, Joakim Noah and company felled the Wildcats en route to their second consecutive national title.
Young, the musclebound, fauxhawked forward who by himself has played more college games (136) than all of Kentucky's starters combined, wandered dumbstruck to the postgame handshake line. "I couldn't believe it. It was surreal," Young said. "When the buzzer rang and we were walking off the court, it felt weird. I was like 'Did we really just win here?' Because it was so hard for us. Last year, we let it slip away from us. The years before, we weren't even in the game. To come away with a win here was huge."
Kentucky has a more talented collection of players than Florida. Of this, there is no doubt. The NBA draft certainly will validate that claim. But Kentucky doesn't have a better team than Florida. The Gators proved that Saturday when Wildcats coach John Calipari cried uncle with 10 seconds remaining and walked to shake Florida counterpart Billy Donovan's hand. "I'm not happy," said Calipari, who was whistled for a still-mysterious technical foul with 8:14 remaining that resulted in the two Wilbekin free throws that gave Florida the lead for good. "We lost to a good team. But we had our chances, and we're not ready to win that kind of game."
This is why, on the day before an earlier collection of talented young Wildcats beat Kansas for the national title in 2012, I wrote that Calipari's strategy of stockpiling of one-and-done wonders wouldn't rule college basketball. Decrying Cal's wunderkinds as the killers of amateurism -- which is probably already dead and might never have actually existed -- was the easy, lazy column off that championship game, but it also simply wasn't true. There is a reason those particular Wildcats are the only team since Carmelo Anthony's Syracuse team to win a national title with a one-and-done phenom. (And that came in 2003, three years before the NBA instituted the age limit that inserted one-and-done into the hoops lexicon.) Building a championship team is usually quite difficult. It takes time, practice and a not-insignificant amount of luck.
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The Anthony Davis-Michael Kidd Gilchrist national champs? Lightning in a bottle. Once in a generation. Rarely do young players have such perfect chemistry instantly. For what it's worth, Donovan has said the same of the group that won consecutive national titles for the Gators. When he recruited Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Taurean Green, he had no idea they'd complement one another perfectly and that, as sophomores, they'd mesh ideally with the older players on Florida's roster. Some of that is good recruiting. A lot of it is chance.
That's why these Wildcats, who may have as many as eight first-round draft picks on their roster, couldn't overcome a group of Gators who might have one. Wilbekin, Young, Prather and Yeguete have played together for four years. Each knows how the others think. By now, they can communicate without speaking. They also know how to react to situations they've seen multiple times before. So when the Gators were up five with 1:27 remaining and Wilbekin missed a jumper, Prather, the only player in blue in the lane, knew he had to grab the rebound. Get the ball, and Florida wins. Lose it, and Kentucky might break the Gators' hearts again. Prather rose and outfought three Wildcats for the ball. Randle had no choice but to foul Prather.
Florida players understood because they had seen it all before. After matching the Gators punch-for-punch for 35 minutes, the Wildcats got buried by a final barrage. Once they fell behind by five with less than two minutes remaining, Kentucky players panicked. Florida players didn't. Why not? "Well, we have a veteran group here that's panicked before -- that's been in this situation and not handled it well," Young said.
Don't be fooled by the double-digit final margin, though. Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison was absolutely correct when he said Saturday's result turned on two or three possessions. (And one technical foul. Harrison didn't say that, but it did.) The Wildcats passed the ball well in the first half, grinding out possessions to get open shots against Florida's suffocating defense. Kentucky shot 50 percent in the first half and held the Gators to 33.3 percent shooting in the same period. But few teams, whether young or veteran, have the collective stamina to keep running a successful halfcourt offense against Florida's defense. As Kentucky wore down, the isolation plays became more common. "It was us in the second half not really playing together as a team," said James Young, who scored 19 points and committed five turnovers. "Everybody was playing for themselves."
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That doesn't necessarily mean the Wildcats are selfish. It means they are a young group that didn't understand how to handle the situation into which they were thrown Saturday. They didn't quit. They certainly hustled. Randle (13 points, 13 rebounds) is a surefire lottery pick who could coast if he wanted, but there he was diving out of bounds late to save a missed free throw. "We have so much talent and fight," Kentucky guard Andrew Harrison said. "A lot of people think we're selfish. But we all love each other. We all hurt."
The Gators have hurt that way before, and they used that pain to get better. It took until their senior seasons for the players at the Gators' core to find their proper roles. Well, not Yeguete. He has always understood his place as the glue guy. But Wilbekin, Prather and Patric Young needed most of their careers. Wilbekin started off as a lockdown defender and fairly reliable distributor of the ball with little confidence in his scoring ability. As a senior, he has come to understand that there are points when he must take over. Luke Winn pointed out Wilbekin's newfound ability to reach the free throw line in this week's Power Rankings. Wilbekin proved that again Saturday, driving, getting fouled and sinking seven of eight free throws in the final five minutes.
Prather, meanwhile, struggled for three years to find an on-court identity. "He struggled a lot trying to find his role," Patric Young said of his teammate. "He wanted to be a three-point shooter. He turned the ball over a lot. He was really nervous when he got to the games. He just had to let go of that fear. He just had to let go of being someone he wasn't." What is Prather? A quality slasher on the offensive end who forces defenders to follow him into the lane. Saturday, he led all scorers with 24 points.
Patric Young had a similar problem. He tried to be a player he wasn't. He listened to all the people who compared him to Dwight Howard, ignoring the fact that he's about four inches shorter and more physically similar to Jimmy Graham, the former Miami post who now stars at tight end for the New Orleans Saints. "When reality hits you, it's like 'Wow, I'm not as good as I thought I was.' That's the humbling part," Patric Young said. "But some guys are special. You've got your Julius Randle, Anthony Davis, John Wall -- guys like that. But there's only a handful of those kind of players."
Recently, those kind of players have played for Kentucky. And that's why the Wildcats should not despair over Saturday night's loss. Kentucky's youngsters went toe-to-toe with one of the nation's best teams for most of the evening, and talent can shorten the learning curve significantly. What took Florida's players almost four years to develop might only take four months for Kentucky's players. The Gators are national title contenders, but their heads are brushing their ceiling. The Wildcats couldn't reach their ceiling standing on the shoulders of 7-foot freshman Dakari Johnson, but they don't have much time to climb higher. If Kentucky players work hard, they likely can close the gap between themselves and the Gators before they see them again in Gainesville on March 8.
Calipari's new best friend should be freshly minted NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who reportedly wants to push the NBA's minimum age from 19 to 20. If that happened, Calipari would get two years with many of his charges. He could develop chemistry, could help his players find their ideal roles. Until then, he'll have to hope for another Instant Team like the one that won him a national title two years ago. But even then, that team would have to overcome groups of wily veterans such as these Gators, who weren't good enough to leave early for the NBA but were smart enough to figure out how to make the whole better than the sum of its parts. "They've been together for a while," James Young said. "That's what got them the win."