After a brilliant regular season that included an 18-0 record in the Southeastern Conference, Florida opened the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 overall seed.
The Gators backed that with a dominant surge into the Final Four, extending their school-record winning streak to 30 games. They have won their first four games in the NCAA Tournament by double-digit margins while holding opponents under 70 points per game, joining Duke (1999) and Michigan State (2000).
But if the Gators (36-2) hope to extend their mighty run and have a chance to cut down the nets for a third time in school history, they will have to get by Connecticut (30-8) and arguably the tournament’s best player, Shabazz Napier, in Saturday’s semifinal at AT&T Stadium.
Napier willed a Huskies team that finished third in the American Athletic Conference into the Final Four by leading them in scoring (18.1 points per game), rebounding (5.9 per game), assists (4.9) and steals (1.7) during a four-game run through the East Region. He certainly has Florida’s full attention.
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“He is as good as any point guard in the country,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “He can beat you on drives. He can beat you with shots. He can beat you from behind the line. He can beat you passing. And the way Connecticut runs their offense, it makes it even that much more difficult dealing with him.”
Behind Napier’s 26 points, UConn handed the Gators their last loss, 65-64 on Dec. 2.
Knowing the enemy
If the Gators advance to Monday’s championship, they will play a familiar foe.
Florida faced fellow SEC opponent Kentucky three times and also visited Wisconsin the second game of the season. The Badgers won 59-53.
Florida coach Billy Donovan said the familiarity is an advantage.
“I do think it’s a good thing as it relates to preparation,” Donovan said. “I use this as an example. When we were playing UCLA, we had not seen a 6-foot-9 point guard like Kyle Anderson. You’re trying to explain to your guys and show it to them, but they have never really gone against it. Whereas I think for us playing against UConn, our guys know Shabazz, [Ryan] Boatright and [DeAndre] Daniels. We can take things from previous games, things we need to do better.”
Donovan said his team is better because of the experiences at UConn and Wisconsin.
“Those two early road games I thought were really helpful to our team moving forward and in terms of where we needed to improve and get better,” he said.