NEW YORK — Kasey Hill said earlier this week that he feels this Florida basketball team is better than the one that reached the 2014 Final Four.
After the Gators knocked off Wisconsin in overtime Friday night to reach the Elite Eight and move one step away from matching that team, Hill elaborated on that opinion.
“Defensively, we’re very, very similar. Both of our defenses were good, but offensively I think this team is a little bit better because we have more depth,” he said. “But you just want to win. That team, they just wanted to win. They had a lot of experience under their belt as far as playing in the tournament, and they really wanted to win and get past that Elite Eight because they had been there for two or three years straight. … They just really wanted to win, and I see that similar with this team.”
Florida certainly showed its tenacity and resolve Friday night, overcoming an 11-point deficit in the first half against Wisconsin, weathering a game-tying 3-pointer from the Badgers that forced overtime and battling back from a 5-point deficit in the extra session before Chris Chiozza’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer sealed an 84-83 win to reach this point.
Florida (27-8) now takes on South Carolina (25-10) on Sunday at 2:20 p.m. ET inside Madison Square Garden with a Final Four berth awaiting the winner.
While many might have had a different opinion about this team’s potential than Hill just a couple weeks ago, none have quite the perspective.
The senior point guard is the only player left from that 2013-14 Florida team. He started eight games and played in 32 as a freshman that season, averaging 5.5 points and 22 minutes per game.
Again, the difference he sees, what sets this team apart in his eyes, is the offensive depth.
Florida had little problem in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament despite its top two scorers in KeVaughn Allen and Canyon Barry providing minimal scoring.
Instead, Devin Robinson broke out for 24 points and 7 rebounds to lead the Gators past East Tennessee State in the first round. And then Justin Leon scored 14 points during a decisive 21-0 run against Virginia.
Allen bounced back in a big way Friday night with a career-high 35 points, and yet it was Chiozza — the team’s backup point guard — playing the role of hero in overtime to keep this postseason run going.
“Our first practice I saw it. We just had a lot more depth, and I knew if coach could get us all locked in on defense, we’d have a really good chance to win as many games as we can,” Hill said.
Statistically speaking, that 2013-14 team had plenty of balance with Casey Prather (13.8 points per game), Scottie Wilbekin (13.1), Michael Frazier (12.4) and Patric Young (11.0) all averaging in double figures per game, with Dorian Finney-Smith (8.7), Hill (5.5) and Will Yeguete (4.9) functioning as role players.
This Gators team has only three players averaging in double figures offensively in Allen (14.1), Barry (11.6) and Devin Robinson (11.3), but as they’ve shown all season, the starring role changes from game to game. Hill (9.7), Justin Leon (7.1), Chiozza (7.1), Kevarrius Hayes (6.1) and even Keith Stone (3.7) have all significantly impacted the outcome of games.
As for the comparison, Robinson says the players don’t bring up that 2014 Final Four run with Hill much anymore. It might have been more of a topic in past years, but this team knows what it needs to do.
“We try not to ask him about that. We know what that team consisted of. Previous years we asked him about it because we weren’t as good as we are now, and we know to get to that level what they did — they had to sacrifice things, had to trust their teammates and trust the coaching staff and just buy in on what the coaches were (saying),” Robinson said. “We finally bought in on playing defense and playing aggressive and playing physical, and I think that helps us just like they did in ’13-’14.”
The players may not ask him, but Hill’s unique connection to that last Final Four team makes for an interesting story line.
He was asked during the team’s media session what he learned from the veterans on that team that he can apply now as one of the leaders of this team, now one step away from that same stage.
“Just staying in the moment, honestly,” he said. “Those guys, they were very big on that, they had a lot of experience, a lot of tournament games under their belt. But really just staying in the moment and going out there and competing and trying to play every game like it is your last.”