It's a pity that Florida has a football team, and that I've had to spend much of the last 48 hours thinking about it, because Florida's men's basketball team taking on Connecticut this Monday night (7:00 p.m., ESPN2/ESPN3) would have been one of my favorite games of this entire academic year if I was able to pay more attention to it.
You see, I was a UConn fan before I was ever a Florida basketball fan — I knew who Ray Allen was before I ever realized that Florida had a basketball team, such were the Gators' and Huskies' respective profiles when I started really following sports in 1996. I still root for the UConn women's team when March rolls around, because, well, the Gators often aren't. And my dad's side of the family is from Connecticut, too: My grandfather, who passed away earlier this year, was a UConn fan who loved to talk about the Huskies.
I wish I could have talked to him about this game.
Florida and UConn have less significant history than UConn and I do, but there's a significant meeting in their past: The 1994 Florida team that made the program's first Final Four run under Lon Kruger knocked off Connecticut in the Sweet Sixteen (in Miami, no less) on their way to Charlotte. With the score tied and seconds to go, Donyell Marshall missed two free throw with seconds to go, and the Gators pulled away in overtime for a 69-60 win.
20 seasons later, things have changed.
UConn's still a national power, having scored the program's first three national titles in the span, and still suffused with great talent from the Northeast, but with the retirement of Jim Calhoun and the bump of postseason probation in 2012-13, Florida's the more stable and perennially potent program, with the Huskies trying to get back to regular elite play under Kevin Ollie — who was on the floor that night in Miami. UConn is just the beginning of a rigorous three-game stretch for the Gators in December: Kansas comes to Gainesville next week with superfrosh Andrew Wiggins in tow, and the Memphis team that broke through on Sunday with a tough win over the Oklahoma State squad that housed the Tigers in Stillwater meets Florida at Madison Square Garden later this month. And both of those teams may be slightly better than UConn is, though neither gets the Gators on the road like the Huskies do.
One thing about UConn that hasn't changed much: Great guard play is still a Huskies hallmark. Shabazz Napier is the latest, greatest ball-dominating point guard for UConn, and he's been superb early in this season, leading his team in points (15.0), rebounds (7.7), and assists (6.1) per game. Scottie Wilbekin will have his hands full with Napier — and with the smaller, quicker Ryan Boatright, who is a less efficient scorer.
Florida's also had problems defending tweeners this season, which is bad news against UConn's big wing DeAndre Daniels and Erik Murphy-ish Niels Giffey. Daniels is great when he can slash inside and get to the line, much like Casey Prather, but Giffey is a pick-and-pop nightmare, and his 15-for-22 performance from three so far this year has him ranked sixth in Offensive Rating.
Both teams have also had some good fortune this year: UConn is undefeated, but needed one-point wins over Maryland and Indiana and a two-point win over Boston College to stay perfect, and Florida narrowly missed its second loss when Ian Miller's halfcourt prayer was just a little long last in last Friday's one-point win over Florida State.
But hustle favors the Gators, especially off their feast on the offensive glass against the Seminoles. The Gators ripped down 20 offensive boards, a staggering 47.6 percent of the available misses, and none was bigger than Dorian Finney-Smith's sixth of the night, which led to a foul and to his game-winning free throw.
If Finney-Smith, Will Yeguete, and Patric Young can clean up misses and get second-chance points, it'll help Florida a lot; if they can do that and do a better job on the defensive glass — the 'Noles had 15 offensive boards of their own — and keep Giffey and Napier from hurting them from deep, Florida might well roll in Storrs.
And, Grampy, I hope you don't mind this: I'm rooting for the Gators tonight.