On Saturday night, Billy Donovan will take the Florida basketball team to the NCAA final four for the fourth time in his coaching career. His last trip was in 2007 against UCLA. Before that game, Donovan gave his team a quick, simple pep talk in the locker room. He had no idea that the message he shared with his players would still ring true for the Gators six years later.
“Tonight is not about the past, and it’s not about the future. It’s about right now,” Donovan preached emphatically. He stressed over and over again that he wanted his team focused on the task at hand, which at that point was advancing to the NCAA championship game. Donovan’s goal was for nothing but that one game to contribute to the mental preparation of his team. He will come into Saturday’s game against the UConn Huskies with a nearly identical agenda.
The past, more than the future, has been a distraction for the Gators this time around. Earlier in the season, Florida suffered a one-point loss to UConn on a buzzer beating jump shot by Shabazz Napier. As expected, when the Huskies advanced to the final four and were set to play Florida, every major college basketball analyst began making references to that game. Reporting on this makes sense, and that game should not be ignored. But it also should not be overblown.
Let’s start with the obvious – that game was played on December the 2nd, just the 8th game of the season for both Florida and UConn. In any sport, but especially college basketball, the early season is more of a feeling out process than anything. For coaches, they are experimenting with different groups and player combinations to see what their rotations will look like. And for players, this is the time prove their worth to the team.
By late March, rotations have been established and player roles are set in stone. Team leaders have revealed themselves. Coaches know what works, and what does not – and with the margin for error being smaller than ever before, they will surely be rolling with what has brought them the most success throughout the season.
Florida and UConn are completely different teams today than they were in early December. At that point, neither side had been battle tested. Since then, that has changed drastically for both teams. The rest of the regular season, conference tournaments and four rounds of the NCAA tournament supply both of them with a cornucopia of experience against some of the best teams in the nation.
When Florida played UConn the first time around, they were the 15th ranked team in the nation. Now, they are the number one overall seed in the tournament. Oh, and another tiny detail worth noting: in their 30 games since the UConn loss, Florida is 30-0.
With that being said, there are a few more statistics that should take precedence over those from their first matchup with the Huskies.
First, Billy Donovan has been to the NCAA Tournament 14 times, with a career record of 38-11. These wins earned him four appearances in the final four, three trips to the national championship game, and two national titles. Needless to say, he knows what it takes to prepare his team for a game of this magnitude. On the other hand, UConn head coach Kevin Ollie is in the midst of his first tournament run. While he has done a masterful job so far, this experience for Florida is invaluable and gives them the edge in that department.
Also in Florida’s favor is defense. They currently have the third ranked defense in the nation, allowing just above 57 points per game. Meanwhile, UConn is ranked 38th overall – still respectable, but certainly not elite.
The Huskies do have one weapon that no team has had an answer for this season – senior point guard Shabazz Napier. He leads the team in points, rebounds, and assists, while also proving to be one of the best game closers in the nation. If the tournament ended today, Napier would without a doubt be crowned MVP. He has drawn many comparisons to former UConn guard Kemba Walker, who lead his team to a championship in 2011. Napier’s offensive arsenal clashing with Florida’s suffocating defense is shaping up to be an extremely entertaining matchup to watch.
The bottom line is this: while the UConn-Florida game from early December is something worth mentioning, it should not be valued as much as it has been for both fans and the media. Both teams have changed quite a bit since then, and have been equally battle tested. What will happen on Saturday still remains to be seen. But this late in the tournament, the past has no place on the court.