GAINESVILLE | Sometimes, athletes can become so mesmerized by instant fame, even their best effort to move on isn’t enough to elevate their game to the next level.
That’s why you have to admire Florida point guard Chris Chiozza. He didn’t let one miracle shot at Madison Square Garden – a running three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Wisconsin 84-83 in the Sweet 16 - define who he is as a player. No matter how much people still remind him of his stupendous “One Shining Moment” moment, Chiozza has grown weary of that buzzer-beating shot being his sole hoops identity.
“Yeah, a little bit,” Chiozza said. “I don’t hear about it as much anymore, but I definitely still hear about it. I don’t really talk about it that much. I try to put it in the past.”
The Gators’ senior floor leader has done that in the best manner possible this season: by using his vision on the floor and terrific passing instincts to keep a somewhat limited Florida team in contention for a Southeastern Conference title.
“He plays with a quiet confidence that I think rubs off on his teammates, which is a big factor in us having success on the road,” said UF coach Mike White. “He’s got to be one of the most important players to his team in the country.”
White and the No. 23-ranked Gators (15-6, 6-2 SEC), who face Georgia on the road Tuesday night, shudder to think where they’d be without Chiozza directing the offense for 32 minutes every game. As much as Florida misses the interior presence of 6-foot-11 John Egbunu, who tore his ACL last year and may not return for another week or two, it pales in comparison to how not having Chiozza would impact UF’s on-floor chemistry. The Gators would be literally lost if they didn’t have “Cheeze” playing traffic cop.
“I don’t even want to think about what we’d do, probably have KeVaughn [Allen] and maybe freshman Mike [Okauru] to handle the ball,” said junior forward/center Kevarrius Hayes. “[Chiozza] offers so much to the team as far as being a great defender, passer and ballhandler that it keeps the pressure off everybody else. I don’t know of anybody who has the eyes to see [the floor] like he does.”
As much as the 6-foot Memphis maestro uplifted the Gators with his magical shot against Wisconsin, he’s done far more this season, putting together a body of work that should be worthy of SEC Player of the Year consideration.
Chiozza, who served mostly as a backup to Kasey Hill his first three years, is running the UF show as smoothly and efficiently as any of the more heralded NBA point guard prospects in the country. Just as Scottie Wilbekin rose up to become a star point guard on the 2014 Final Four team, so has Chiozza elevated his game to make the Gators a factor in the SEC race.
After always coming off the bench last season to provide a spark, Chiozza is now flourishing in a much bigger role. His phenomenal on-court instincts are no longer an occasional lift. It’s a game-changer for a UF team that is reliant on Chiozza getting the ball in the right spots to three-point shooters, primarily Egor Koulechov, Jalen Hudson and KeVaughn Allen.
But the Gators’ ballhandling wizard has been far more than a facilitator, as evidenced by his 3.5-1 assist-turnover ratio, which is eighth in the country. Chiozza has also raised his scoring average from 7.2 points per game the last two years to 12.6.
He doesn’t always look to score, but Chiozza has his take-the-game-over moments, like when he reeled off 13 consecutive points in Saturday’s home win against Baylor. Or when he went off for 26 points and 10 assists in a double overtime win against 14th-ranked Gonzaga in November.
Whatever concerns White had about Chiozza moving forward from igniting a Garden party atmosphere at last year’s NCAA Tournament, they’ve quickly dissipated. That’s because the fastest point guard in UF history refused to let the spotlight impede his progress as a player.
“We were concerned as a staff in the spring and summer if he’d be able to move on, move forward from a mental health standpoint rather than hanging his hat on that shot,” said White. “One of the challenges I gave Chris was to consider what his legacy would be after his senior year. Would people base his legacy off of one shot or how this team performs this season?
“That’s really the only conversation we’ve had. He’s been absolutely terrific from a mental approach and consistency standpoint. He continues to get better every day… . It seems like, night in and night out, he’s not only filling the box score, but makes winning plays that don’t show up in the box score.”
One exception was the Missouri game, where Chiozza literally stole the game. He anticipated a nonchalant pass from Jordan Geist to Kassius Robertson, stealing the ball and making an uncontested layup with less than one second remaining for a 77-75 victory.
It wasn’t as spellbinding as the Madison Miracle, but another example of Chiozza giving his team what they need at any given moment.
Chris Chiozza has done more than move on from The Shot. He’s moving on up as one of the Gators’ all-time impactful players.
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