GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The first part of Florida's Southeastern Conference schedule was not exactly treacherous waters.
The Gators' first seven games came against teams that are a combined 10-25 in SEC play. Only Mississippi State (17-5) and LSU (12-9) have winning records overall, and only the Bulldogs (4-3) have a winning conference record. Florida went 6-1 in the stretch -- the only loss a head-scratcher at Tennessee (10-12, 2-5) to open SEC play -- and won those six games by an average of 12.0 points.
Over the next four days, however, things get considerably tougher for the 11th-ranked Gators (18-4, 6-1). They play two of the league's top three teams -- at home against Vanderbilt (16-6, 5-2) on Saturday and on the road at top-ranked Kentucky (22-1, 8-0) on Tuesday. It's a two-game stretch that will show whether the Gators are legitimate contenders for the league title.
"Two huge games, two great teams," point guard Erving Walker said. "We feel like we're as good as either team. We know it's not going to be easy, so it should be two really tough games."
UF, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are the league's top three teams in scoring, scoring margin, field-goal percentage, and 3-point shooting percentage. The Gators have beaten the Commodores three consecutive times and have won nine of the last 10 meetings in Gainesville. Florida, however, is just 8-46 against Kentucky in Lexington and haven't won in Rupp Arena since beating the Wildcats in back-to-back trips in 2006 and 2007 -- and those were UF's national championship teams.
Making the stretch even tougher is that the Gators played a 9 p.m. game against South Carolina on Thursday. Saturday's game is at 1 p.m., and the Gators will leave for Lexington on Monday afternoon. It's the third time in the past three seasons the Gators have played a Thursday-Saturday-Tuesday stretch. The Gators went 5-1 in the six games the previous two seasons -- with the only loss coming against Kentucky in Rupp last season.
Florida trails Kentucky -- whose only loss came at No. 20 Indiana by one point -- by 1 1/2 games and leads Vanderbilt by one game in the SEC standings.
UF coach Billy Donovan said the key to handling the next four days is smart preparation.
"It's going to be difficult from here on out with our schedule, and that's not taking away from any of the teams we've played up to this point in time," Donovan said. "But I think when you're talking about playing what people would consider the two best teams in the league in Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and you're having to do it after a Thursday game with a one-day prep where they've obviously had some time to get ready to play the game [after] playing on Tuesday, we've got a lot that we've got to get prepared for.
"All we can do is just go one day at a time. [Friday] will be a huge day for us preparation-wise because you've got to figure out what information you can give them that will really impact the game instead of overloading them. We've got to do a good job."