UCONN Huskies (7 seed, 30-8) vs. Florida Gators (1 seed, 36-2)
When: April 5, 2014
Time: 6:09 PM EST
Line: Florida -6.5
The last time the Huskies and Gators squared off, it was Shabazz Napier’s buzzer-beater on Dec. 2, that gave UConn the victory over Florida, and it was also the last time the Gators lost this season.
In that matchup, Napier scored 26 points compared to Scottie Wilbekin’s 15. The two will once again square off—but with a lot more on the line this time around.
Which team will move one step closer to cutting down the nets? Will it be the Gators, who are looking for the first title since back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007? Or, A year after being banned from postseason play by the NCAA because of several years of poor academic performance, will head coach Kevin Ollie bring another championship back to Storrs?
Let’s find out.
Why UConn will cover:
The best player left in the tournament plays for the Huskies. That’s right. I said it. Is there anyone else besides Shabazz Napier that you’d rather have leading your team? Napier averaged 17.9 points per game throughout the year, but although the calendar says April, the month of March seems to bring out the best in the Huskies guards. Averaging 23.3 points per game, en route to the Final Four, Napier can do it all, averaging 6.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.3 steals.
It’s no secret the Huskies offense isn’t the greatest poetry in motion that we’ve seen in recent years, but they’ve still managed to score 71.9 points per game. Only allowing 63.9 points per game, isn’t going to matter against the Gators. What will matter is the play of Napier. The success of the Huskies has been carried on the shoulders of the best point guard that will take the floor Saturday night in Arlington.
You can certainly expect Gators head coach Billy Donovan to force someone else to beat him, besides for Napier. It might be DeAndre Daniels, who has lottery pick talent, but despite playing consistently inconsistent throughout his college career, put on one of the best performances that you’ll see in March in the win over Iowa State.
Or, the game may fall on the hands of senior Niels Giffey, who’s shooting 56.1 percent from the field and 51.4 percent from beyond the arc, but was scoreless from 3-point range in their victory of the Michigan State Spartans in the Elite Eight.
But no matter how everyone plays Saturday night, it’s going to be Napier’s performance that will decide whether the Huskies advance or go home. Napier hasn’t disappointed yet. There’s no reason to think, he’s going to start now.
Why Florida will cover:
Not since a visit to Storrs, Connecticut in early December, have the Gators lost, winning 30 in a row, a program record.
While team leader Scottie Wilbekin was serving a suspension when Florida fell to Wisconsin, and his backup, Kasey Hill, missed the UConn game, not since the Gators have been at full strength, have they tasted defeat.
But unlike the Huskies, Florida’s greatest strengths are its depth and balance on offense. Leading the team with 14.2 points per game during the regular season, Casey Prather is the most dynamic and explosive player on their roster. But it’s reserves like Hill, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Chris Walker, who average than 20 minutes of action per game, that make the Gators extremely dangerous.
Finally reaching the Final Four, after three consecutive loses in the Elite Eight, the Gators are one of those teams that are going to be talked about for a long time. Led by the best floor general in college basketball, Wilbekin’s on-court leadership, two-way play and relentless defense have been the keys to his team’s success.
Besides for their explosive offense, it’s their elite defense that makes them the best defensive team in the country. The gators full court press and ability to cause a lot of turnovers, are one of the many of reasons why Florida has the ability to score in bunches and quick.
Prather, alongside Patric Young, who is a force down low, makes the Gators frontcourt extremely dynamic on offense and tough on the boards. The Huskies are about to face a deep Florida team that has so many weapons to contain. On paper, this game is a complete mismatch. On the court, this game is a complete mismatch too.
Past disappointments and experience will be the motivation that will drive the Gators to a spot in the National Championship game on Monday night. Wilbekin, Young, Prather and Will Yeguete are on a mission. There’s no stopping them now.
My Pick: Bet on UConn +6.5
The Huskies aren’t going to be playing on the big stage of Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, but in the college basketball word, there’s no bigger stage than the Final Four. When the lights shine the brightest, we have seen Napier be at his best over and over again.
Florida is the better team. You know it. I know it. Vegas even knows it. But there’s something special about Shabazz and this time of year. I’m not picking the better team to cover. I’m not even picking the better team to win. I’m picking the best player on the court, combined with the time of year that it is. And in my book, that’s the Huskies.