How Florida's Chiozza, Allen click to form the nation's most underrated backcourt
The success of Chris Chiozza and KeVaughn Allen have the Gators ready to compete for SEC title
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Chris Chiozza sat down beside the practice court on a steamy recent Florida afternoon and laughed when he relived the moment he became a Gators legend.
You remember the moment, too. A Friday night in Manhattan. The seats of Madison Square Garden darkened but the court aglow. Florida down two to Wisconsin with four seconds left in overtime. Green Bay Packers quarterback (and Wisconsin superfan) Aaron Rodgers looking on in the stands, as was Chiozza's mom. A shot at the Elite Eight on the line. The very definition of a pressure-packed moment, a moment Chiozza had run over and over in his mind when he was growing up playing basketball with his dad at the Bartlett Recreation Center outside of Memphis, Tennessee.
Chiozza got a running start, with the ball inbounded to him near the free-throw line. The plan was to race end to end for either a layup or a quick dish to a teammate -- perhaps his backcourt mate KeVaughn Allen, who already had gone off for a career-high 35 points. But Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes put a body on Allen near midcourt and knocked Chiozza off his plan. So at that point there was only one choice: Shoot it.
Chiozza darted around Hayes, who didn't want to foul him, and then, shortly before the 3-point line, lifted off and shot an awkward, two-handed floater. The buzzer sounded. Chiozza landed inside the free-throw line.
The ball went in.
Chiozza didn't know what to do -- he had never hit a shot this big before -- so he just stood there, silent, with one finger in the air, until his teammates swarmed him. With the most memorable shot in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, .
When he was running into the locker room, he spotted his mom in the stands, and she was crying.
"Just countless times -- I can't even put a number on it," Chiozza said, when asked how often Florida fans bring up that shot these days. "Even when I'm not thinking about it, when I'm walking around campus, getting something to eat, someone always says something about it. Or they will just pretend to shoot a little short-arm floater and just look at me."
Sweet 16 games can get forgotten, because the Elite Eight games are the ones that matter: Those are the games that send teams to the Final Four. And two days after the miraculous win over Wisconsin, Florida got trounced in the second half by SEC rival South Carolina, and it was Frank Martin and his Gamecocks that went to the Final Four, not Mike White and his Gators. But this one game from last season could provide a blueprint for how this season's Florida team -- a different team than a year ago, but still experienced and still very, very talented -- should challenge Kentucky and Texas A&M for the top spot in a revitalized SEC.
And that's with one of the most dynamic and underrated backcourts in all of college basketball. Allen's breakout game in the Sweet 16 could foretell a breakout junior season for the speedy scorer -- he was named to the preseason first-team All-SEC team -- whereas Chiozza's cool-as-ice moment to beat Wisconsin could foreshadow someone who will be one of the best lead-by-example guards in the SEC.
"Chris is just very, very even-keeled," White said. "He's extremely laid back. The moment is never too small and never too big. The opponent's never too strong for him or never too weak. He's just extremely consistent. That may have led to some poise in that moment."
White knows Chiozza and Allen give him something special.
"I do think they'll be one of the best backcourts in the country," White said. "So underrated. Elite speed and quickness, experience, and good on both sides. Very good offensively -- they complement each other so well -- and defensively very good."
There are other big-time talents on this Florida team. John Egbunu is a massive presence down low, someone White thinks can become one of the best defenders in college basketball once he's fully recovered from last season's torn ACL. Kevarrius Hayes admirably filled in for Egbunu last season as the replacement interior presence for a team that ranked fifth in the country in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.com. And Egor Koulechov, a graduate transfer from Rice, gives Florida an elite 3-point option they didn't have last season; Koulechov shot a sizzling 46 percent from 3-point range last season.
But make no mistake about it: Florida's success will rest on the shoulders of this speedy backcourt of Allen and Chiozza.
Chiozza helped recruit Allen to come to Florida. Allen's hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas, is only two hours from Chiozza's hometown of Memphis. Chiozza saw Allen play in high school. He knew they would mesh perfectly: Chiozza gets more satisfaction feeding the ball to others, while Allen loves to fill it up. When Billy Donovan left to become the coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder shortly before Allen was to begin his freshman year, it was Chiozza who convinced Allen to stay. They watched game tape of White's previous school, Louisiana Tech, and saw that Allen was a perfect fit for White's up-and-down system that gave players lots of freedom on offense.
"I told him, 'You come here, you'll be able to shoot whenever you want,' " Chiozza said. "I'll never tell you not to shoot the ball. It's, 'Yo, you're open -- keep shooting it!'"
Allen can get his own shot when he wants, and he can shoot it from deep; he took nearly twice as many 3-pointers as anyone on Florida last season, making them at a 37 percent clip.
Chiozza's praise of Allen borders on manic.
"He's got the mindset of J.R. Smith, he's got the Ray Allen jump shot, and he's got some John Wall athleticism," Chiozza said.
Was he describing the perfect NBA scorer? Chiozza shrugged.
"I know when to get him the ball and when not to get him the ball," he said. "He can shoot the ball from halfcourt and it's going to go in most of the time."
Baseball was Chiozza's first love. He was a shortstop and a pitcher, and he loved to steal bases. His father, Chris Chiozza Sr., told his son about his own baseball idols growing up as a Cardinals fan, Ozzie Smith and Lou Brock. Chiozza was fast on the bases and quick with the glove, but what made him a great shortstop is also what happens to make him a great point guard: anticipating the next play.
"Baseball is not quite as fast as basketball but you have to learn to start thinking ahead," Chiozza Sr. said. "Like, what happen if the ball goes here? Or there? You have to think two to three options ahead. And that's one reason why he picked up basketball the way he did. He had an understanding of what happens before it happens."
What will happen in the SEC this season will be fascinating to watch. Kentucky is the most talented, but this is also John Calipari's youngest team. Texas A&M is hugely talented, led by likely lottery pick Robert Williams. Cuonzo Martin has pressed the restart button with Missouri and has the possible No. 1 NBA Draft pick in Michael Porter Jr. Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State all have recruited big-time talents, and Ole Miss could be the sleeper of this league, perhaps Andy Kennedy's most talented team.
Florida doesn't have as much blue-chip talent as several of those teams. But the Gators have experience, and they have a system that works for them, and they play together. Most of all, though, they have the best backcourt in the country that nobody is talking about. That will change soon.
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