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Friday December 20, 2013Hill Climbs: Freshman Point Guard Responds to Coach's Challenge

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

SUNRISE, Fla. -- They may have been 11 of the most forgettable minutes of Kasey Hill’s basketball career.

Any level.

Hill, the University of Florida’s freshman and hot shot McDonald’s All-America point guard, went 0-for-3 from the floor Tuesday night against Memphis. Two of his shots were blocked, the other was an air ball 3-pointer from the corner. He turned the ball over twice; once when it was swatted from his hand on a drive, the other on an offensive foul.

Yes, Hill had three nice assists, but those were not the plays Coach Billy Donovan had in mind when he eviscerated his rookie playmaker in the halftime locker room with some pointed and colorful language. All there for the rest of the Gators to see.

“Let’s just say he called me out,” Hill said. “He told me I wasn’t tough enough or physical enough. He said I was playing like a punk and getting punk’d. He challenged me to do whatever I had to do to step it up.”

As in, immediately. As in, at Madison Square Garden, on ESPN, with Dick Vitale screaming on press row and a quartet of grizzled senior guards in his face.

There was no mistaking the message. Or the difficulty of what his coach was asking, for that matter.

Didn't matter.

“I had to grow up,” Hill said. “And it couldn’t be after the game, it had to be in the game.”

The Hill that took the court in the second half was a different player. He was more confident, even a little brash in thinking he could race the length of the floor at full speed and split the Tigers defense for a gorgeous left-handed layup. He finished 2-for-2 from the floor after halftime, with the first 3-point basket of his career (on his eighth try), with an additional assist and one turnovers in UF’s 77-75 win.

Welcome to the big time, kid.

Now he'll be asked (make that ordered) to bring that same determination, grit and passion with him Saturday when the 16th-ranked Gators (8-2) take on Fresno State (6-5) in the second game of the Orange Bowl Classic at BB&T Center. Hill set a standard for himself in the second half that he now can expected to be held accountable to.

“I really respect him from the standpoint that he’s eager to learn and be coached. He wants that,” Donovan said. “He wants to be told the truth and where he needs to improve. He likes being challenged and confronted.”

Added Hill: “That’s why I came here. I want to be coached hard.”

He came to the right place.

Donovan goes after players head on. If they’re superstars or guys with high-ceiling talent, he will go after them even harder.

In Hill, Donovan began seeing a guy with a tendency to come off the accelerator rather than flooring it when the moment demanded.

“There is a part of him, sometimes, where he can become very casual,” Donovan said.

Hill found quickly that showing the least bit of vulnerability against that hyena-like Memphis guards got him pounced upon. One of them, senior Joe Jackson, was a McDonald’s All-American also, and probably has a big ol' chip on his shoulder that he’s still in college, rather than the NBA. 

Probably figured he’d take it out his frustration on the heralded kid from Florida.

“I couldn’t relax, not for a second,” Hill said. “And I wanted to show Coach and my teammates that I was a better player than that.”

In the second half, they saw it. Everybody did. Memphis, too.

“He has a lot of potential and he's still a freshman, so he has so much room to grow,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “He can be really good and I think he's really coachable and I think if he just stays focused on getting better and listening to Coach and listening to some of the older guys on the team that he'll just continue to get better every game.”

The next one is Saturday.

The best thing Hill can do is take those forgettable moments from Tuesday and ... well ... never forget them.

“I haven’t had a game like that in a long, long time,” Hill said. “But I learned so much about when to attack, about being strong with the ball and knowing when to find my teammates. I learned about a lot of things, really.”


No. 15 Florida vs Fresno State
MetroPCS Orange Bowl Classic  

When: Friday, 4:30 p.m.
Where: BB&T Center, Sunrise, Fla.
Records: Florida 8-2; Fresno State 6-5
TV: FOX Sports Network and Sun Sports (w/Rich Waltz, Mark Wise and Allison Williams)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Bill Koss) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 119/XM 199
Game notes: Florida notes; Fresno State notes


History: The game will mark the first meeting between Florida and Fresno State, but the Gators are no strangers to the Orange Bowl Classic. This is the 15th time UF will play in the event. The Gators are 12-2 in those games, including three straight wins.

Pre-game storyline: This will be UF’s last game before the team breaks for the Christmas holidays, with some players leaving directly from the arena. That means potential for lack of game-day focus, a disturbing trend Billy Donovan’s teams have shown of late. The Gators are 2-2 in games just before the Christmas break, dating to 2010. That doesn’t count a Dec. 20, 2011 home overtime upset loss to Jacksonville because Florida had one more game before the break that year and played listlessly in an 11-point win against Radford.

The players: Senior forward Casey Prather (18.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg) had another big night against Memphis, finishing with a game-high 22 points, including UF’s last eight. Donovan, though, wasn’t pleased with Prather’s defense in that game and will expect more from him on that end of the floor against Fresno. ... Senior center Patric Young (10.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg) tallied 8 points and 8 rebounds vs. Memphis, but his energy level on both ends was through the roof, making for maybe his best all-around game of the young season. If Young bounces his 6-9, 250-pound body off the floor and chases rebounds like that the rest of the season, he’ll be a nightmare for opponents. ... Senior guard Scottie Wilbekin (12.6 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 5.2 apg) struggled with his shooting when he first reinstated to the team following his suspension. Now he’s up 43.6 percent from the floor and 50 from 3-point range.

The opponent: Fresno State, out of the Mountain West Conference, will come into the BB&T Center with its 3-point guns loaded. The Bulldogs average 24 shots from behind the arc per game, the most of any UF opponent this season. They may only hit 34.3 percent, which ranks 160th in the nation, but several Fresno guys have shown propensity to get hot from the long range and the Gators want to prevent that from happening to a few of them at the same time. ... The Bulldogs have four starters averaging in double figures, led by 6-4 guard Marvelle Harris (17.9 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and point guard Cezar Guerrero (14.4 ppg, 4.4 agp). Fresno’s leading rebounder is 6-4 Tyler Johnson (14.3 ppg, 7.3 rpg), who also scores in bunches. ... The game will mark the first for FSU against a team from the state of Florida and first against a Southeastern Conference opponent since losing to Georgia in the 2007 NIT.

Key numbers:

*16.2 - Average fouls by the Gators per game. That’s not many. In fact, it ranks 16th in the nation and first among SEC teams.

*18 - MInutes per game walk-on forward Jake Kurtz averaged through the first eight games. He combined to play two minutes against Kansas and Memphis, a sign that UF’s regular rotation is finally rounding into form following the run of suspensions and injuries.

*72.2 - Prather’s free-throw percentage over the past two games (16 of 22). The rest of the UF team shot 52.9 collectively.

*90 - Percentage of Fresno State's offense generated by its guards.

Watch for it: Dorian Finney-Smith has clearly become a reliable option to play the center position and give Young a breather or in certain combinations Donovan wants to utilize. Finney-Smith is leading the team at 7.5 rebounds per game, but also can pull big men away from the paint with his 37.9 shooting percentage from the 3-point line.


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