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Florida vs. UConn, Game Thread: Gators get a shot at high-flying Huskies

Is Florida going to be able to beat elite teams under Todd Golden? Here’s its first chance to do so.

NCAA Basketball: Florida at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida and UConn men’s basketball teams have met quite often of late for two teams that are not traditional rivals.

And each time, in those four meetings since the fall of 2013, the Huskies have gotten the better of the Gators. So this fifth link-up in 10 seasons is an opportunity for Florida to finally get some revenge on the four-time national champions.

It’s also a chance for these Gators to serve notice that they can hang with — or beat — an elite team.

Connecticut has not always been elite over that four-game stretch; in fact, for all four of those meetings, Florida was the better-rated team per KenPom, though the 2013-14 Huskies obviously got the better of the legendary 2013-14 Gators twice en route to a national title. The 2014-15 Gators would not make a postseason tournament, but they still graded out better per efficiency stats than that year’s UConn team, which won in the O’Dome but earned just a No. 4 seed in the NIT. The 2019-20 Gators that lost at the XL Center and the 2019-20 Huskies that beat them would probably both have made the 2020 NCAA Tournament, but Florida’s candidacy was a bit more solid; that UConn team had to win its final five games to salvage a season very much slanting sideways at 14-12.

But those UConn teams all had verve and great guard play that put Florida through a wringer — and this UConn team seems like it might be a national championship contender, having paired a traditionally tough Huskies backcourt with that other hallmark of the program, a dominant big man.

And with apologies due to Tristen Newton and sharpshooter Joey Calcaterra — currently at exactly as many makes (17) and takes (29) from three as Florida’s white-hot Will Richard this season — it is Adama Sanogo who will be atop the Gators’ scouting report. Nearly unstoppable on the boards over his first two seasons in Storrs, Sanogo has leveled up substantially in his junior season, becoming a hyperefficient post scorer and adding a three-pointer that is going in at a frightening rate for a player with a Zion Williamsonish build, if not Williamson’s stunning athleticism.

If Sanogo can push Colin Castleton around or force him to foul, he might tilt this bout by himself. But, well, he has help: Newton, an East Carolina transfer, has been a fine distributor and driver despite him getting more points from the free throw line than on two-pointers; Calcaterra is UConn’s most accurate shooter, but Jordan Hawkins has more made threes; seven-footer Donovan Clingan has relieved Sanogo and reaved opponents inside, posting a block on almost 15 percent of defensive possessions, which would be within the nation’s top 10 if he were playing enough minutes; and then there’s Andre Jackson, who would have been arguably the Huskies’ most talented returnee without Sanogo taking a leap.

Oh, and Florida nemesis Naheim Alleyne, who had 28 against the Gators as a Virginia Tech Hokie in the 2021 NCAA Tournament? He’s probably the Huskies’ seventh option or close to it, and has had a slow start to a season in which UConn has beaten every opponent by double digits.

So that’s the level of depth and performance the Gators are up against. And it outstrips what Xavier and West Virginia — teams that handled and hammered Florida, respectively — had on their team sheets before those matchups.

The promising thing for the Gators is that their last week featured their best two performances of the year, in routs against admittedly overmatched Florida A&M and Stetson squads. Those teams came to the O’Dome and got trounced, with Florida putting significant distance on the Rattlers even with some iffy perimeter defense and thumping a Hatters outfit that had upset Florida State and sprayed threes all season by locking down the three-point line and overcoming a slow start.

Castleton didn’t even have to be great in those games, thanks to Richard (against Stetson, after missing the A&M game) providing shooting and the rotation of Trey Bonham, Alex Fudge, and Kowacie Reeves supplementing the scoring. Florida should be able to play Kyle Lofton tonight, too, as he is set to return after injuries kept him out of both of last week’s games.

And while UConn has been unquestionably great in its games thus far, one thing the Huskies haven’t done is play a true road game, with their rampage contained to home contests and a neutral-site tournament. It wouldn’t be surprising to see them unfazed by what will probably be a small but loud crowd in Gainesville — but it also wouldn’t be a shock for their first road game to breed enough unfamiliarity to metastasize into adversity, even with UConn’s programmatic rep for toughness.

Florida showing a little of its own — and springing an upset to boot — would go a long way for this team, this season, and maybe even Todd Golden’s tenure.

Go Gators.