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Freshman point guard Kasey Hill is coming off perhaps the best game of his young career heading into the SEC Tournament.

Thursday March 13, 2014Hill Adjusts on the Fly

Freshman point guard Kasey Hill is coming off perhaps the best game of his young career heading into the SEC Tournament.

ATLANTA -- With 10:21 to go in the first half, Scottie Wilbekin was whistled for his second foul in last Saturday’s game against Kentucky. Florida was leading by seven, but now its senior point guard, perimeter defensive stopper and overall floor general was headed to the bench.

UF coach Billy Donovan, in weighing the pros and cons of when to send Wilbekin back in the game, had a dilemma on his hands

And then he didn’t.

Freshman backup Kasey Hill wasn’t just good, he was much better than good. 

“Phenomenal,” said assistant coach Rashon Burno, a pretty good point guard in his day at DePaul. “Everything we could have asked of him that game.”

All Hill did was direct the UF offense, dictate tempo and help the Gators stretch that seven-point lead to 22 -- all with Wilbekin never re-entering the game. Top-ranked Florida, of course, went on to defeat the Wildcats 84-65, with Hill finishing with eight points (1-for-1 from the floor, 6-for-6 from the free-throw line), a career-high seven assists and just one turnover.

That’s the Hill his teammates need heading into the postseason, starting with Friday’s quarterfinal play in the Southeastern Conference Tournament at the Georgia Dome. The No. 1-ranked Gators (29-2), winners of 23 in a row, are the tourney’s top seed and will take on Missouri (22-10), the No. 8 seed, which defeated Texas A&M 91-83 in double-overtime of Thursday’s opening round.

Donovan and his staff will be looking for carryover from Hill’s near-flawless performance in the regular-season finale.

“It was a big game and you always want to play the best you can and as hard as you can in big games,” Hill said. “But with me, right now, I’m just trying to get to the point where Coach can’t say I’m not playing hard.”

That’s been Donovan's knock on Hill, the former McDonald’s All-American and five-star recruit out of Montverde (Fla.) Academy. Too many times, Donovan called him out for playing too casually and without an identifiable aggression to his game.

Instead, the 6-foot-1, 181-pounder was getting by on his pure ability -- which no one will argue is substantial.

Hill, remember, started the season’s first four games while Wilbekin was serving a suspension and averaged 10.3 points and 4.1 assists before suffering a high-ankle sprain against Southern. The injury sidelined Hill for four games, with Wilbekin well entrenched back into the starting role upon his backup’s return.

The next two months there were moments when Hill wowed and other that made his coaches scowl. There was also a groin strain sustained Feb. 15 at Kentucky that knocked Hill out for the next three games. He returned with three games to go.

He was OK as Wilbekin’s relief those first two games.

But he was spectacular against the Wildcats.

“I think he got tougher. I think his experience forced him to grow up a little bit and it’s going to be interesting to see how he responds to that,” Donovan said. “The thing I was most pleased about was that he played with a motor. He had energy. He was tough. He mixed it up physically and tried to defend. For a while there, the only thing he was really giving our team was open-floor speed and nothing else.”

Not the game against UK. Hill did his part in defending -- and frustrating -- Cats freshman Andrew Harrison, who happened to be the one point guard prospect rated higher than Hill in their class. Florida played a mix of man-to-man and 2-3 zone in the game, with Harrison missing 10 of his first 11 shots.

Offensively, Hill got that speed Donovan referenced into the game several times, executing the UF break to perfection. LIke the time, Harrison and forward Julius Randle tried to trap Hill in the backcourt. Not only did Hill go left and blow past both, he took the ball to the middle of the floor on Florida’s end, attacked the paint, drew every Kentucky defender to him then kicked the ball to Michael Frazier II wide open in the right corner.

Swish.

“I like it when teams press me,” Hill said.

No wonder. Few in the country have Hill’s acceleration in the open floor and ability to cut, change speeds, get in the lane and do what he does best: find open teammates for shots.

Everyone on the UF bench knew what Hill was capable of, but as Burno put it, “He had to deal with some stuff between in his ears. Now he’s playing with much more confidence.”

Added Wilbekin: “He hasn’t had the opportunities that some of the other freshmen point guards have had, but I think he’s just as good as any of them. Obviously, he’s a humble player. He understands that it’s my senior year, but his time is going to come and it’s coming sooner than later.”

It certainly came last weekend, when the Gators needed him to become the first team in league history to finish an 18-game regular season unbeaten.

Wilbekin was right. Going into last fall, Hill didn’t garner a fraction of the attention of many of his freshmen classmates, such as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Randle and Harrison. Yet, he was right there with them in all the nation’s top-10 rankings. At Montverde, he played alongside UK freshman center Dakari Johnson, another marquee prospect, but Hill swears he wasn’t out to prove anything to anyone last weekend.

“I’ve been playing against those guys all my life,” Hill said. “It was more about just competing, trying to win and doing my job.”

He did all three.

“In the biggest moment of the year -- and with the [SEC] Player of the Year on the bench for 10 minutes -- he not only helped us go up 22, he allowed Coach Donovan to keep Scottie out of harm’s way of a third foul,” UF assistant John Pelphrey said. “He’s taken all his experiences and used them to mature his game. That’s good news for him. And good news for us.”

As for Hill’s next step, well, he’s walking right in line with the rest of the Gators as the prepare to tip off March Madness.

“We’re starting out like everybody else,” Hill said. “We’re back at the bottom now and have to work our way to the top again.”
 

GATORS HOOP SCOOP SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT
No. 1 Florida vs Missouri

When: Friday, 1 p.m.
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Records: Florida 29-2; Missouri 22-10 
TV: ESPNU (w/Brad Nessler, Jimmy Dykes and Shannon Spake)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Game notes: Florida notes; Missouri notes

THE TIP-OFF

History: UF is 38-45 all-time in SEC Tournament play, but 23-14 under Coach Billy Donovan. Florida and Missouri have played just three times and all of them since the Tigers joined the SEC last season. UF leads the series 2-1, including the 68-58 home win on Feb. 4 when Scottie Wilbekin scored 19 points, Michael Frazier II had 14 and Chris Walker made his collegiate debut with two rim-rattling dunks.

Pre-game storyline: The Gators, ranked No. 1 in the nation, are the tournament’s top seed and trying to build on the mountain of momentum that swelled with the first undefeated 18-game regular-season in SEC history. Florida has won the SEC Tournament only three times, stringing together its trio of titles following the 2005, ’06 and ’07 seasons.

About the Gators: Of their 22 straight victories, their best may have been the last three, when UF defeated LSU, South Carolina and Kentucky by a combined 63 points, shot 47.8 percent from 3-point range and held those teams to 38.5 percent from the floor overall. ... UF leads the SEC in scoring defense (58.5 ppg) and rates fourth in field-goal percentage defense (.401). ... Senior forward Casey Prather (14.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) was named first-team All-SEC after finishing No. 1 in the league in field-goal percentage at 62.5 percent. ... Frazier (12.9 ppg), the second-leading scorer on the SEC’s best team, garnered no postseason individual honors, but led the league in 3-point shooting at 44.1 percent. ... SEC Defensive Player of the Year Patric Young (10.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg) is coming off a season-best 18-point effort when he also grabbed seven rebounds against Kentucky. Given what Young is doing on both ends -- especially as the centerpiece of Florida defense -- he may be playing the finest basketball of his career.

About the Tigers: Mizzou is playing in just its second SEC Tournament, having gone 1-1 in its 2013 baptism a year ago. The Tigers were eliminated in that one by Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss, the eventual tourney champ, in the quarterfinals. ... The Tigers advanced to face by UF by defeating Texas A&M 91-83 in double-overtime in Thursday’s second-round action. In their regular season finale, they were destroyed at Tennessee 72-45 to finish 9-9 in league play. ... Mizzou finished second in the SEC in field-goal percentage (.458) and fifth in the league in rebounding (37.2 pg). The Tigers had 19 offensive rebounds in the win over the Aggies. ... Guard Jabari Brown (19.7 points per game, 41.7 from 3-pt range) led the SEC in scoring in conference play at 20.7 per game. He had 26 against A&M and got to the free-throw line 18 times. ... Four Tigers played at least 39 minutes against the Aggies, led by guard Earnest Ross, who logged 48 minutes and finished with 24 points and 7 rebounds. ... Forward Johnathan Williams III played 43 minutes and tallied 11 points and 15 rebounds, including eight of the Tigers 19 boards on the offensive glass. 

Key numbers:

* 1 - UF players who have started every game this season. That would be senior forward Will Yeguete (5.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg).

* 3 - 3-pointers needed by Frazier to become the third UF player to hit 100 in a season. He would join Lee Humphrey (113 in ’05-06 and ’06-07) and Kenny Boynton (110 in ’11-12).

* 4 - All-time Gators with at least 1,200 points and 800 rebounds. Young (1,216 points, 801 rebounds) joined that elite club during the Kentucky game. Other members: Udonis Haslem (1,781, 831), David Lee (1,436, 869) and Chandler Parsons (1,452, 859).

* 37.9 - Average points scored by Mizzou’s top two guards, Brown and Clarkson, which is the best by a duo in the SEC.

* 55 - SEC games won by the UF senior class during its four years, easily the most by any league team during that time. Next closest: Kentucky with 50, Alabama and Tennessee with 40.

Watch for it: Full-court pressure from the Gators. Lots of it. Think about it. The Tigers just played a double-overtime game and now have to play the No. 1-ranked team in the nation -- and a very deep team -- less than 24 hours later. The Tigers did not handled A&M’s pressure defense very well. What would you do? 

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