It was only four months ago, but it seems like a lifetime since Florida and UConn faced off in Storrs, Connecticut back on December 2. Although that game, won by UConn, 65-64, on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater, does provide a certain level of familiarity for Saturday’s NCAA Tournament semifinal in Arlington, Texas, neither Billy Donovan nor UConn coach Kevin Ollie are going to base their strategy for the most important game of the season based on what happened way back when.
Since that loss, Florida (36-2), the number one seed overall, has reeled off 30 consecutive wins and has won all four games in the NCAA Tournament by at least 10 points. UConn, which came into the tournament as a #7 seed, had to survive overtime against #10 seed St. Joseph’s in the first round just to advance but the Huskies have taken out three straight higher-seeded teams to get to Arlington for the Final Four.
Here are a few factors that figure to play into the outcome of Saturday’s Florida-UConn matchup.
Billy Donovan is going to be a first ballot hall of fame selection. What he’s done at Florida isn’t impossible but it’s whatever is next. The first knock on Donovan was that he was a powerhouse recruiter and a lightweight as a coach. That was then. This is now. Donovan runs more offensive sets than any coach in the country and in the past two years he’s established himself as one of the premier defensive coaches, too. There is a reason why Donovan is the odds-on choice to coach the US Olympic team after Coach K does it one more time in 2016. UConn’s Kevin Ollie is no lightweight. The point guard who played on UConn’s 1994 team that lost to Lon Kruger-coached Florida in the East Region semifinals, Ollie spent 13 years in the NBA and has been UConn’s head man since taking over for Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun two years ago. The Huskies play more to an NBA style on both ends of the floor. They like to get out and run, exploit mismatches and spend 90-95% of the time playing man-t0-man. If there is an edge in this game, it is Donovan’s ability to control tempo at both ends of the floor. For the season, opponents have averaged running more than 20 seconds off the shot clock each possession because of Florida’s fierce defense. Down at the offensive end, the Gators don’t have a dominant scorer like Napier, but they are so balanced that trying to take out one Gator only opens the door for the others to pour it on.
BATTLE OF THE BEST
You could make a valid argument that the two best players in the tournament so far have been Florida’s Scottie Wilbekin and UConn’s Shabazz Napier. In the NCAA Tournament, Napier is averaging 23.3 points, 6.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game while hitting 14-31 from the 3-point line. He’s coming off a 25 point, 6-rebound, 4-assist game against Michigan State. Wilbekin is averaging 16.8 points, 2.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game in the tournament and is coming off a 23-point game against Dayton in the South Regional championship game. When the two teams met back in December, Napier finished with 26 points but five of them were in the last 50 seconds when Wilbekin was in the locker room after spraining an ankle with 3:01 remaining. Wilbekin scored 15 in that game, just his third of the season after missing the first five because of a suspension. Both Napier and Wilbekin have improved as the season has moved along to the point that they are easily the two most indispensable players in the tournament. They both impact the game in so many ways, Napier more on the offensive end and Wilbekin more on the defensive end. When the game is on the line, these are the guys who will have the ball in their hands. This might be the best one-on-one matchup of the entire tournament and whoever comes out on top could be leading his team to a national championship on Monday.
THE FRAZIER-YOUNG COMBINATION
Maybe you don’t realize it, but Michael Frazier II and Patric Young are quite the combination, particularly in a game like this when UConn doesn’t have a single defender capable of handling Young. Here’s the dilemma: double down on Patric and that means someone is open on the perimeter. If Frazier and Patric are working the same side of the floor, that could very well mean Frazier is open on the wing or in the corner. Of course, Frazier has to hit the shots but if he hits his first one or two, usually he is going to blow up and have a big game. Against Michigan State, UConn played straight man-to-man, doubled everything down on the inside and dared the Spartans to beat them from the 3-point line. Michigan State did not have a shooter like Frazier so it was a calculated gamble that paid off. Michigan State managed only six points in the paint and couldn’t hit the big 3-pointers late in the game when they were needed the most. Would the Huskies dare Frazier to beat them from the outside by loading up the defense to shut down the Gators on the onside?
DEFENDING DEANDRE DANIELS
Daniels (6-9, 195, JR) went off for 27 points against Iowa State. He had 14 in the first game against Florida back in December. He is a true stretch four who is hitting 43.2% from the 3-point line this season. Daniels is UConn’s only consistent inside presence, so the first order of priority for the Gators will be limiting his touches in the paint. But, he’s capable of hitting shots on the outside and he’s a good enough driver that he can put the ball on the deck and get to the rim. Will Yeguete will get the first assignment and he’s a strong enough defender on the inside to limit Daniels there. Dorian Finney-Smith is the better defender on the perimeter because of his lateral quickness and he has the length to alter Daniels’ shots from deep as well. There will be times when Florida goes to a smaller lineup with Finney-Smith at center and Prather at the power forward. Prather has the quickness to handle Daniels on the outside but will need some help on the inside. There won’t be a lot of help for Prather when he’s in the game because Florida’s first defensive focus has to be shutting down the Huskies from the 3-point line.
PERIMETER FIRST DEFENSE
The last time the Gators lost a game was December 2 to UConn in Storrs when the Huskies went off for 33 points from the 3-point line. If Florida is to win this game, there is no way the Gators can allow UConn to go 11-24 from the 3-point line again. To stop the Huskies from making it a 3-point shooting contest, the Gators might have to go small quite a bit with Kasey Hill and Wilbekin in the backcourt, Frazier at the small forward and Prather moving to the power forward. The Huskies will have four legitimate shooters on the floor most of the time so Florida will have to play with its defensive feet outside the arc.
KILLER INSTINCT NECESSARY
Florida had Dayton blown out but got cute with the ball in the second half and let the Flyers hit some 3-point shots to get back into the game. Florida can’t allow that to happen against UConn which means the Gators will have to show they’ve got the killer instinct to put the Huskies away if they get a lead. With Napier, Boatright, Niles Giffey and DeAndre Daniels on the floor at once, a 12-point lead can disappear in a heartbeat. It’s going to be critical for the Gators to get Young, Yeguete and Finney-Smith established on the inside to force UConn to expend far too much energy doubling down. That kind of effort takes legs away when trying to shoot 3-balls late in the game.
Kasey Hill, Florida: UConn was able to keep Michigan State completely out of the paint because the Spartans didn’t have a point guard quick enough to beat anyone off the dribble. Michigan State managed only six points in the paint, lowest total of any team in the NCAA Tournament so far, and that was the difference in the game. Hill brings quickness to the Florida lineup that Michigan State didn’t have. He can penetrate and get the ball to the bigs in the paint, and he’s proven he can score in transition. Since the Kentucky game at the O-Dome on March 8, Hill has scored 43 points, handed out 30 assists and has turned the ball over just 10 times. When Donovan puts Hill in the game with Michael Frazier II and Scottie Wilbekin, the Gators can balance the floor with shooters, forcing the defense to clear the lane. That opens the lane for Hill to drive to the basket and dump the ball off to Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith. Defensively, he’s quick enough to stay with Boatright although Donovan probably doesn’t want him on Napier too much for fear of foul troubles.
Niels Giffey, UConn: Giffey gives the Huskies a fourth shooter. He’s not much of a threat to drive the ball to the basket although he’s very good without the ball making back door cuts that result in easy baskets. Where Giffey is particularly effective is running the baseline to get open shots from the corner where he’s particularly lethal. When the two teams met the first time, Giffey scored eight points off the bench, hitting 2-3 from the 3-point line. For the season, Giffey is hitting 49.1% of his 3-point shots. He is an average defender who has problems with quick players off the bounce, which means the Huskies will have to give him help handling Prather.
The Florida Bench: Now that Chris Walker is eligible, the Gators can go 5-deep on the bench, although DeVon Walker has been in a shooting slump as of late and Jacob Kurtz hasn’t played more than six minutes in a game since February 1. The key players off the bench are Hill, Finney-Smith and Chris Walker. Hill will be the fastest player on the floor with or without the ball in his hands. Finney-Smith can play all five positions, but in this game will likely sub in and out for Will Yeguete and Patric Young. If Young can stay out of foul trouble, it will give Billy Donovan an effective two-man defensive rotation on DeAndre Daniels. Walker’s minutes might increase in this game because Donovan probably won’t hesitate to play him against 7-0 UConn freshman Amida Brimah709, who is no threat offensively.
The UConn Bench: For all practical purposes, it’s a 2-man bench for the Huskies – Amida Brimah (7-0, 217, FR) and Lasan Krimah (6-6, 201, SR). Brimah averages 4.2 points and 3.0 rebounds per game and has problems with fouls because he tries to block nearly every shot. Krimah averages 6.3 points and 2.7 rebounds off the bench. The Huskies also use Tyler Olander (6-10, 230, SR), Terrence Samuel (6-4 190, FR) and Omar Calhoun (6-6, 200, FR) off the bench but if they are in the game it’s to buy minutes while starters are either resting or in foul trouble.