There are few secrets when it comes to the Florida basketball team.
If you want to beat the Gators â€" and Kentucky does, when it visits Gainesville, Fla., Tuesday night â€" you'd better be good. You'd better control the pace. You'd better lock down defensively. And, perhaps most importantly, your guards had better bring it.
"Your guard play has to be extremely strong and disciplined in its approach," said South Carolina coach Frank Martin, who has lost to both the Wildcats and the Gators. "Florida tests your will with their defense, and if your will is weak, then they just jump all over you. So your guard play is the most important thing when you go up against Florida."
And for No. 25 Kentucky (17-6, 8-2 Southeastern Conference), that could be problematic.
It's not that the Wildcats are short on capable guards. At different times this season, freshman Archie Goodwin, sophomore Ryan Harrow and senior Julius Mays each has had a turn at looking like Kentucky's best player.
But all three have had their struggles, including Goodwin and Harrow in recent games.
Against No. 7 Florida (19-3, 9-1), those guards can ill afford off nights.
"We all know that, and our guards know that," UK coach John Calipari said. "This is the challenge. You can't make excuses. You can't cop out. Here it is. Let's show what we are."
Kentucky's backcourt still is trying to figure out exactly what it is.
Harrow missed four games early this season with an undisclosed illness followed by a family issue. But the point guard settled in after his return and at one point strung together eight straight double-digit scoring games.
During that same span, Harrow had 35 assists and 15 turnovers.
Harrow's scored in double figures in four of his last six games since, but has 13 assists and 11 turnovers.
And Harrow's once-reliable defense has been suspect enough in recent games that Calipari has increased former walk-onJarrod Polson's minutes. Calipari said that he'd "absolutely" feel comfortable playing Polson significant minutes against the Gators.
"You stick (Polson) in the game, and he just plays his butt off," Calipari said. "Then everybody says, 'Why won't the other guys watch that and do that?' He's doing it."
In last Saturday's win against Auburn, Polson played more minutes (20) than Goodwin (17), whose recent struggles have been even more pronounced than Harrow's.
Goodwin played perhaps his best game of the season two weeks ago at Ole Miss, finishing with 24 points, six rebounds and four assists. But he has three single-digit scoring games in his past six and hasn't made half or more of his shots in a game since Jan. 19.
Over his past 11 games, Goodwin is 1-for-21 from three-point range, and his season shooting from long range has dipped to 25.6 percent. He's 1-for-18 from three-point range in SEC play.
But Goodwin's confidence is unshaken, and he'll enter Tuesday's Florida game with confidence.
"These are the type of games that I feel like I was made for and I know this team's made for," Goodwin said Monday. "I feel like we're going to go out there and get a win."
It would be Kentucky's biggest of the season, and it poses one of the Cats' most daunting challenges to date. Florida is 11-0 at home this season and has beaten its six SEC opponents at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center by an average of 28.4 points per game.
"I could care less about the way they've played," Goodwin said. "Because we're not the team that they beat by 30 and 20. We're a different team. If we let something like that intimidate us, we won't be that confident in ourselves. We don't worry about that. We just go into the game with our game plan, try to execute it the best that we can."
That game plan won't be easy to execute. Calipari conceded that the Cats face an uphill battle in Gainesville.
"Let's put it this way: They were an Elite Eight team last year that should have been in the Final Four, one game short of that," Calipari said. "And they got everybody back. And college basketball isn't what it was a year ago. So that's how good a challenge, or big a challenge, and how good a team they are."
And much of what makes Florida click comes from its backcourt.
The Gators start three guards â€" junior Scottie Wilbekin and seniors Kenny Boynton and Mike Rosario â€" who have played a combined 340 collegiate games.
Kentucky's three starting guards have played a combined 182, but 111 of those come from Mays, and 88 of his career games came at North Carolina State or Wright State.
"They have great guards," UK forward Kyle Wiltjer said. "They get out and run, so our guards are going to have to step up."
Kentucky's guards have to defend Florida's at the three-point line, Calipari said, and limit turnovers to keep the Gators from getting easy baskets in transition.
It's a challenge Goodwin said the Cats' backcourt is ready to accept.
"I feel like we're going to take it just like any other game," Goodwin said. "Most of the teams we play have good guard play. I just feel like if we stay aggressive and be patient with everything we're doing, there shouldn't be a reason why we don't win."
Site: Stephen C. O'Connell Center (11,548), Gainesville, Fla.
TV: ESPN (Brad Nessler play by play, Dick Vitale analyst, Shannon Spake sideline).SEC Network affiliates.
Radio: UK IMG Sports Network (Tom Leach play-by-play, Mike Pratt analyst); Sirius 91/XM 91.
Favorite: Florida by 11
Series record: Kentucky leads 93-33
At Gainesville: Kentucky leads 33-22
Coaches' records: Calipari 8-1 vs. Florida; Donovan 13-22 vs. Kentucky
Last meeting: Kentucky 74, Florida 71, March 10, 2012, New Orleans (SEC Tournament semifinal).
In the third and final meeting between the two teams last season, the Wildcats completed a sweep, rallying from a 10-point first-half deficit, then holding off a Gators rally late. Doron Lamb led Kentucky with 16 points. Anthony Davis had 15 points, 12 rebounds and two blocked shots, and Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague each had 15 points. Erik Murphy led Florida with 24 points, seven of them in a spurt that pulled the Gators to within two points late in the game.
Keys to the Game
1. Man in the Middle: Florida's Patric Young still isn't the consistent force his NBA-ready body suggests he should be, but he's made strides as a junior. Among the most significant: Young is better at protecting the rim. His 38 blocked shots this season already are a career high. He's also committing slightly fewer fouls per game this season, allowing him to play slightly more minutes. That's a product of experience, Florida coach Billy Donovan said. Young is learning how to play defense smarter, retaining his aggressiveness while decreasing his fouls.
2. Threes are Key: John Calipari exaggerated a bit on Monday when he told reporters that Florida is making 11 three-pointers per game in SEC play. But he wasn't that far off. The Gators are averaging a league-best 9.9 made three-pointers in conference play, and their 99 made three-pointers in SEC games are 20 more than the second-place SEC team. Florida leads the SEC in three-point shooting in conference play (40.9 percent) and overall (38.8 percent).
3. Inside-Out: The perimeter isn't Florida's only strength. The Gators lead the league in rebounding margin in conference games only at +7.1 per game (Kentucky is second at +5.1). And in SEC play, Florida leads the league in field-goal percentage (50.5 percent) and field-goal percentage defense (37.3). Kentucky ranks second in both categories. In conference play, the Gators are the league leader in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, and they rank second to Arkansas in turnover margin.