Florida-UConn rematch: Fun, but will be tough to top first meeting
The Gators have lost just two games this year. One of those game on the road to UConn in early December.
It's not often the Final Four gives us an in-season rematch. When we get them (like 2002 Duke vs. Maryland or 2012 Kentucky vs. Louisville) they're fun in build-up and easy-bake fodder for pre-game speculation. Reality is, they seldom able to offer up a game that surpasses -- or resembles -- what we saw between the two teams earlier in the year.
And if Florida vs. UConn on Saturday night is able to usurp what Florida vs. UConn was 119 days ago, it just might be the game of the tournament. I say that knowing full well Kentucky-Wichita State (or Kentucky-Louisville, or Kentucky-Michigan, or Arizona-Wisconsin, or Wisconsin-Oregon, or Iowa State-North Carolina; this list could take some time to finish) has been the best game of this year's bracket. But Florida-UConn on Dec. 2 was a terrific game, one of the 10 best of the regular season.
The Huskies, playing on-campus, won 65-64. You've probably heard a thing or 10 about this -- because Florida has not lost since. Thirty wins later, and the Gators are headed toward something unprecedented in program history.
Can UConn book-end Florida's streak and stop the only No. 1 seed in the Final Four from winning two more? That'd be some story.
You want to know how close Florida is to being a one-loss team? Just look at the fluky nature of this final play below. Shabazz Napier's first shot is off-target, and then he happens to catch a deflection off DeAndre Daniels' fingers.
Then, all so quickly, money.
I was in Gampel Pavilion back on Dec. 2, the last time these Gators experienced losing. The key factor in the game was Scottie Wilbekin limping off the court in the final minutes, unable to finish things out due to a tweaked ankle.
If Wilbekin is on the court maybe UConn doesn't win.
Maybe Florida gets to 7-1, its only loss coming to ... Wisconsin. Also in the Final Four. And Kentucky, which played within a basket of Florida in the SEC title game 15 days ago, is also at the party.
The Gators are going to have to earn it, appropriately so. Billy Donovan's guys are a seven-point favorite against the Huskies. That sounds about right. The backcourt matchup is about even. Napier's the best player on the floor, and his teammate, Ryan Boatright, has become better and better as a defender. But Wilbekin and Michael Frazier -- with speedy, flashy Kasey Hill off the bench -- can match UConn.
The size down low will be interesting. I, like many others, thought Michigan State would dominate in the paint against UConn in the East Regional final. But the inside battle wasn't even much of one, and UConn's bigs didn't have to go up against Sparty as much because MSU was reliant on 3-point shots. With Florida, Patric Young, Dorian Finney-Smith and Will Yeguete will take on anyone within eight feet of the rim.
And then you've got fledgling NBA talent Chris Walker to throw in there as well. He wasn't a part of the first matchup.
If you're curious, the UConn-Florida game had 64 possessions, according to KenPom.com. That's below the national average, but fits about perfectly between what UConn (64.9) and Florida (63.0) play at on the season. At the time, UConn was ranked 18th in the nation on KenPom, Florida No. 12. Now Florida is No. 1 and the Huskies are 16th.
Here's the win probability chart as the game played out. Florida was not expected to win heading into the game.
Have to note that Kasey Hill was not able to play in that UConn game, in addition to Walker, who was sitting out because of a review of his academic eligibility. Adding them into the mix only strengthens Florida's chances in the rematch. Had both been at Donovan's disposal, the Gators might not have even been in a position to be in a close game with a minute remaining.
Prather, who was Florida's MVP for the first half of the season, led the team with 19 points. Napier went for 26; Daniels was the only other Husky to get to double figures. The Gators were 3 for 9 from 3-point range, while Kevin Ollie's club jacked up 24 treys, sinking 11. Vital. They'll probably employ a similar strategy Saturday night.
We hope to get a good game, but UConn's clearly outperformed expectations to this point. It needed overtime -- in a very good game -- to get past No. 10 Saint Joseph's in the Round of 64. Then it got a great matchup against a weaker-but-familiar two seed in Villanova. The Sweet 16 offered up an Iowa State team that was missing dynamic big man Georges Niang because of a broken foot. And the Elite Eight? Nothing but credit for taking out the chic Final Four pick Michigan State.
Florida's road has been about the same, in terms of quality of opponent. But the Gators were expected to get here, and they're expected to avenge the UConn loss with a certain amount of ease. If we're lucky, that expectation will be too generous, and instead something closer to what we got in December, when these two teams looked very different from what they've become today.
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