Kasey Hill stood at the free-throw line at the end of a Thursday afternoon practice. His 13 teammates watched from behind the basket as the senior’s shot clanked off the rim.
Mike White, entering his second year as Florida’s coach, walked up to Hill and gave him an ultimatum. Make your next two attempts, and practice is over. Miss, and the entire team runs eight sets of wind sprints before wrapping up the two-hour session.
With the weight of the team on his shoulders — the point guard who made just 53.8 percent of his shots from the foul line last season — took a deep breath and fired his first shot. Swish.
Then came the second attempt. Swish.
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“He finished strong,” White said after that practice. “We’ll take that.”
White will need Hill and the rest of his team to put on a strong showing all season if the Gators want to end their two-year drought from the NCAA Tournament. Their first chance is 7:30 p.m. Friday, when they play Florida Gulf Coast at Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville.
It will be the first of 11 straight road games for the Gators, who will have to wait until Dec. 21 to play at home because of the $64.5 million in renovations to the O’Connell center.
“Road wins are hard to come by,” White said. “Hopefully, these experiences will pay off in conference play and help you become a better road team.”
And the team’s performance will likely run through Hill, the senior point guard and the only remaining member of Florida’s 2013-14 team that reached the Final Four.
After three years of inconsistency — from sitting behind Scottie Wilbekin as a freshman to streaky shooting performances as a sophomore and a junior — Hill began to put the pieces together late last season
In Florida’s five-game run in the SEC tournament and National Invitation Tournament, the 6-1 point guard scored a team-best 77 points (15.4 per game) on a 46.2 percent shooting. He also recorded 22 assists to just 14 turnovers.
“For the most part you’d expect your seniors to play with a little bit more poise and to be able to utilize that experience that they have in a positive way. Expect that from Kasey,” White said. “He has really spent a lot of time in the gym. He’s kind of reinvented his shot.”
Even with his marked improvement at the end of the season, Hill said he expects the criticism to be there this year. It always has been.
“I’m not getting tired of it at all,” Hill said. “It’s something I’ve dealt with my whole life, people have labeled me as ‘not a shooter,’ but I know my strengths and I know my weaknesses and I just have to deal with it.”
Hill will have help, though. UF returns six of its seven main contributors from last season, and also adds College of Charleston graduate transfer Canyon Barry —the son of University of Miami and NBA Hall of Famer Ricky Barry. Redshirt freshman guard Keith Stone and sophomore forward Kevarrius Hayes should also get extensive playing time off the bench during their second years under White.
“I think this team has good experience,” White said. “We’ve got really good depth. In my opinion, we’ve got really good length. And those would be three of the biggest strengths that stick out with this team, so I think we can be really good defensively and that will be the challenge to this team just like it was last year.”