Biggest Challenges Florida Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. UConn
The Florida Gators were the top-rated team at the start of the NCAA tournament, and they are the lone remaining No. 1 seed as the Final Four begins.
While there is seemingly a lot of pressure on Billy Donovan's team, there may be less than most fans suspect. This team had been stopped in the regional finals each of the past three seasons, so getting over that hump against plucky Dayton has allowed the Gators to breathe a little easier.
Not that it will be easy for Florida to take care of business in North Texas. Their semifinal game against UConn features a team that is coming off a weekend in which it took out two explosive teams in Iowa State and Michigan State, and the seventh-seeded Huskies are playing with house money as the Final Four gets under way.
UConn defeated Florida 65-64 in early December in Storrs. Florida has not been beaten since then.
Here are the biggest challenges as the Gators prepare for UConn.
Play Their Best Game
This should be the first point and the last point that Donovan stresses to his team before they go out on the court against the Huskies (20-8).
They are the better team. The Gators (36-2) have won 30 games in a row and have done it because they play a relentless and skilled brand of defense. They can play man-to-man, press and three different forms of zone in order to shut down any opponent. They allow 57.6 points per game, a figure that ranks third in the nation.
They have the strength and power up front with Patric Young (6.2 rebounds per game), Dorian Finney-Smith (6.7 rpg) and Will Yeguete (5.2 rpg) to dominate the glass, and Scottie Wilbekin (13.4 points per game) is a brilliant clutch player who wants the ball in his hands at the most important moments.
The Gators function brilliantly as a team, and they have demonstrated that since December. If they can continue it against UConn, they should make it to the championship game.
Tighten Up Against Shabazz Napier
Shabazz Napier is a brilliant talent who is capable of having a spectacular game and leading his team to an upset of the Gators.
He has eye-catching quickness and coordination from the point guard position that allows him to dominate against the best and most athletic players in the nation. He has to get full respect from Florida, and if for some reason the Gators don't come up with their best effort against him, they will be in trouble.
Napier has been one of the top players in the nation all season, and he has raised his level of play in the tournament. Napier is averaging 23.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg and 4.5 apg, and he is shooting 45.3 percent from beyond the arc.
The Gators have the defensive prowess to slow the ultra quick Napier down, if not stop him. This has to be one of the top priorities for Florida as it enters the national semifinals.
Dominate on the Inside
It seemed likely that the Gators would be playing Michigan State in this game because the Spartans appeared to have an edge in the frontcourt against UConn.
However, Tom Izzo's team never got its power game going, and Michigan State was held to six points in the paint and six offensive rebounds in the Eastern Regional final.
The Huskies passed the first test and asserted themselves against one strong team. Can they do it again against a Florida team that has seen what happens when an opponent is not prepared to play against UConn?
This is the game for Young and Finney-Smith to make huge statements. Young (10.8 ppg, 50.4 percent) is big, strong and can dominate when he is on his game. However, he is also capable of hitting a dry patch that impacts his scoring.
Finney-Smith (9.9 ppg) is one of the best bench players in the nation. He can score from inside and also take the ball outside. The Gators may need more of the former than the latter against UConn. The Gators must dominate interior scoring if they are going to survive and advance.
UConn's Supporting Cast Is Formidable
Napier is a brilliant player for the Huskies, but UConn is far from a one-man team. His supporting cast has played stellar basketball since the start of the tournament.
Fellow backcourt mate Ryan Boatright is capable of getting open and knocking down the big shot. Boatright is averaging 12.0 ppg and shooting a respectable 37.7 percent from beyond the arc. He is capable of going on a streak that turns any game around.
Big man DeAndre Daniels knows he has a formidable challenge in front of him as he goes up against the Gators, but Daniels will not be intimidated. He is a skilled and tough player who is averaging 13.0 ppg and 5.9 rpg. Daniels is also a threat to send any shot back where it came from. He has 51 blocks on the season.
Niels Giffey, Lasan Kromah and Amida Brimah are all tough-minded hustlers who will leave it all on the floor.
UConn is a fundamentally strong team under head coach Kevin Ollie that is not going to give the Gators anything. Florida is simply going to have to take it.
Free throws have been an issue all season long for the Gators, and it appeared to be a problem in several of their NCAA tournament games.
However, the Gators have won by 10 points or more throughout their NCAA run. While they were challenged into the second half of their games against UCLA and Dayton, they were strong in the final 10 minutes, and their potential problems at the free-throw line have not cost them.
That could change against UConn. Here are the facts: Florida shoots 66.7 percent from the free-throw line, and Young is a liability who connects on 59.4 percent of his free throws.
On the other hand, UConn dominates from the free-throw line. The Huskies have connected on 77.4 percent of their free throws (fifth best in the nation), and Napier has connected at an unconscious rate of 86.6 percent. He has made 201 of 232 free throws this season.
If this game is within five points in either direction in the final five minutes, the Gators could have big problems due to UConn's superiority from the line.