When the No. 8 Kentucky Wildcats travel to Gainesville on Sunday for a matchup with No. 1 Florida, it will feature two of the most potent offenses in not only the SEC, but the entire country as well.
Currently, the Cats are fourth in the NCAA in hitting percentage, hitting an impressive average of .329 for the season. Florida isn’t far behind, though, as the Gators are 15th in the country, hitting .278. While Kentucky’s hitting percentage is certainly better than Florida’s, it’s the Gators’ defense that makes them such a tough matchup for their opponents.
As of today, Florida is fifth in the nation in blocks per set, blocking an astounding 3.13 balls during each frame. This is mainly due to their impressive middle duo of 6’4” senior Rhamat Alhassan and 6’8” sophomore Rachael Kramer. Alhassan is currently the second-best player in the country in this category, sending back 1.72 balls per set herself.
While Kentucky’s offense has certainly been firing on all cylinders lately, they haven’t faced an opponent of this caliber since their loss at Kansas over a month ago. In order to knock off the last remaining undefeated team in the country, the Cats are going to have to have their best offensive performance to date.
Thankfully, UK has some star underclassmen who certainly know how to terminate the ball when the Cats need a kill. Sophomore Leah Edmond is currently second in the SEC in kills per set with 4.10, while freshman standout Avery Skinner is seventh with 3.42. In order for Kentucky to be successful, UK’s hitters must find a way to hit around Florida’s imposing block at the net or use it to their own advantage.
One of the ways to play around a block as big as Florida’s is by terminating balls quickly in transition.
“Can we kill the ball in transition? It’s something we’ve been focusing a lot on so I think that’s gonna be the key,” said head coach Craig Skinner.
If Kentucky can have a solid game in serve-receive and quickly get the ball to setter Madison Lilley, their hitters will have a chance to attack the ball before the Gators’ block can get set at the net.
However, a potent offense won’t be enough to stop Florida. UK’s defense is going to have to have a strong game as well, especially at the net.
“If your block doesn’t get involved it’s very hard for the back row to dig the ball and then transition it into offense,” said Skinner.
When the Cats knocked off Florida last year in Gainesville, they had 11 blocks as a team. Seven of those came from Kaz Brown, one of Kentucky’s two senior middle blockers. UK’s other middle, Emily Franklin, sits at third in the conference with 1.43 blocks per set, while Brown comes in at fifth with 1.29. If the Wildcats can get some solid production at the net from their middle blockers like they did in last year’s victory, their back line will have a much easier time picking some of the harder-hit balls off the floor.
If the Cats want to move into sole possession of the top spot in the SEC, it’s going to take some strong performances on both the offensive and defensive sides of the floor. With a block as big as Florida’s, it’s important that Kentucky’s hitters attack the ball quickly to prevent the Gators’ block from getting into position. On the other hand, UK’s middle blockers have to have a strong game out of the middle to allow their back line to dig balls up. If the Cats can accomplish that, there might just be a new leader in the SEC after tomorrow.