Final Four sets table for a heavyweight rematch

Joe Louis lost to Max Schmeling in 1936. Two years later, in Yankee Stadium, Louis would avenge that loss in spectacular fashion, exacting a hard fought, punishing revenge. Muhammad Ali lost his perfect record in 1971 by a point’s decision to Joe Frazier. Ali had to wait four years to avenge that loss, but he would, in a fight that went down in the history books as the Thrilla in Manila.

It’s a concept that is common in combat sports. When an opponent leaves a black mark on your record, you can go back and avenge that loss at a later date.

It’s an opportunity that isn’t always afforded in team sports, where schedules can be made years in advance.

The Florida men’s basketball team doesn’t have many blemishes — just two — this season. The last time Florida lost, the ball hadn’t dropped in Times Square, it was December 2, 2013, on the road at UConn. Like many fighters, the Gators will get a chance to avenge that loss on Saturday, 124 days after the fact. In the grand scheme of things, the loss was not that long ago. Louis and Ali waited years for the chance to avenge their losses, Florida had to wait just months. However, for the players in it, the game feels like it happened years ago.

“The game was such a long time ago. It feels like it was forever,” senior point guard and third team All-American Scottie Wilbekin said. “So they’re playing their best basketball right, and I think we’re doing the same. That’s what you have to do to be in this position, in the Final Four. I don’t expect anything less than them to play their best game.”

Connecticut is led by AP first team All-American Shabazz Napier who is doing it all for the Huskies, scoring or assisting on over 40% of the Huskie’s offense in the tournament. Napier’s game is starting to make his name a household name but despite being a talented senior — and one of four players who was on the 2011 NCAA Championship winning team. He has a bit of anonymity however, in fact, listed Napier in their “Who’s that guy?” series, profiling college basketball athletes that you should know.

“Well, [Napier has] done it a lot. Obviously, he played on a National Championship team his freshman year,” Billy Donovan said. “He is a great scorer.  He can do it by himself. He doesn’t need necessarily a lot of help or a lot of screening.  He’s been a big shot maker his whole entire career.”

One of those big shots sunk the Gators. Napier scored the Huskies final five points, including an offensive rebound off of his own miss, following it up with a buzzer beater that sent the fans into an uproar and the Gators packing.

“We obviously ran in way too deep,” Donovan said recalling the play. “Actually three guys ran in below the free‑throw line, and the ball got punched back out to Napier, and he was left with a wide‑open 15‑foot jumpshot, so hopefully that’s something we’ve learned from.”

“I look at it a couple of ways.  On that night they were the better team.  They beat us.  They made the plays necessary down the stretch to beat us.”

That night the Huskies were the better team but it was a UF team that was running on fumes, far from full strength. Florida basically ran a six-man rotation, six players surpassing 24 minutes. The Gators did not have freshmen Kasey Hill or Chris Walker available, but they will on Saturday.

Another aspect of the rematch that is foreign to the tournament is familiarity with your opponent. The Gators have had to prepare for a new foe each game this tournament, at times with just 24 hours to prepare for the game. Against UConn, they’ll get a competitor that they are familiar with. It’s unusual for the tournament, but you won’t hear Florida complain about it.

“The one thing that’s probably good for us going into Saturday’s game is at least there is somewhat of a familiarity on our part and probably their part as well playing against each other,” Donovan said. “Even though it was a while ago in December.  Our guys are familiar with their personnel and playing against their team.  Then trying to make some adjustments and changes of things that we can learn from the last time we played them.”

Like most rematches, the stakes are higher. That night in December, neither team had begun conference play; and the 2014 season was in its infancy. The next time they meet, a chance to play for a national championship is on the line.

Donovan and his team said all the right things on Monday. They wouldn’t dare say that this game means more because it’s an opportunity to avenge a loss, it is a monumental game in it’s own right — playing in the final four.

Getting a win on Saturday would be sweet but don’t think for a minute that getting revenge wouldn’t make it taste even sweeter.

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Nick de la Torre
A South Florida native, Nick developed a passion for all things sports at a very young age. His love for baseball was solidified when he saw Al Leiter’s no-hitter for the Marlins live in May of 1996. He was able to play baseball in college but quickly realized there isn’t much of a market for short, slow outfielders that hit around the Mendoza line. Wanting to continue with sports in some capacity he studied journalism at the University of Central Florida. Nick got his first start in the business as an intern for a website covering all things related to the NFL draft before spending two seasons covering the Florida football team at Bleacher Report. That job led him to GatorCountry. When he isn’t covering Gator sports, Nick enjoys hitting way too many shots on the golf course, attempting to keep up with his favorite t.v. shows and watching the Heat, Dolphins and Marlins. Follow him on twitter @NickdelatorreGC