Guards Kasey Hill, Chris Chiozza on point for Gators
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Before he entered the O’Connell Center on Thursday night to random boos from those Florida fans near the Auburn bench, Bruce Pearl had not coached against the Gators in nearly four years.
On that early March 2011 day in the Georgia Dome, Pearl’s Tennessee team lost to the Gators to exit the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Vols led by five at halftime and hung close for a while in the second half, in part by forcing the Gators into 15 turnovers.
Pearl had no such luck Thursday. The Gators were not in a giving mood in their 75-55 victory over the Tigers.
The starting backcourt of Kasey Hill (12 points, seven assists, no turnovers) and Chris Chiozza (nine points, two assists, no turnovers) drew praise from Pearl for the way they protected the ball. Florida committed only nine turnovers, more than three fewer than its season average (12.6).
”I thought Hill and Chiozza played great,” Pearl said. ”I can’t remember the last time there was an SEC game where my teams didn’t turn people over more than nine times.”
For the record, it happened during his final season at Tennessee, but as a testament to Pearl’s aggressive teams over the years, it hasn’t happened often.
Starting Hill and Chiozza together in the backcourt for the fourth consecutive game, Gators coach Billy Donovan got the kind of production from the point-guard tandem that has helped the Gators win three consecutive games to open SEC play.
Hill played a team-high 31 minutes and added three steals and a block in his second consecutive stellar performance. Since a season-high six turnovers and only one assist in Florida’s victory at South Carolina to open conference play, Hill has 14 assists and only one turnover in the last two games.
That’s a point guard getting the job done.
”I thought Kasey was really good outside of the lack of finishing at the basket — I thought he could have had a really great night scoring,” Donovan said. ”You’ve got to give him credit. He’s done a really nice job of running our team, moving the ball, getting guys shots, making pretty good decisions.”
As Donovan and his staff navigated injuries, suspensions and production issues, they used 10 different lineups in the first 13 games. With shooting guard Michael Frazier coming off the bench the past three games, starting two career point guards has added a new wrinkle for opposing defenses.
Both Hill and Chiozza are extremely quick and push the ball up the court fast, able to catch opponents flat-footed.
”It’s speed,” said assistant coach Rashon Burno, a former point guard at DePaul. ”Having two point guards out there, as far as transition, either guard can get it and push. Ball security, too.”
And that’s not all. Hill is second on the team in minutes per game behind Frazier. So with Chiozza on the court with him at the start of the game, Hill can be sharper handling the ball late if the game is on the line.
”Having two point guards out there allows Kasey sometimes play off the ball, which allows him not to rest, but he doesn’t have to handle that load of pressure,” Burno said. ”It makes the offense crisper.”
The Gators broke Thursday’s game open with a 15-0 run in the first half to take a 37-20 lead into halftime. Florida’s offense struggled midway through the second half as Auburn trimmed a 24-point deficit to 10, but the Gators regrouped to win by 20.
Finally with a roster of 10 healthy regulars, Hill and Chiozza were joined in the starting lineup by Dorian Finney-Smith, Chris Walker and Devin Robinson for the third straight game.
Frazier and fellow guard Eli Carter came off the bench along with Jon Horford, Jacob Kurtz and Alex Murphy.
Finney-Smith likes the spark the Hill-Chiozza starting backcourt has provided.
”They are playing great basketball,” he said. ”They are coming with a lot of energy and then when you’ve got guys like Eli, Frazier and Murph on the bench, when they come in, the scoring just goes out the roof.”
A former McDonald’s All-American who played behind Scottie Wilbekin a season ago, Hill prefers to pressure the defense at every opportunity. With Chiozza, he has a tag-team partner.
”If either of us get, we can just go, push it up the floor and everybody has to go with us,” Hill said. ”We’re running so much it’s almost like a little competition between us. I like it.”
So far, it seems to be working.
”We can play a lot faster,” Chiozza said. ”That’s me and Kasey’s game. We’re good in the open court and getting out on the break. That leads to assists and finding open players and guys trailing on the break.
”With me and him in there, it’s easy to make plays.”