At least to this point, an argument can be made that Florida point guard Chris Chiozza made the basketball play of the year in the Southeastern Conference. It came at Missouri two weeks ago when he broke into a passing lane, stole the ball and raced to the game-winning layup in the final seconds.
“Pretty much all anticipation,” he said Thursday.
In his postgame news conference, Florida Coach Mike White did not take credit for planning the winning play. Instead, he applauded Chiozza’s gift for improvisation.
“Not how we drew it up,” White said. “But that’s the luxury of having a terrific point guard. . . . He’s really smart. He’s an extremely quick thinker, and he’s got extremely quick feet.”
Hmmm. Sound like anyone Kentucky fans know?
Tyler Ulis had a knack for making clutch plays and being a mental step ahead of other players when he played for Kentucky a few seasons back.
“I’ve heard it a few times,” Chiozza said of the comparison to Ulis. UK fans can judge for themselves Saturday night when Kentucky plays Florida in Rupp Arena.
The two, who both entered college in the 2014-15 season, know each other. “Not super close,” Chiozza said, “but we’re pretty good friends.” They were born six weeks apart in the winter of 1995-96.
“I see a lot of similarities between us,” Chiozza said. “I’ve got a little bit more height than him. But we’re both on the short side. So it’s a good comparison.”
Chiozza, who is 6 feet tall, brings a Ulis-like tough-mindedness to the game. He showed that in Florida’s victory over Arkansas on Wednesday. Midway through the first half, an Arkansas player’s wayward hand hit Chiozza over the left eye. He fell to the court and stayed down for several minutes.
The sight of his point guard crumpled on the floor did not overly concern White.
“Honestly, I didn’t really worry about it a lot,” the Florida coach said. “He’s just, he’s such a tough kid. He’s tough as nails. I figured he’d be fine, honestly. When other guys hit the floor, especially front-court guys, my heart skips a beat with our situation.”
Florida, 13-5 overall and 5-1 in the Southeastern Conference, has lost the services of four big men. John Egbunu and Isaiah Stokes aren’t expected back from ACL injuries until late January. Gorjok Gak and Chase Johnson are day-to-day because of concussions, and in Johnson’s case illness is also a factor.
Like Ulis did for Kentucky, Chiozza serves as a steadying we-can-work-through-this influence. Chiozza embraced the leadership duties that come with being a senior. He said this caused him to change his approach.
“I had always led by example,” he said. “This year I’ve had to be more vocal. Every day in practice, keeping guys encouraged. Getting on them. Giving constructive criticism during games and timeouts before the coaches get there. Telling guys what to do on certain things. Let guys know I got their back no matter what.”
The mind drifted to UK Coach John Calipari, who said on his radio show Wednesday that Kentucky is still searching for such a leader.
Chiozza is also proof of something Calipari said on an earlier show: That the idea of a born leader is “a bunch of crap.”
Chiozza did not even start a game last season. But he does bring a wealth of experience. No SEC player has played in as many college games as Chiozza (123 and counting). If he plays 27 minutes at UK, Chiozza will reach 3,000 for his Florida career.
A meeting with White last January gets credit as a turning point in Chiozza’s career. The Florida players are required to meet daily with one of the coaches.
“Chris had a pretty intense meeting with one of my assistants,” White said, “and he came in and asked to speak with me. . . . He didn’t feel like he was in character over the past couple weeks in terms of his commitment and his attitude. And some of it, I can relate with because at the time I think he probably had an argument to play a little bit more.
“At that point, he stopped worrying about things he couldn’t control, and he started to put all his focus on and emphasis on our game plan and doing his job. It’s amazing how that worked out. He started playing his butt off.”
Chiozza scored 12 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and got credit for 10 assists against Missouri on Feb. 2, thus becoming the first player to come off the bench and post a triple-double since 2008.
The 2017 NCAA Tournament served as perhaps an even more memorable highlight than the steal at Missouri. Chiozza raced down the court in the final four seconds and jumped forward in shooting a desperation three-pointer. It went in to beat Wisconsin 84-83 in the Sweet 16 round.
“Something you grow up in your driveway dreaming about . . . ,” he said of the shot. “To actually have it happen in that situation was unbelievable.”
Florida at No. 18 Kentucky
8:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)