ORLANDO, Fla. — Chris Chiozza is often lauded for his impressive vision on the court, his ability to see passing opportunities as they develop and create prime scoring opportunities for his teammates.
But in the middle of the season he had the presence of mind to see what everybody on the outside could as well.
Chiozza, Florida’s junior back-up point guard, was struggling and didn’t look totally comfortable in his role — a role that might have been a bit smaller than he had hoped for entering this campaign.
So when the Gators lost back-to-back SEC games in mid January and faced a pivotal moment in their season, Chiozza stopped by coach Mike White’s office to have a chat.
“It’s a great story. He comes into my office one day on his own accord, and it was after our home Vanderbilt loss. It was the day of that big meeting that we’ve talked about a bunch,” White said Friday, recalling the moment. “He says, ‘Coach, I haven’t been myself. I haven’t been playing well. I don’t know what’s wrong. I’m focused on the wrong things.’ And again, here’s a guy who’s got a pretty good argument to play more minutes and he’s had some really big games and he’s not starting.
“But that has kind of been our biggest strength this year is we’ve utilized our depth, and I think Chris was a little bit hung up on that early in the year. So he just made a big maturity decision, and he comes in and says, ‘Coach, I’m going to do whatever I have to do just to help this team win.’ And naturally he starts playing his butt off, and since then he’s been the best version of Chris Chiozza.”
That was the version the Gators got Thursday as they used a strong second half to close out an 80-65 win over East Tennessee State in their NCAA Tournament opener.
Chiozza had been scoreless while playing 11 minutes in the first half and taking only 1 shot.
But as Florida fended off an ETSU surge, Chiozza became one of the team’s most significant contributors. He’d finish with 14 points in the second half while hitting all 4 of his shots (including 2 3-pointers) and all 4 of his free throws.
It was more than just the statistical contributions, though.
There was a pivotal moment with a little less than 4 minutes remaining when forward Devin Robinson did all he could to tip a rebound out toward midcourt. The problem was there weren’t any Gators in the area and it looked ETSU would retain possession while trying to cut into a 10-point lead.
Instead, Chiozza darted toward the ball, pushing it up court and turning it into a fastbreak layup and a 12-point lead that essentially quelled any threat of a comeback. He also finished with 5 rebounds and 3 assists in the win.
“Cheese is always in the thick of things,” senior guard Canyon Barry said. “You know, every time you look up he’s getting a steal or having a big rebound and obviously he’s a great passer and handles the ball and kind of runs the team.”
Said White: “Chris has always been a tough kid, and in my opinion, in the last few months he’s really grown into becoming a really tough kid. For whatever reason, he’s embraced that.”
Chiozza, a 6-foot junior from Memphis, Tenn., started 11 games as a freshman and 22 as a sophomore so it’s understandable that he may not have expected to be stuck on the bench behind senior starter Kasey Hill all season.
Whatever realization he came to in mid-January, though, he’s no doubt been a different player since that meeting in White’s office.
His scoring average reached its nadir a few nights after that meeting, bottoming out at 5.0 points per game, but he has managed to raise it to 7.1 PPG while scoring in double figures in 9 of the last 12 contests. That included a triple0double against Missouri wth 12 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
But his performance Thursday was as impressive as any he’s had this season.
“Defensively I got into the game, got a rebound or something and got out into transition and that got me going,” he explained. “Then I hit a couple 3s. My teammates found me open shots and when you get shots falling offensively it gives you that energy.”
With Hill finishing up after this season, Chiozza should get the opportunity to be the Gators’ full-time starting point guard as a senior. He has 121 assists to 49 turnovers this season and 349 assists for his career, and White seems confident in handing him that role when the time comes.
“I expect him to have a huge senior year and hopefully he can have a really strong finish to his junior season,” White said.
Most importantly, Chiozza is confident in himself again.
The Gators are a hard team to predict in that any number of players have stolen the spotlight at times over the course of this year. Chiozza probably won’t score 14 points in the second half again Saturday against the Cavaliers, but he seems content to fulfill whatever role is required of him.
“Coach is always giving me confidence, telling me to shoot the ball more, just giving me freedom to do what I want to do. You can’t really ask for much more than a coach to give you the freedom to do what you want to do and play your game,” he said. “So I think my confidence is through the roof right now, probably the highest it’s been since I’ve been in college.”