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 the eye of Michael Frazier II.
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 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 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 nailbiter, 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 said. "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 season 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 know what’s eventually is 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," team manager Brandon Gilbert said. "And if it’s a bad spot, like he goes 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 shootaround 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 also that Frazier totally bought in to the so-called "process" the Gators constantly talk about. The "process" is an organic state of being, inside which exist 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; in which 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 shootaround. Frazier’s wrist was bothering him and he stayed after practice to get extra shots up.
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 no 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, they say.
"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 and 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.