Exactly two teams have beaten Florida this season. On November 10, Wisconsin knocked off the Gators 59-53. On December 2, UConn beat the Gators 65-64, which is coincidentally the last time Florida has lost this season.
Now, the two teams meet up with a trip to the national championship game on the line.
The Gators could be forgiven for that first loss. The game was in Madison, for one, and neither Scottie Wilbekin nor Dorian Finney-Smith played in that contest. Besides, what happens in early November rarely seems relevant in early April.
Of course, what happens in early December rarely seems relevant in early April either. Yes, that game was in Storrs. No, Kasey Hill didn't play and, yes, Wilbekin left that game late with an ankle injury.
However, it's impossible not to look back on that first contest between the two teams as one of the main storylines coming into this game.
Precisely how did UConn beat the Gators?
For one, like basically every other team UConn has faced this season, Florida had no answer for Shabazz Napier. The star guard not only had 26 points, four rebounds, two assists and three steals on the day, he also hit the game-winning shot.
The Huskies also hurt the Gators from beyond the arc in that game, making 11 of 24 three-point attempts. UConn's defense was a factor too, as the Gators were held below the 71 points per game they've averaged this season.
Again, though, that was December. The Gators haven't lost since. The fact that this game is a rematch is hardly the only storyline to follow.
For one, there is that Napier fellow. He's one of the players you could have seen before the tournament leading UConn on a deep run. So far, he's lived up to that hype.
For another, there is the head coaching contrast in this contest. Billy Donovan has won two national titles. Kevin Ollie is in his second season as a head coach and his first NCAA tournament.
Of course, Ollie was learning the ropes of being a coach before he became one. He told Paul Myerberg and Nicole Auerbach of USA Today that he would meticulously study every aspect of the game as a journeyman NBA player:
I had to watch tape. I had to watch film. I had to scout my opponent to get that best advantage. I was getting thrown in there 10 minutes, five minutes, so I needed to know exactly what was going to happen so I could make those five minutes meaningful. Hopefully those five minutes would last to another team bringing me in and giving me a contract. I thought I did a pretty good job with that."
Both coaches have one thing in common—they preach playing tight defense. According to Kenpom.com, the Gators are No. 1 in the nation in defensive efficiency, while the Huskies come in at No. 10.
They also have very experienced squads. The Gators have four senior starters, while Michael Frazier II and Finney-Smith are both sophomores. Those four seniors have already guided Florida to four Elite Eight trips in a row and now a Final Four appearance, so the moment is hardly lost on them.
UConn is hardly green either. Napier, Niels Giffey and Lasan Kromah are all seniors, while Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels are juniors. One-and-done may be the trend in college basketball, but it hasn't affected these programs.
That is probably where the similarities end, however.
Where Florida would rather play a pressure defense and score easy buckets in transition, UConn is content with slowing the game to a crawl. Whereas Florida has arguably the best balance in the country, the Huskies need Napier to come up clutch to win a national title.
Another factor is that UConn really doesn't rebound well, as Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk notes:
The Huskies are not a big team, and their size up front is not all that strong or physical. There is a reason that they rank 246th in defensive rebounding percentage. Florida isn’t exactly Kentucky, but they can get on the offensive glass. Here’s the thing to remember, however: UConn’s front line shut down Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson on Sunday. Florida’s bigs aren’t as good as them.
In the end, Florida's overall balance and ability to attack teams in multiple ways will probably be the difference. It's hard to find a glaring weakness on the Gators.
But if this one stays close and Napier has the ball in his hands with the clock winding down, well, don't be shocked if we see a December encore.
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