Last season, Florida used its marquee non-conference matchup against Kansas as the starting point of a 30-game winning streak, a run that led the Gators to the 2014 Final Four. More than midway through Friday night’s game against No. 11 Kansas, that result from a season ago looked like it’d be replicated.
The Gators led by 15 at half, with a lead as large as 18 points in the second. However, that 15-point halftime edge turned into a 71-65 win for Kansas, with the Jayhawks outscoring the Gators 47-26 in the second half.
Florida was able to move the ball on offense, assisting on 11 of 15 field goals in the first half and shooting 54 percent from the field. The Gators were also aided by Kansas turnovers, nine total in the first half.
The Jayhawks elected not to walk through the second half as they did the first. They tightened up defensively, holding Florida to only 35 percent shooting over the final 20 minutes, and got a lift offensively from Wayne Selden and Cliff Alexander. The duo scored the first eight points in what turned out to be a 17-0 Kansas run, giving the Jayhawks a 58-52 advantage.
Selden was miserable from the field down in the Orlando Classic, 27 points (7-of-25 shooting) in the three games, albeit three wins. On Friday night, he went for a season-high 21 points, 14 of which came after halftime. He was aggressive getting his 6-foot-5, 230-pound frame into the lane, which helped set up his jumper. He knocked down a step-back shot from the top of the key, while also connecting on a pair 3-pointers. Alexander finished with his first double-double — 12 points and 10 rebounds — of his collegiate career. Bill Self’s other heralded freshman Kelly Oubre had two points in limited action again.
While the collapse hands the Gators their fourth loss — more than all of 2013-14 — some positives can be taken away from the defeat for Florida, which only dressed seven scholarship players with Eli Carter out for Friday’s game. They saw better production from Chris Walker, who finished with 12 points and five boards in 15 minutes.
The Jayhawks will look to avoid a slow start on Wednesday, and they’ll have to be. Kansas travels to the Nation’s Capital to pay Georgetown, a team talented enough to be ranked, and one that is looking for a key out-of-conference win after nearly upsetting No. 2 Wisconsin in the Battle 4 Atlantis and given that its win over Florida in the same event doesn’t hold the same weight at the moment.
Florida, on the other hand, welcomes in Yale on Monday. The Gators don’t want to be another upset victory for the Ivy League contender.
Until this week, No. 8 Florida hadn’t lost on its home floor in 33 games. Friday night, the Gators almost suffered a second home loss in five days, as Louisiana-Monroe led by a dozen in the first half and later stormed back in the last minute to tie the game and force overtime. However, it was in the extra frame where shorthanded Florida pulled away from a 61-56 victory.
Free throws from Michael Frazier II put Florida up 51-43 with two minutes left, looking like the Gators had avoided the upset bid from their Sun Belt opponent. Nick Coppola had different plan, scoring five of his 11 points in the final 90 seconds — assisting on a 3-point field goal in that span — to force overtime.
Jon Horford had the only Florida field goal in overtime, as the Gators closed out the game from the line.
This was the second time this week, Florida coughed up a late-game lead, only this time the Gators regrouped to pick up a win. On Monday, Miami guard Angel Rodriguez lead the charge, scoring 22 of his 24 points with under nine minutes to play, in a come-from-behind win for the Hurricanes. Blowing a lead to Miami, especially given the zone Rodriguez was in is one thing, but to ULM — even without two starters — is a concern for Florida moving forward.
Following the game, Billy Donovan told reporters in the post-game press conference, “This is the team we’re taking to the Bahamas,” which would mean the Gators are going to the toughest early-season tournament without Dorian Finney-Smith or Eli Carter, who missed Friday’s game with a foot injury. In order to survive that field, the undermanned Florida team will need more out of Kasey Hill, who is shooting 3-of-21 from the field over his last two games with 10 assists and seven turnovers. They’ll also need rely heavily on Chris Walker, who recorded four points and six boards in 25 minutes in his season debut on Friday.
It won’t get easier when Florida returns to campus, as the Gators kick off December with a road game against Kansas.
Florida will have plenty of time to get its full roster on the floor — Duke transfer Alex Murphy isn’t eligible until the second semester — and it’s a long season to sort out its issues, but this week could be the beginning of a tough stretch for Donovan and Co.
On Friday night at 6:00 p.m., he’ll be the starting point guard for No. 7 Florida as the Gators kick off their season at the O’Connell Center against William & Mary. Still just a sophomore, Hill is a former McDonald’s All-American playing for the best basketball program in his home state. He’s one year removed from playing in a Final Four, and if he doesn’t end up as an NBA player down the road, he’ll have to settle for getting a free education while competing for SEC championships and national titles these next three years.
Things could be a lot worse, which, unfortunately, is a fact that Hill is well aware of. If it wasn’t for the Simmons family (Jeff, Jennie and their two kids) … well, that’s something that Hill would rather not dwell on.
“I don’t know [where I’d be]. That’s tough,” Hill told NBCSports.com earlier this month. “I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for them helping me out.”
The move happened when Kasey was in fifth grade, but if we’re being honest, it probably started when he was about half that age.
“My wife loved him since he was six, he just had that personality about him,” Jeff Simmons said of Kasey. “He was just a great kid.” Jeff is the father of Kyle, a boy about Kasey’s age that grew up in the same part of Florida as Hill. The two were teammates in flag football and YMCA basketball leagues. Jeff? He coached the teams.
As a coach that doubled as the best friend’s father, it didn’t take long for Jeff to realize that Kasey’s living situation was less than ideal. He would spend the weekends with the Simmons family, getting rides to and from their Saturday flag football games, rides that were as much about the transportation as they were a chance to simply enjoy each other’s company.
Eventually, however, it became clear that this setup was no longer going to work for Kasey. This is what we know: Kasey’s father was in prison at the time, and he’s still in prison now. Kasey declined discussing the reason why. Around the time that he turned 11, Kasey’s mother began having difficulties in her life that made it hard for her to raise her son on her own. Again, Kasey — and Jeff — declined to go into specifics regarding what changed, but what they both told NBCSports.com is that it became very clear that it would be in Hill’s best interest to move in with the Simmons.
“It was a mutual agreement between my wife and I, his mom, and Kasey,” Jeff said. “We thought it would be a better environment for him at that time. He kind of felt at home.”
There was never a second thought.
“It was really never a decision that we swayed back and forth on,” he added. “It was kind of an immediate thing: Let’s take him in.”
Bringing another child into a household is not a decision that gets made lightly. Kids aren’t cheap to raise. They certainly aren’t easy to get through high school and to college, and that’s before you even consider how much the dynamic of a household can change by bringing in another kid that is getting ready to hit adolescence.
And the Simmons, they had no idea whether this was a situation where Kasey would be staying with them for a week or a month or, as it turns out, the rest of his childhood.
That’s not even the strangest dynamic at play here. The Simmons are white. Kasey is black. They lived in Eustis, a town of about 15,000 in central Florida, 45 minutes north of Orlando and 90 minutes south of Gainesville. That’s not exactly the most progressive region of our country.
“We’ve always raised our kids where we don’t really see color, but there’s always some looks that you’ll get,” Jeff said. “But I coached basketball, and most of our kids were African-American, so we got those looks everywhere we went. It’s just part of life.”
Here’s the most beautiful part of the story: it worked! All of it. Kasey and Kyle shared a room growing up. They both played the role of over-protective big brother for the fourth member of the Simmons clan, Samantha. During our conversation, Kasey repeatedly referred to the Simmons as family. Jeff affectionately refers to Kasey as “my boy”, saying that he has three kids, “two biological, and Kasey”.
“I don’t think there’s ever been one argument between him and either of my kids,” Jeff said. “Honestly. Never.”
Perhaps more important is the fact that Kasey’s relationship with his biological family remains as strong as ever. He talks to his mom on the phone daily. He talks to his father whenever the calls from prison get through. He wouldn’t commit to Florida until head coach Billy Donovan met and spent time with his mom and his grandmother.
“I would say that Kasey has a tremendous amount of love and affection for the Simmons, and he’s got a tremendous amount of love and affection for his own family,” Donovan said. “For Kasey, both relationship are very important.”
The importance of elite lead guards was stressed last March when senior point guard Shabazz Napier helped lead UConn to the national championship to cap off a magnificent senior season. Napier’s play on both ends of the floor made a huge impact for the Huskies, especially in tournament play, and it proved once again that an elite guard with the ball in his hands can lead a good supporting cast to glory.
1. Marcus Paige, North Carolina: The 6-foot-1 junior had one of the most impressive seasons in the country last season, especially when you consider many ACC defenses were geared to stop him. Paige averaged 17.5 points, 4.2 assists and 3.2 rebounds and was also the Tar Heels’ only consistent perimeter threat and late-game free-throw shooter. Now that Paige has more perimeter help, he could be slotted at either guard spot, but he’s one of the unique guards in college basketball this season who can set other guys up or hunt his own offense.
2. Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: Had Fred Van Vleet made the potential game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament last season, we might be singing his praises even more. As it is, the calm and collected junior point guard is incredibly efficient and tough despite standing only 5-foot-11 and not owning jaw-dropping athleticism. Van Vleet averaged 11.6 points, 5.4 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game as a sophomore while shooting 48 percent from the field, 83 percent from the free-throw line and 41 percent from three-point range. After helping Wichita State reach a Final Four coming off the bench as a freshman and having a hand in 35 consecutive wins last season, we already know that Van Vleet is a winner.
3. Juwan Staten, West Virginia: The 6-foot-1 senior quietly put up monster numbers last season and is a favorite for Big 12 Player of the Year honors. Although West Virginia missed the NCAA Tournament in 2014, it was certainly no fault of Staten’s. As a junior, he led the Big 12 in scoring (18.1 points per game), minutes (37.3 mpg) and was second in assists (5.8 apg) and assist-to-turnover ratio. Staten was also third in field-goal percentage at 48 percent from the floor and also shot 40 percent from the three-point line. If Staten can spearhead a better defensive effort from the Mountaineers, than he could be a dark horse All-American candidate.
4. Chasson Randle, Stanford: More of a natural scorer, the 6-foot-2 senior had to bring the ball up by default for the Cardinal last season once Aaron Bright transferred out of the program. That was fine for Stanford, as Randle helped lead the team to a Sweet 16 appearance while averaging 18.8 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists. Randle had 16 games of 20-plus points and did that while shooting 47 percent from the field and 38 percent from distance.
5. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: One of the fastest players in the country, the 6-foot Ferrell is lethal in the open floor and can score in bunches from the perimeter. Last season, Ferrell put up 17.3 points a contest and shot 40 percent from three-point range while also setting up teammates for 3.9 assists per game. Limiting turnovers will be the big focus for Ferrell in his junior season. A 1.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio simply isn’t going to cut it.
6. Tyus Jones, Duke: When the CBT crew voted on the rankings for this list, I had Jones much lower than my colleagues because he was a defensive liability at times in high school. But if Jones can stay in front of anyone on the defensive end, it’ll be icing on the cake for his fantastic offensive skill set. The 6-foot-1 freshman and McDonald’s All-American can hit perimeter jumpers, set up teammates on the fast break, or feed the post. A natural leader, Jones could step in and give Coach K a steady, reliable presence with the ball in his hands that Duke has lacked at times the last few seasons.
7. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky: Credit is due to the 6-foot-6 Harrison because perhaps no player in the country took more of a beating from fans and media during the regular season last year. Despite some erratic play during his freshman season, Harrison turned it up another level during the Wildcats run to the national championship game and expectations will be high for him in his sophomore season. Harrison averaged a solid 10.9 points, 4.0 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game last season but must improve his 36 percent field-goal percentage.
8. Terry Rozier, Louisville: Rozier had to come off the bench last season behind senior Russ Smith but the 6-foot-1 sophomore guard is poised for a breakout season after a strong summer on the camp circuit. NBA scouts and writers raved about Rozier at the LeBron James Skills Academy and adidas Nations and his pull-up jumper and ability to get to the basket are both strengths.
9. Keifer Sykes, Green Bay: Sykes put up ridiculous numbers last season for a Green Bay team that fell short of the NCAA Tournament by falling in the Horizon League conference tournament. The 5-foot-11 senior averaged 20.3 points, 4.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game for the Phoenix last season and his athleticism has led to numerous CBT posts this summer thanks to some electric dunks. Scoff all you want at Sykes putting up those numbers in a mid-major league, but the Chicago-native played better against good competition, averaging 25.6 points a game in eight games against 2014 NCAA Tournament teams last season.
10. Ryan Boatright, UConn: Boatright lived in Shabazz Napier’s shadow for much of last season, but the 6-foot senior had a tremendous postseason of his own and he’s active on both ends of the floor. Besides being a pesky perimeter defender, Boatright can also score and distribute and will have more of a chance to have the ball primarily in his hands as the senior leader. If Boatright can improve his 39 percent field goal percentage, he could be among the nation’s elite this season.
THE NEXT TEN
11. T.J. McConnell, Arizona: The numbers aren’t gaudy for the 6-foot-1 senior, but his 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and selfless nature helped lead the Wildcats to a No. 1 ranking and an Elite Eight appearance last season.
12. Kevin Pangos, Gonzaga: One of college basketball’s toughest players, the 6-foot-2 senior gutted out his junior year despite toe and ankle injuries and averaged 14.5 points, 3.7 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game. A healthy Pangos could help vault Gonzaga into a deep March run.
13. Monte’ Morris, Iowa State: Morris didn’t put up huge numbers last season, but his efficiency was off the charts. Don’t be surprised if he ends up being an all-Big 12 player this season.
14. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: To dismiss Ulis because of his 5-foot-9 frame would be silly because the freshman is an exceptional passer who thrives on creating for others. Ulis might not start games at the point for Kentucky this season, but don’t be surprised if he’s on the floor at the end of games along with the Harrison twins this season.
15. Kasey Hill, Florida: Hill has some of the biggest shoes in the country to fill by replacing Scottie Wilbekin, but the 6-foot-1 sophomore is a former McDonald’s All-American who showed some positive flashes his freshman season.
16. Siyani Chambers, Harvard: The 6-foot junior is the engine that makes Harvard go and he averaged 11.1 points and 4.6 assists per game last season. Chambers has helped the Crimson win a NCAA Tournament game in each of the last two seasons.
17. Olivier Hanlan, Boston College: New head coach Jim Christian has to be pleased the 6-foot-4 junior guard decided to return. Hanlan averaged 18.5 points per game last season.
18. Quinn Cook, Duke: Consistency is the big question for the 6-foot-2 senior. Will we see the Cook who finished in double-figures in the scoring column in 13 of the first 15 games last season, or the one who came off-the-bench for the final 10 games?
19. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame: The 6-foot-5 senior missed much of last season due to an academic issue, but Grant averaged 19 points and 6.2 assists per game on 51 percent shooting and 40 percent three-point shooting during 12 games last season.
20. Angel Rodriguez, Miami: Jim Larranaga has to be pleased the 5-foot-11 All-Big 12 selection is eligible this season.
ALSO CONSIDERED: Ryan Harrow (Georgia State), Isaiah Taylor (Texas), Nic Moore (SMU), Derrick Walton (Michigan), London Perrantes (Virginia), Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Woodard (Oklahoma), Romelo Trimble (Maryland)
Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package. We continue our countdown today with No. 14 Florida.
Newcomers: Chris Chiozza, Devin Robinson, Alex Murphy (transfer), Zach Hodskins, John Egbunu (transfer*)
– G: Kasey Hill, So.
– G: Michael Frazier, Jr.
– F: Dorian Finney-Smith, Sr.
– F: Jon Horford, Sr.
– C: Chris Walker, So.
– Bench: Eli Carter, Jr.; Alex Murphy, Jr.; Devin Robinson, Fr.; Chris Chiozza, Fr.
They’ll be good because … : The Gators can trot out as much talent on a nightly basis as anyone in the country this side of Kentucky. Four players on the Gator roster are former five-star recruits, headlined by a pair of sophomores that were top ten players in the Class of 2013 in Kasey Hill and Chris Walker. That list also includes former Duke forward Alex Murphy and incoming freshman Devin Robinson, who may just be the best prospect on the roster.
That’s not the only reason to like the Gators, however, as their young talent is surrounded by a solid group of veteran role players. Michael Frazier is one of the best shooters in the country. Dorian Finney-Smith is a combo-forward that can act as a floor-spacer when his jumper is working. Eli Carter was a big-time scorer at Rutgers and Murphy spent two and a half seasons at Duke before leaving that program.
But they might disappoint because …: Outside of Frazier, there really aren’t many proven commodities on Florida. Walker’s name is near the top of most draft boards thanks to his height and athleticism, but he’s a rail-thin post player that has yet to prove that he can do anything on a basketball court other than run, jump and get suspended from games. Potential does not always equal production.
The same thing can be said about Hill, who has the physical gifts to be an excellent point guard at the college level. But being able to beat a defense end-to-end and being effective if Billy Donovan’s offense, which is loaded with ball-screens, is an entirely different story. Horford played limited minutes at Michigan. Carter was a gun-slinger on bad Rutgers teams and has spent the past 18 months trying to recover from a grizzly broken leg. Murphy couldn’t get off the bench at Duke. Devin Robinson and Chris Chiozza are highly-regarded freshmen, but freshmen nonetheless. South Florida transfer John Egbunu has not yet been given a waiver to play immediately by the NCAA.
In simpler terms, outside of Frazier, it’s hard to say definitively what Donovan and his staff can expect out of anyone on this roster.
Outlook: Billy Donovan is one of the best in the game. There’s a reason that he’s always being linked with NBA coaching vacancies. He’s been to three Elite 8s and a Final Four in the last four years. He won back-to-back titles. He knows what he’s doing, which is why Florida will get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the question marks associated with this group.
And, as I mentioned, there are plenty of question marks surrounding this group entering the 2014-2015 season. If everything breaks the right way — if Walker and Hill live up to their potential, if Devin Robinson is as good as advertised, if Murphy can recapture that ability that made Coach K recruit him — I think you’re looking at a team that can legitimately compete with Florida for the SEC regular season title. There’s that much talent on this roster and Donovan is that good of a head coach.
That said, I think Florida also has some flameout potential. I think the Gators are all-but a lock to make it back to the NCAA tournament, but I don’t think it’s out of the question for them to end up losing 10 games, bouncing in and out of the top 25, and entering the dance as a No. 7 seed.