For as successful as the (1) Florida Gators have been this season – holding a 36-2 record, sweeping the Southeastern Conference titles, winning 30-straight games, not losing a game in four full months (as of Wednesday) – nearly all of the credit has gone to head coach Billy Donovan and the team’s four-member senior class.
Yet while those five men are certainly the catalysts for Florida’s fantastic season, which to this point has been the best in program history, they are not the only ones making major contributions to the Gators’ success.
Consider for a moment that freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who has played two fewer games and been on the court 431 fewer minutes than senior Scottie Wilbekin, has accumulated 100 assists on the season, just 22 less than the veteran starter.
He averages a half of an assist less per game (3.7-3.2) in 11.7 fewer minutes and leads Florida in assists per 40 minutes (5.8-4.4). While on the floor, Hill assists on 27.6 percent of made field goals, while Wilbekin only participates in 22.5 percent of his teammates.
While Wilbekin’s clutch shooting, stellar defense and ball protection are differentiators that speak to how important he has been for the Gators all season, Hill’s ability to share the ball and speed up tempo with his blazing speed are often overlooked factors when it comes to UF’s success.
“I think he adds a lot to us, especially now at the end of the year. He’s just gotten better as the year’s went on,” said Wilbekin of Hill when discussing the freshman on Monday. “He’s really playing at his best right now, getting in the lane, playing better defense, finding guys. It just adds a lot to our team.”
Hill has played his best basketball as of late, compared to any other stretch this season, performing better on defense while racking up 35 points (on 22 field goal attempts) and 23 assists in seven tournament games dating back to the start of the SEC Tournament on March 14.
“I think Kasey in the tournament, and even going back to the SEC, has come on,” Donovan explained. “He’s played better. He’s improved. I’ve got confidence in him. 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.”
Against UCLA, Hill racked up a career-high 10 assists in 28 minutes, the most he’s played since January 14. And he’s been doing all of this as of late while dealing with a turf toe injury that had him considered questionable for Florida’s second-round game against Albany. He wound up playing 17 minutes in that game, grabbing two steals, blocking a shot and going 3-for-4 both from the field and charity stripe to score 10 points (his most since Nov. 16, 2013).
Asked Monday about Hill’s turf toe and whether it will limit him at all going forward, Donovan had a bit of fun at the freshman’s expense.
“Well, I know turf toe is painful, but come on, we’re playing in the Final Four,” he said with a smirk. “He’ll be fine. He’s a great kid. Hopefully his toe will be OK and he’ll be able to play, but I do appreciate him working through that. He doesn’t appear to be in a lot of pain when he’s running around out there. He’s moving pretty well.”
After starting the first four games of the season for the Gators while Wilbekin sat out his five-game suspension, Hill suffered a high-ankle sprain in a win against Southern on Nov. 18 and was unable to suit up for the ensuing four contests, including Florida’s road game at the Connecticut Huskies on Dec. 2.
Considering the Gators also lost Wilbekin in that contest – he sprained his ankle with 3:01 left in the game after playing 35 of 37 minutes – Hill likely would have played a large role for Florida and may have even been the piece UF was missing to help it avoid the eventual 65-64 road loss.
Hill and freshman power forward Chris Walker will both be new pieces that (7) UConn (30-8) will have to contend with on Saturday when the Huskies meet up with the Gators to open the Final Four of the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Though sophomore guard Michael Frazier II said Monday that Hill’s on-court speed is tough for opposing teams to replicate in practice, Wilbekin does not expect UConn to be surprised about Hill’s tremendous ability when he steps on the hardwood at At&T Stadium in Arlington, TX.
“I’m sure they know all about him [by then],” he said. “It’s just going to be another guy that they have to be prepared for just like anybody else on our team. They have to do scouting and learn about all of us just like we have to learn about all of their players.
“I don’t think there’s any edges.”
Photo Credit: Rob Foldy, USA TODAY Sports