Kentucky-Florida Preview

Some recent struggles have made it more difficult for Kentucky to earn back-to-back outright SEC regular-season championships for the first time in 20 years.

A February freefall has Florida on the verge of more March sadness.

The 22nd-ranked Gators look to avoid a third loss in four games Tuesday night when they try for a fifth consecutive win over the slumping Gators.

Kentucky (21-8, 11-5) dropped into a first-place tie with Texas A&M on Saturday, falling 74-62 at Vanderbilt while the Aggies - who beat the Wildcats in overtime Feb. 20 - won at Missouri. The Commodores, South Carolina and LSU are one game back as the regular season comes to an end this weekend.

The Wildcats won the SEC during their 31-0 regular season in 2014-15, putting them on the verge of consecutive outright titles for the first time since 1995-96.

Their performance Saturday, though, has coach John Calipari concerned.

''We did not fight back,'' he said.

Kentucky was outscored 38-23 in the second half, and if not for freshman Jamal Murray's 33 points, the final score could have been much worse.

Alex Poythress fouled out without scoring in his second game back from an injured right knee, Tyler Ulis shot 5 of 20 for 12 points and no other Wildcat scored in double figures as Kentucky lost for the fourth time in its last five on the road.

Calipari said before Monday's practice that he plans on making some ''tweaks'' against Florida (17-12, 8-8).

''It's not a wholesale change from what we do but ... most of you in this room will have no idea what I tweaked, but the people that really follow it and study it will say 'well this is what he just did,''' Calipari said.

Murray scored a season-high 35 and Ulis added 18 in an 80-61 win over Florida on Feb. 6. That began a stretch of five losses in seven games for the Gators.

They enter this one having dropped three in a row for the first time in more than a year and are on the verge of playing themselves out of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season.

Although coach Mike White's team can always win the SEC tournament next week in Nashville, Tennessee, and lock up an automatic berth in the 68-team NCAA field, no one who has seen the Gators struggle down the stretch would even consider that a realistic possibility.

So Florida's best bet at bolstering its NCAA Tournament resume comes against Kentucky. It's Florida's home finale as well as Senior Night for leading scorer Dorian Finney-Smith.

''It's huge,'' White said Monday. ''We've squandered some opportunities, and this is one of the last few we'll have. Obviously, this is a big, big opportunity for our guys to overcome some mistakes and failures. It'll be a very, very difficult game to win, but if we play very well - we're at home - we should have our chances.''

Indeed, the Gators are 12-3 in the O'Connell Center but have lost two in a row there.

More problematic for Florida, its once-reliable defense has been shaky at best in recent weeks, culminating with giving up a combined 183 points the last two games.

The effort was so amiss against Vanderbilt and LSU that White held a defense-only practice Sunday.

''We just have to get back to whatever we've been doing,'' Finney-Smith said. ''We just have to buckle down and play defense. Our defense. When we gets stops, it gives us a better chance of winning. When we don't get any stops, we can't rely on us making jump shots on our offense because we're an up-and-down offensive team, but we can control our defense.''

The Gators could have more control of their postseason fate, but they lost in February to Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and LSU. Florida's RPI has suffered, too, falling to No. 46.

A win against the Wildcats would work wonders.

''We still have a chance if we can just be the best team,'' said Finney-Smith, who had a season high-tying 24 points in the first meeting. ''They're a great team. They're going to come out and play with a lot of energy. They just lost on the road. We know they're going to be jacked up. We just have to come out and be the better team.''

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