Friday April 4, 2014Shooting Star: Frazier Locked and Loaded at Final Four
Florida shooting guard Michael Frazier II is a dangerous weapon for the Gators and a focus for opponents.
Florida shooting guard Michael Frazier II is a dangerous weapon for the Gators and a focus for opponents.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- The event is called Final Four Salute and Thursday night it brought together each of the teams participating in college basketball’s grand spectacle this weekend in North Texas. Players, coaches and support staff from Florida, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Kentucky all gathered at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in downtown Dallas for some fun and a dinner reception, featuring a cameo by former President George W. Bush.
Players were granted access to “Bracket Town,” an interactive park built on site especially for the Final Four, that features simulated snow-skiing and golf, a baseball batting cage and soccer goal. There was even a fencing exhibition, where several Gators donned the appropriate (and padded) gear and clashed foils.
But one station, more than any other, caught Michael Frazier II’s eye.
A basketball court and goal.
The UF guard picked up a ball and began taking rhythm 3-point shots -- and exactly no one was surprised.
“I couldn't help myself," Frazier smiled. "I wasn't interested in playing any of those other games. I wanted to shoot."
In the run-up to the weekend, the focus on the Final Four rematch between the top-ranked Gators (36-2) and 18th-ranked Connecticut Huskies has locked in on the backcourt matchup between UF’s Scottie Wilbekin and UConn’s Shabazz Napier.
Rightfully, so. Napier was voted first-team All-American earlier this week and his buzzer-beating jumper to defeat Florida back on Dec. 2 remains the last time the Gators lost a game. Wilbekin, one of the best on-ball perimeter defenders in the country, missed the final three minutes of that nail-biter due to a sprained ankle.
Their head-to-head battle will be something to see.
But if the Gators are to beat the Huskies, Wilbekin’s wing man in the UF backcourt figures prominently. That, of course, is Frazier, the 6-foot-4, 199-pound sniper from the 3-point line. When the Gators are at their very best -- and to win it all, they’ll need to be against this Final Four field -- it’s because they’re playing the fearsome defense that has defined their season, moving the ball in the offensive halfcourt and with Frazier hurling daggers from deep.
“We need to know where he is,” Huskies guard Ryan Boatright. “And I mean all the time.”
Frazier is shooting 44.8 percent from the 3-point line for the season and 48.8 in the postseason. His 2013-14 resume is filled with timely 3-point baskets, oftentimes in flurries (like at South Carolina last month or against UCLA in the Sweet 16 last weekend), and sometimes when teams have managed to contain him and the Gators needed a big shot the most (like against Missouri or at both Tennessee and Kentucky).
“I’ve been around a lot of great shooters,” UF assistant coach Matt McCall said, reeling off a list that included Matt Bonner, Lee Humphrey, Brett Nelson, Anthony Roberson and Matt Walsh. “But I’ve never been around someone who works on his craft like Mike does. There’s a reason why opposing coaches cringe when the ball leaves his hand.”
That’s exactly what UCLA coach Steve Alford did last week in Memphis, Tenn., watching Frazier bomb four treys in the first half on his way to breaking Humphrey’s record for single-season 3-point field goals. That number now stands at 117 (four more than Humphrey made in both 2006 and ’07) and figures to go up.
“That stuff doesn’t really mean anything to me,” Frazier said. “I just want to help my team win.”
Fine. And the Gators want Frazier to shoot 3s whenever he’s open.
“He does himself and our team a disservice when he doesn’t take advantage of an open look,” senior center Patric Young said. “Even if he’s missed three, four, five in a row we need him shooting the ball with confidence because we eventually know what's going to happen.”
Frazier’s marksmanship is no accident. Nor is his passion to hone it.
The routine Frazier puts himself through is frighteningly thorough: 20 makes from seven different spots around the arc, then back again.
All told: 280 makes.
Not attempts. Makes.
“That’s nothing,” said Frazier, the sophomore from Tampa by way of Montverde (Fla.) Academy. “I remember shooting until I got black blood blisters on my fingers and my shoulder would be on fire. My mom would have to rub my shoulders, because they'd be so tense from shooting the ball.”
Now he has the UF training staff to do that; and managers to rebound his seldom misses during his workouts.
There are days when Frazier puts himself through double shooting sessions; sometimes early in the morning, sometimes late at night. Woven into his routine are mini-mind games. Like making five in a row before he misses two in a row or else he starts over from that spot; or eight of the next 10 (maybe 12 of 15) have to go in or else he starts over.
Some makes don’t even count.
“Only if they’re pure,” manager Brandon Gilbert said. “And if it’s a bad spot, like he goe's 20 out of 26, that’s not good enough. He’s starting over.”
Gilbert once watched Frazier make all 20 at one spot, all 20 at the next, “and the first seven or eight at the next one.”
Then he missed three straight ... and was incensed.
The Gators like to say they’re “chasing greatness.” Frazier often cites the motto, but more importantly he lives it daily.
The look in his eye during Friday’s shoot-around inside the vast AT&T Stadium, where 85,000 tickets have been sold -- was of a young man completely locked in on the task at hand and oblivious to whatever depth perception questions were being tossed his way.
“The court’s the same,” Frazier said. “The 3-point line doesn’t change.”
"I'm not worried about him right now," Gators coach Billy Donovan said, as he watched Frazier launch away. "He's locked in."
Consider Frazier totally bought in, also, to the so-called “process” the Gators constantly talk about. The “process” is an organic state of being inside which exists in everyone and everything associated with the UF basketball program. Everything that’s happened throughout the “process” -- the struggles, the triumphs -- has delivered the Gators to this point in time; the very place Donovan, the UF seniors, Frazier and the rest all vowed to be at the start of the season.
Rewind to mid-February. Frazier suffered a slightly sprained wrist in a comeback home win against Auburn; a game he hit a clutch 3-pointer in the final minute to stake the Gators to their first lead since early on.
Two nights later, the team flew to Mississippi on a Friday night for a date with Ole Miss set to begin at 11 a.m. local time. Because of the early start, the Gators went from the airport to Tad Smith Coliseum for a shoot-around. Frazier’s wrist was bothering him and he stayed after practice to get extra shots up.
He was far more off the mark than on.
Frazier was so frustrated, the coaches ordered him to shut it down for the night and sent him to locker room. While there, he both seethed and fretted to the point his teammates had to console him. Frazier thought he would hurt his team the next day against bombs-away Marshall Henderson and the Rebels.
Donovan, though, had sympathy for the kid. Instead, he challenged Frazier to find his confidence by whatever means necessary before tip-off about 14 hours later.
Frazier, along with McCall and two managers, was back at the arena at 6:30 the next morning.
His 280 makes came with 83-percent accuracy.
“I remember asking him on the bus back to the hotel, ‘Do you think Marshall Henderson, who’s got us totally paranoid, could make 83 percent of his 3-point shots?’ I mean, Some of the best NBA guys aren’t doing that,” McCall said. “I just told him that he needed to shoot with an attitude where they’d better not even give him the slightest crack of an opening, ‘cause it was going up. That's what we want.”
Frazier went 5-for-10 later that day in a 75-71 victory. He's gone 45-for-89 since. That’s 50.1 percent, including a sicko night at South Carolina when he set a Southeastern Conference record for 3-pointers in a league game with 11 (on 18 attempts) on his way to a career-high 37 points.
Late in that game, while Frazier was hitting six treys in the second half and the Gamecocks were making just five field goals, USC was hit with a technical foul when a fan threw a white towel on the floor after Frazier’s 10th bomb of the night.
As in surrender.
“Sometimes, you just get in a zone,” he said.
And sometimes, you go out a bust a zone or two. The Gators hope the next one belongs to the Huskies.
It’s the Final Four, but there’s no time for games. Michael Frazier has basketball to play.
GATORS HOOP SCOOP
No. 1 Florida vs No. 18 Connecticut
When: Saturday, 6:09 p.m. (ET)
Where: AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas
Records: Florida 36-2; Connecticut 30-8
TV: TBS (w/Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony, Steve Kerr and Tracy Wolfson); Teamcast on TNT (w/David Steele, Mark Wise and James Bates)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Bill Koss)
Game notes: Florida notes; Connecticut notes
History: Florida and UConn are meeting for the third time in school history and the second time in four months. The Huskies defeated the Gators 65-64 on Dec. 2 at Storrs, Conn., when guard Shabazz Napier had the last two of his 26 points at the horn, handing UF its last defeat to date. The game will mark the second time Florida and UConn have met in the NCAA Tournament. The Gators beat the Huskies 69-60 in overtime of the Sweet 16 round of the 1994 NCAA Tournament en route to the first Final Four berth in school history.
Pre-game storyline: As if any explanation is even necessary, right? The winner advances to play either Wisconsin (30-7) or Kentucky (28-10) for the national championship Monday night.
About the Gators: It starts on the defensive end. The better the Gators play on that side of the court, the more opportunities they get in the open floor and eventually at the offensive end. UF is giving up just 54 points per game, 38.9-percent shooting, 24.3 from the 3-point line and has won all four of its NCAA tournament games by double-digits. The Gators are scoring only 65 points per game in the postseason (down five from their season average), but shooting nearly 46 percent and 37.8 from the three-point line. ... UF coach Billy Donovan is 35-11 all-time in NCAA Tournament games -- including 5-1 at the Final Four -- for a career winning percentage of .761 that ranks second among the nation’s active coaches with at least 10 games. ... Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is averaging 15.3 points per game in the postseason and last weekend played a total of 73 minutes in the Sweet 16 win over UCLA and Elite Eight victory over Dayton without turning the ball over. Wilbekin was on the bench for the final three minutes of the first meeting after spraining his ankle, as Napier scored his team's last six points. ... Senior center Patric Young has numbers in the postseason (10.3 ppg, 6.1 rpg) that practically mirror his for the entire season (10.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg). ... Senior forward Casey Prather (13.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) led the SEC in field-goal percentage this season at 60.3 percent, but is just 49 percent in the postseason. His 36 free throws are a team-high in tournament play and he’s shooting a solid 72.2 from the line. ... Backup freshman point guard Kasey Hill (5.5 ppg, 3.2 apg) missed the UConn game with a sprained ankle. He's healthy this time and last weekend had a career-high 10 assists against UCLA. He'll not only give Donovan options as far as lineups (the Gators love the 3-guard alignment), but can spell Wilbekin if he's tired.
About the Huskies: They’re in the fifth Final Four in school history, having won the national championship three of the previous four times (1999, 2004 and 2011). ... Kevin Ollie, who starred at UConn in the early 1990s, is in his second season as coach since taking over last year for Hall-of-Famer Jim Calhoun. The Huskies were ineligible to play in the tournament last season, which speaks to how he’s rebuilt the program coming off NCAA academic progress sanctions. Ollie is 50-18 in two seasons. ... UConn is led by senior guard Napier, a first-team All-American and Player of the Year in the American Athletic Conference. Napier, who scored 26 against the Gators in their December meeting at Storrs, averaged 19.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, shot 36 percent from the 3-point line and 90.1 percent from the free-throw line. He will take absolutely insane and guarded shots -- and many will go in. He is exceptional in playing the passing lanes on defense. ... Junior guard Ryan Boatright (12.0 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 3.4 apg) is a perfect wing man for Napier. The backcourt duo makes the Huskies a perimeter-driven team, especially with “stretch” shooting forward Niels Giffey making 49.1 percent from the 3-point line. ... Forward DeAndre Daniels (13 ppg, 5.9 rpg) is a far more polished and overall solid player than when the Gators faced him four months ago. He can score in the low post and shoot 3s (43.2 percent). It’ll be a bad sign if both Daniels and Napier are exceeding their scoring numbers.
* .833 - Florida’s winning percentage when ranked No. 1, based on a 26-5 record over the five times it's been voted to the top of the Associated Press poll. The Gators rose to No. 1 on Feb. 24 and have gone 11-0 since.
* 1 - UF players other than Frazier and Wilbekin who have made a 3-point shot during the postseason. Dorian Finney-Smith has five on 22 attempts (just 22.7 percent). Aside from those three, the rest of the Gators are 0-for-11 from the arc.
* 2 - Made 3-point field goals by Frazier and Wilbekin during last year’s NCAA South Region at AT&T Stadium. Frazier went 2-for-3 in a win over Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16, but attempted just one shot (a 2) in a 20-point loss to Michigan in the regional title game. Wilbekin went 4-for-17 in that regional, including 0-for-3 from 3.
* 23.3 - Napier’s scoring average during UConn’s four NCAA Tournament games. He’s made 14 of 31 shots from long distance (45.2 percent).
* 543 - Combined games played by Florida’s four-man senior class of Wilbekin, Young, Prather and Will Yeguete. Woven in that number is 265 combined starts.
Watch for it: Post touches for Young. They will be critical. Yes, Young was the Defensive Player in the SEC, not offensive player, but the Gators have a considerable size advantage on UConn in the front court and need to look to exploit it. The more activity inside, the more the Huskies must honor the post, thus leaving more options on the perimeter -- ala Frazier and Wilbekin at the 3-point line, where together they’re 40-for-96 in the postseason (41.7 percent).