Kasey Hill pulled the blue and orange jersey from his bag and peeled back each fold until the name on the back was revealed. It said STARKS. As Florida’s senior point guard rolled the Knicks throwback down his torso, he explained why he had to rock the jersey of John Starks, who checked Michael Jordan in the 1993 playoffs while Hill was in the womb. “Defensive game,” Hill said with a smile.
Hill had just finished smothering Virginia guard London Perrantes in the Gators’ 65–39 second-round win Saturday in Orlando. Perrantes, Virginia’s leading scorer, made two of 12 shots (none of his four three-point attempts) and left with a measly six points. His frustration had been evident. Hill defends like an angry yellow jacket attacks, using his quickness to dart in and out of the offensive player’s personal space without spending long enough to get called for a personal foul. That isn’t the role Hill envisioned for himself when arrived at Florida in 2013, but it is the role that might help the Gators make the second deep NCAA Tournament run of Hill’s career.
When fourth-seeded Florida faces No. 8 seed Wisconsin on Friday at Madison Square Garden in the Sweet Sixteen, Hill will play in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in his career, but the freshman version of himself—the one who went to the Final Four on a team coached by future Hall of Famer Billy Donovan—probably wouldn’t believe it worked out this way.
Hill came to Florida as a consensus top-10 recruit. Even if his height (6' 1") kept him from being a one-and-done, he at least could expect more deep tournament runs after a freshman season in which he started eight games and averaged 22 minutes a game on a team with four senior starters. “I didn’t know how hard it would honestly be because I was on a great team,” Hill says. “But I found out the hard way how hard it is.” The Gators went 16–17 in Hill’s first year as a starter. Then Donovan left to coach the Oklahoma City Thunder. Suddenly, Hill was a junior with a new coach (Mike White) screaming at him to guard.
White believed the quickness that made Hill such an effective slasher on offense could make him the best defensive guard in the SEC. White’s problem? He had to make Hill believe it. “Kasey last year continued to be up and down and continued to struggle at times with his role and his minutes,” White said of his first few months coaching Hill. The Gators struggled down the stretch in White’s first season, but they beat Arkansas in the SEC Tournament, lost close to NCAA Tournament-bound Texas A&M and then beat North Florida and Ohio State and in the NIT. White says. That was when Hill finally elected to embrace the role of defensive stopper. “For that stretch,” White said, “Kasey Hill was our best player.” The epiphany at the end of last season allowed Hill to enter this season with a clear understanding of his job. “He looked himself in the mirror and just made a big maturity jump,” White said. “He’s been the leader of this team.”
The freshman version of Hill might be shocked that his senior self averages just 9.7 points, but he now offers the Gators more than scoring. He routinely defends the opponent’s best backcourt scorer, and he leads Florida in assists (4.5 a game). He can also offer advice. As the only Florida player with NCAA Tournament experience prior to last week, Hill explained to his teammates that they could get tripped up looking at the number in front of an opponent’s name. In Hill’s freshman year, Florida won the South region as a No. 1 seed. Connecticut won the East region as a No. 7 seed. But the Huskies beat the Gators by 10 in a national semifinal and then went on to beat Kentucky for the national title. “He told us each game is going to be hard,” forward Justin Leon said. “No matter what seed you’re playing, it’s going to be like an even matchup.”
Hill also has told them to forget outside expectations and keep grinding, something he wishes he’d learned as a freshman. The young Hill might have worn a Jordan jersey, but the senior version accepts that he might be a Starks and not an MJ. And if that helps the Gators return to the Final Four, Hill will be content. “Without him,” Leon said, “we wouldn’t be in the position we’re in right now.”