Growth of supplemental guards key for Florida, UConn

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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.

RELATED: CBTs preview of No. 1 Florida vs. No. 7 UConn

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.

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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.

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.