Kasey Hill climbs into bigger leadership role for Gators

Gators guard Kasey Hill is the unquestioned focal point and catalyst on the floor this season.

Randy Sartin/Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Strange as it may sound, point guard Kasey Hill’s situation entering his sophomore season, after gaining a world of college basketball experience as a 22-minute-per-game freshman, looms every bit as daunting as the place he was a year ago.

To refresh: Hill was UF’s starting point guard this time last year, also.

He’s that and more again in 2014-15.

"I don’t feel any pressure at all," Hill said. "I’m just going to focus on getting my teammates involved and listen to what Coach is saying."

That’s pretty much how he felt on at his first Florida media day, on Oct. 9, 2013, when then-senior Scottie Wilbekin was looking at a suspension that would carry deep into the start of the ’13-14 season, meaning a rookie — albeit a gifted one with McDonald’s All-America credentials — would be charged with running the latest version of yet another Billy Donovan top-10 team.

Hill managed the position and expectations with aplomb, averaging 10.3 points and 4.2 assists per game before rolling an ankle that would cost him four games over three weeks. By the time he returned, so had Wilbekin.

From there, Hill’s role the rest of the season bounced back and forth between Wilbekin’s backup to backcourtmate. He went on to average 5.5 points and 3.1 assists while oftentimes displaying the jet-like explosiveness in the open floor that Donovan and his staff sought during the recruiting process.

The Gators want to see improvement in those qualities and expansion in others from Hill in ’14-15. If the role loomed significant in filling in for Wilbekin last year, considering that now he’s the unquestioned focal point and catalyst on the Florida floor, only this time without any built-in freshman passes based on youth and inexperience.

And he’s cool with it.

"Scottie is a great player, but he is his own self and I am my own self," Hill said. "I’m just worried about this year and just being me."

Those are great baselines from which to begin. When you’ve started and struggled at Wisconsin, when you’ve scored eight and dished seven against Kentucky, when you’ve had 10 assists in a Sweet 16 wipeout of UCLA, and been mauled by a backcourt of Connecticut hyenas in the national championship game … well … there’s little you haven’t experienced.

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Yet from all that, there’s so much to learn from and lean on.

"I do think his energy level and his emotional level need to be better than they’ve been in the past," Donovan said. "But there’s a lot of things he’s got to get better at that he has control over."

The first area that comes to a UF fan’s mind likely is shooting. Hill hit just 40.7 percent of his field-goal tries and only five of 35 attempts from 3-point range (14.3 percent). Those numbers, however, aren’t of concern to Donovan. The notion that Hill is going to become a mad-bombing point guard version of Michael Frazier is hardly realistic. The Gators don’t need that. If Hill plays his position within the confines of Donovan’s pick-and-roll halfcourt game and races the floor in the up-tempo game, the offense will take care of itself.

What the Gators need is a more physical Hill on both ends of the floor. That means attacking the lane and getting to the rim, but also means bodying up and showing some want-to on the defensive side, especially after losing Wilbekin, one of the best on-ball defenders in the country.

"What kind of jump can he make defensively?" Donovan said when asked back of the greatest challenging facing Hill. "That’s going to be really, really important. He is a great kid. He’s coachable. He wants the truth. A lot of players sometimes don’t like hearing the truth. He does. That’s what gives him a chance to grow and get better."

Hill definitely is in a better place to grow on defense. When he arrived at UF, Hill weighed 187 pounds. When last season began, he was 182.

This week, with the wrap of conditioning under strength coach Preston Greene, the 6-foot-1 Hill checked in at 175 pounds and up nearly 6 percent on his muscle mass.

He looks really, really good.

Now comes the next phase, which coincides with the start of practice Friday: some conditioning between the ears.

"To me, the biggest thing with him is continuing to focus on the areas that are going to impact winning," UF assistant coach Matt McCall said. "Last year, if he had a turnover or a bad play or something negative happened in the game for him, he had a tendency to get down on himself; he’d let it hang, instead of staying in the moment and getting to the next play. He has to learn to flush that play and move on — and not just for himself, but for his teammates. He’s now the leader and has to do it by example and with a motor and with great energy every single day."

Senior Jon Horford, who is eligible to play this season after transferring from Michigan under the NCAA graduate-school guidelines, played on some great Wolverines teams, including their 2012-13 squad that smashed the Gators by 20 in the Eight Eight and lost to Louisville in the national championship game. The best player on that UM team was All-America point guard and NCAA Player of the Year Trey Burke.

"You want someone who is composed, someone who can play through mistakes and knows their role — and it doesn’t hurt Kasey that he is very skilled," Horford said with a grin. "I don’t want to put too much pressure on him, though. He just needs to keep to his role, play his game. If he does that, keeps things simple, he’s going to flourish."

That’s the plan.

That’s the point.

"I’m going to do whatever Coach asks me to do and try and lead this team," Hill said. "I also need to be more vocal and be someone they can depend on."