Florida senior point guard Chris Chiozza said he still gets asked once a day about THE shot.
Chiozza’s national identity, to this point, is attached to his one shining moment in the NCAA Tournament. His running 3-pointer last March that lifted Florida to an overtime win over Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 in the pre-dawn hours at Madison Square Garden in New York City will be replayed for generations to come.
“I’m fine with it,” Chiozza said, but then admitted, “It got old already.”
For the Gators to take a step beyond the Elite Eight this season, they will need Chiozza to not just make big shots. With the departure of senior point guard Kasey Hill, the six-foot Chiozza will take on point-guard duties now full time. That means more minutes, more leadership demands.
Leave it to Florida coach Mike White to keep Chiozza grounded. There have been a couple of good-natured ribbings by White toward Chiozza during summer and fall workouts when a shot was missed in a key moment.
“That’s just the kind of personality and relationship we have,” Chiozza said. “We joke around with each other. He just reminds me don’t let that play define you. Don’t think just because you made that shot that that’s the only thing people are going to remember you by.”
Make no mistake. Chiozza is the face of UF’s program this season. He’s on the cover of the Florida basketball media guide as the lone four-year senior on the team. Chiozza and junior shooting guard KeVaughn Allen (who some forget scored a career-high 35 points in the Wisconsin win) form a starting backcourt tandem that many analysts consider the best in the SEC this season.
“Chris has become a little bit more vocal,” White said. “It’s really not his nature to be an overly vocal guy. And I’m good with that. It’s who he is. He’s been a very good leader by example to this point. I think he’s also a supportive leader in the locker room and at the apartments and in the dorms.
“He’s a relationship guy. So in those ways he’s actually vocal outside the lines. We’ll continue to try to challenge him to be a little more vocal between the lines, but pleased with his effort to this point. He’s been really good defensively, too, in some of the abbreviated practices to this point.”
White has challenged Chiozza to prepare for a potential increased workload this season. Freshman Michael Okauru projects as the backup point guard for the Gators, but White said Allen and Virginia Tech transfer guard Jalen Hudson could see minutes at the point as well. As a combo guard last season, Chiozza averaged 22.2 minutes per game. Chiozza logged 30 minutes just once last season, when he provided the miraculous finish in overtime against Wisconsin.
“Afterward I was so sore, I couldn’t believe I just played 30 minutes,” Chiozza said. “We’re just going to have to be prepared for it this year, take care of my body more than I ever have. Get more treatment. Listen to the trainers. Get more sleep. It’s going to be a long season, but I’m going to do whatever it takes for us to get some wins.”
Chiozza has always had a knack for coming up with big shots, dating back to his freshman season, when he made big 3-pointers in the second half to help pull out wins over UAB, Wake Forest and Auburn. But the Memphis native has always billed himself as a pass-first, shoot-second point guard. Last season against Missouri, Chiozza joined Corey Brewer and Nick Calathes as just the third player in UF history to post a triple-double, finishing with 12 points, 10 assists and 12 rebounds. It sparked a second half of the season turnaround for Chiozza that extended through the NCAA Tournament.
“I feel like Cheeze definitely plays bigger than his size,” Florida junior center Kevarrius Hayes said, referring to Chiozza’s nickname on the team. “Of course he’s a small guard, but he’s physically tough. He can actually battle out. He takes a hit and he gets back up.”
Asked to explain the big-shot ability, Chiozza replied: “I have a lot of confidence in myself, especially in crunch time. If I think we need a big play I’m not scared to take the shot, but often times I pass it up because I’m a pass-first player. We have other guys that are big-time players. I just try to make the best play. I just have to live with the outcome.”
More than the big shots or flashy passes learned from watching Jason Williams growing up in Memphis, Chiozza wants to be remembered as a winner.
“I want them to remember me as a guy that was a part of a program and we brought the program back up,” Chiozza said. “We went downhill for two years and I want to be known as one of those guys that brought it back up to an elite team.”