Saturday’s national semifinal between No. 1 Florida (36-2) and No. 7 UConn (30-8) will be a rematch of a game played back on December 2, with the Huskies winning 65-64 on a Shabazz Napier foul line jumper as time expired. But how much can be drawn from a game played four months ago, with both teams being much different outfits than they were on that Monday night? If anything it’s better to focus on how much the two teams have changed since that game, especially a Florida team that played the game at less than full strength.
Billy Donovan’s Gators were without backup point guard Kasey Hill, with the UConn contest being the fourth he would miss due to a sprained ankle. Add in the fact that fellow freshman Chris Walker had yet to be cleared by the NCAA, and Florida was without two players who have become solid reserves (to varying degrees) as the season’s worn on.
Obviously losing starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin late in that game due to a sprained ankle didn’t help the Gators’ chances of leaving Gampel Pavilion with the win either. Wilbekin played 35 minutes in that contest, which underlines the difference between the Florida team that left Storrs with a loss and the one that enters this weekend the prohibitive favorite to win the national title.
The Gators lacked depth, with Dorian Finney-Smith essentially being their lone option off the bench. Now they’re up to an eight-man rotation, and it can be argued that of the three reserves it’s Hill whose impact is the most important even with his averaging just 5.5 points per game. Hill’s presence has allowed Wilbekin to do more work off the ball within the Gator offense. Averaging 35 minutes per game in the NCAA tournament, those moments off the ball can prove valuable to Wilbekin as he has been Florida’s best offensive weapon.
Hill also opens things up for his teammates due to his quickness with the basketball, and in Florida’s Sweet 16 win over UCLA as he racked up ten assists.
“I think Kasey in the tournament, and even going back to the SEC has come on. He’s played better,” Donovan said earlier this week. “He’s improved. He makes our team faster when he’s out there. I thought what he did in the UCLA game really helped us. He manufactured a lot of easy baskets for us by getting down the lane. So him being available to play I think helps our team.”
With Hill, Finney-Smith, who accounted for three points and six rebounds in the first meeting with UConn, and Walker firmly entrenched in the rotation Florida now has the depth it did not enjoy back in December.
As for UConn they’ve made some changes to the rotation since December, most notably Omar Calhoun going from starter to seldom-used reserve. Niels Giffey, the top three-point shooter in the American Athletic Conference, and Lasan Kromah have both strengthened their respective grips on spots in the rotation and even Terrence Samuel has earned an increase in minutes due to his ability on the defensive end of the floor.
But if there’s one player to focus on when it comes to the difference between UConn now and what they were in December, it would be junior guard Ryan Boatright.
Shabazz Napier’s sidekick, Boatright’s made strides in areas that aren’t always visible in the box score. His defense against Michigan State’s guards in Sunday’s East Region final was one reason why the Spartans spent the majority of their time hoisting up jumpers instead of committing to working the ball inside. Boatright’s shooting just 38.5% from the field in the NCAA tournament, which is actually better than his percentage on the season as a whole, but he’s contributed in other areas to make up for that. And while Napier’s leadership gets the headlines, Boatright has been important as well.
“He’s meant a lot. Ryan is growing up,” UConn head coach Kevin Ollie said on Monday. “Ryan is allowing us to coach him now. He’s opening up. He’s trusting us more. That’s always difficult for young kids sometimes, the trust issue. Maybe I should not take this shot. Maybe I should pass this good shot up for Amida to have a great shot. He’s started to do that.”
December’s matchup between Florida and UConn produced one of the best endings of the college basketball season, with a Shabazz Napier shot off of a loose ball being the difference. The Gators haven’t lost since, getting healthier and solidifying their rotation while winning 30 straight games. As for UConn the road to Arlington was tougher, but they’ve gotten hot at just the right time.
Scottie Wilbekin and Shabazz Napier will receive much of the attention, and rightfully so, but the development of their respective sidekicks (Hill and Boatright) is what sticks out when looking back on the first meeting.