GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Florida basketball coach Mike White didn’t want to be misunderstood.
It’s not that point guard Kasey Hill was giving less than his best effort last season; it’s just that there’s something unmistakably different about the senior this year.
White sees it during the grind of practices, how much effort Hill puts into routine drills. He sees it on the defensive end in games, when the veteran is grabbing 6 steals as he did Tuesday night against Ole Miss. And on the offensive end when he’s getting the Gators going in transition or penetrating to set up his teammates.
“I just think he’s matured a lot. He’s a senior who understands it’s his last go-round. There’s more buy-in. He’s worked even harder,” White said after No. 24 Florida’s 70-63 win over Ole Miss. “I think he takes, I hate to say he takes practice more seriously because he took practice seriously last year, I’ve only coached him a year and a half now, but he comes to practice now with a different level of intensity and focus. We all need to be more focused, but Kasey, he’s really stepped up as a leader way more so than he did as a junior.
“And maybe that’s just the positive senioritis, understanding it’s your last go-round. He’s become a really good drill guy and that stuff carries over too. He’s been a good example to our young guys. He’s playing with more confidence. It’s funny, it’s like the chicken or the egg. He’s playing with more confidence because he’s playing better; he’s playing more because he’s playing better and he’s playing with more confidence.”
Whatever the cause-and-effect, it’s working for Hill and the Gators.
White actually was a bit frustrated with his point guard after that win Tuesday night, just in how he closed the game. He felt the Gators rushed some late possessions and Hill went 0-for-4 from the foul line down the stretch as the lead shrunk.
But again, White wasn’t worried that any of that would linger with the senior when the Gators (11-3, 2-0 SEC) host Tennessee (8-6, 1-1) on Saturday evening.
“Kasey’s in a pretty good place, notwithstanding the last few minutes tonight. So he’ll get back in the gym tomorrow. Without saying a word to him, Kasey will shoot anywhere from 200-500 free throws tomorrow. That’s just what he’ll do,” White said Tuesday night.
Overall, Hill ranks fourth on the Gators with 9.3 points per game, is playing a team-high 28.6 minutes per contest and also averaging 4.9 assists (albeit with 3.1 turnovers), 3.0 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game.
His shooting numbers aren’t great — 42.5 percent field-goal percentage, 17.6 percent from 3, 63.3 percent from the foul line — but that isn’t how he makes the biggest impact anyway.
Hill does a little bit of everything for a Florida team that looks poised for a breakout season, and most importantly, his teammates seem to feed off of him.
During that win over the Rebels on Tuesday night, he sparked a key stretch for the Gators midway through the first half when on consecutive possessions he assisted Canyon Barry on a 3, Kevarrius Hayes on a jumper and then threw in a fast-break dunk off his own steal for a 21-14 lead. That was when Florida really took control of the game.
— Ryan Young (@RyanYoungSEC) January 4, 2017
Hill finished with 8 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and those 6 steals, becoming the first Gator to contribute a 5-5-5-5 line since 2008 and the first player in any power conference to do so in league play this season. And White wasn’t the only coach heaping praise on the senior afterward.
“Kasey Hill was the real issue for us. I think he’s the reason Florida’s really playing at a high level, because of his speed in the open floor and he’s really making good decisions with the ball,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.
Hill’s field-goal percentage and points, albeit modest, are both career-highs, as are his assists (up from 3.3 per game last season), rebounds and steals.
White thinks Hill’s commitment to becoming a better defender has helped spur his overall confidence this season, and his teammates see that too.
“Kasey has been playing unbelievable right now. Obviously, defensively he’s just an animal on defense,” Barry said. “He’s always in there pressuring the ball handlers, making that a nightmare for the opposing team and you feel like every time we get a steal, Kasey Hill’s in there at some point tipping it out or running the break.”
Barry wasn’t with the Gators last year, but forward Justin Leon was and he sees the same difference in Hill that White sees.
“He’s a lot more vocal, and you know, just aggressive. Playing a lot harder. He made a big jump from last year,” Leon said. “… Just to see how he’s made a big jump from this year to last year, it’s been great for us as a team. Once you’ve got a leader like Kasey and you see him doing it, then that gives everybody else an extra boost.”
Hill has received his share of criticism through his four years at Florida and hasn’t always been the player fans wanted or hoped he would be, but he’s now playing a pretty pivotal role for the Gators in a season that could turn out very special.
As he sees it, though, he’s just letting the game come to him, playing with confidence and looking to set up his teammates. Nothing more, nothing less.
“I’m just doing my job, doing whatever coach tells me to do,” Hill said. “I guess as I go, the team goes and I’m going to continue to do that.”