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.”