Florida senior point guard Kasey Hill had to wait through an unexpected losing season, a coaching change and a trip to the NIT to make it back to the NCAA Tournament.
His last trip to the Big Dance is finally here.
As the only player on the Gators’ roster still around from their Final Four appearance in 2014, Hill will play an especially important role for fourth-seeded Florida when it takes on No. 13 seed East Tennessee State in an East Region first-round game Thursday afternoon at the Amway Center in Orlando, Fla.
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“I’m just glad to be back in the tournament,” Hill said. “It means a lot. Now, we have to be really locked in and play our best basketball. Everybody does, because we’re going to need everybody to win.”
But it starts with Hill.
There is no question the Gators (24-8) function better offensively when Hill is running smoothly. Hill leads the team with 4.6 assists per game and is fourth in scoring at 9.8.
His effort on the other end of the court will be equally important against an ETSU (27-7) backcourt that is led by senior T.J. Cromer and junior Desonta Bradford.
The winner of Thursday’s game will play either Virginia or UNC Wilmington on Saturday.
Cromer is the main reason the Buccaneers are here for the first time since 2010. He became the first player since Davidson’s Stephen Curry in 2009 to score more than 40 points in a Southern Conference Tournament game when he went for 41 in a win over Samford in the semifinals.
Cromer, who leads the team with 19.1 points per game, poured in 23 points to help beat UNC Greensboro and earn an automatic bid to the tournament. Bradford is second on the team in scoring at 10.6 points per game.
“Really and truly, I didn’t know I had it going,” Cromer said after his huge semifinal.
The Gators surely noticed and have several options to throw at Cromer.
In addition to Hill, Florida’s backcourt features sophomore KeVaughn Allen (the team’s leading scorer at 13.9 points per game) and junior Chris Chiozza. The two pestering defenders have proven to be nuisances for a Gators defense that held opponents to an average of 66.6 points per game during the regular season.
Florida’s guards will need to play well to avoid an upset because the team’s frontcourt is missing starting center John Egbunu, who suffered a torn ACL during a win over Auburn on Feb. 14.
The Gators skidded to a 3-3 record and an at-large bid without him but will benefit from a Buccaneers rotation that lacks much size inside beyond 6-foot-8 Tevin Glass (team-leading 6.2 rebounds per game) and 6-foot-9 Hanner Mosquera-Perea.
“Our guys have withstood a long, grueling season, with only playing a few games at home because of our unique circumstances, and they’ve handled it well,” said Florida coach Mike White, whose team played its first 11 games away from home due to arena renovations but will be about two hours from campus during the first weekend of the tournament.
“They’re very deserving of this. We’re really excited to play in front of Gator fans in Orlando, but more importantly we have to get back to playing well.”
Winners of nine of their past 10 games, the Buccaneers are already playing about as well as any team in the country coming into the tournament.
They start four seniors and a junior and don’t sound the least bit intimidated by the task ahead of them.
“Our goal was not just to play meaningful games in March but to win them,” ETSU coach Steve Forbes said.