GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s easy to overlook basketball in the Southeastern Conference.
Outside Kentucky, that is.
And yes, that apparently includes the Florida Gators, who right now are the best team in an underachieving league and do not have lottery picks in waiting or superstar freshmen flashing highlights on SportsCenter. They do have a really balanced roster, highlighted by four very good seniors who have blossomed in the program, but how sexy is that?
Yet after falling all the way to No. 19 after that Dec. 2 buzzer-beating loss at Connecticut, the Gators (15-2, 4-0) have won nine straight and slowly inched their way back up the polls. UF checked in at No. 6 this week and has two challenging games upcoming:
* Thursday at defense-minded Alabama (8-9, 2-2). Will not be an artistic game.
* Saturday at home against Tennessee (11-6, 2-2), which has beaten the Gators 13 of the last 21 times, including three straight.
But some folks are starting to take closer notice of the Gators -- Yahoo’s Pat Forde included Casey Prather among his "Most Improved Team" in this week’s “Forde MInutes” installment -- with ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman checking in Monday with a nice Insider piece headlined, “Florida a quiet title contender.”
Goodman mentioned how UF entered the season with Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith suspended at Wisconsin and later with their situations influx (Wilbekin hurt, Finney-Smith out of position) at Connecticutm and how those two losses -- and circumstances -- likely helped move the Gators under the radar.
That and the lack of a star power along the lines of those at Kentucky, Kansas and Duke, to name a few. For what it’s worth, Florida plays Kentucky in three weeks and already has beaten Kansas and all those freshmen phenoms.
Here’s a a couple chunks of his text:
No team has been as incomplete as Florida. No national title contender has managed to slide under the radar like [Coach Billy] Donovan’s group.
Perhaps the two early-season losses are a factor in how the Gators aren't included in most conversations that center on the top teams in the country, but it’s more than that. The other issue is there’s no face of this season's team, no superstar.
“I think on any given night, we can play with anyone,” Donovan said. “But we don’t have a Julius Randle, a Jabari Parker, a Doug McDermott or a Marcus Smart.
“We don’t have a star,” he added. “Our team is based on being a team.”
But Donovan has enough pieces, even if heralded and talented 6-foot-10 freshman Chris Walker doesn’t make his presence felt this season in Gainesville (still awaiting word from the NCAA on his eligibility while he is able to practice with the Gators).
Goodman writes about Wilbekin being one of the top “two-way players in the country” and freshman point guard Kasey Hill adapting to point guard responsibilities in Donovan’s system, the reliability of senior center Patric Young (who will “never live up to the lottery expectations”), the shooting of Michael Frazier II, and sharing of low-post duties from “blue-collar” Will Yeguete and “the more athletic and versatile” Finney-Smith.
No. 1 Arizona looks terrific so far, and fellow unbeatens Syracuse and Wichita State definitely warrant praise for their seasons to date. Michigan State, also.
Villanova did, then welcomed Creighton Monday night. Ugh. I think the Bluejays just made another 3.
Anyway, the Gators figure to be in the thick of the conversations soon enough. That’s Goodman’s point.
“There’s a lot of parity,” Donovan said. “I don’t look at anyone and say, 'Wow.'”
And few have looked at his team similarly. While the Gators are hardly overwhelming, the two setbacks have built-in excuses -- even if Donovan has no interest in using them.
There are a couple of noteworthy wins, at home against Kansas and in New York over a talented yet enigmatic Memphis squad. And the Gators are 4-0 in the SEC but haven’t exactly beaten anyone of note. Then again, who is there to beat of note in the league besides Kentucky?
They might lack a name to draw national attention, but the Gators are finally healthy and are a legitimate national title contender.
Sunday January 19, 2014Basket Blog: Frazier, Prather, Bonner, 4-0 starts, etc.
Updated: 11:08pm, January 19
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As he left the Florida locker room Saturday night and shuffled toward the team bus, Michael Frazier II heard his name called.
We had to talk.
Frazier smiled. He almost made a clean getaway.
“I’m good,” the sophomore shooting guard said after his first scoreless game of the season. “You’re going to have nights like this. I’m just glad we got the win.”
The seventh-ranked Gators fought off Auburn for a 68-61 victory with Frazier, the Southeastern Conference’s leader in 3-point percentage coming in (47.3), attempting just two shots. It was quite the contrast from last Feb. 16 when Frazier went to Auburn Arena and torched the Tigers by going 6-for-7 from the arc and pacing UF’s torrid 15-for-30 team marksmanship out there in a 31-point wipeout.
It was different, even, than four nights earlier against Georgia when Frazier (pictured right) started 1-for-8 from 3-point land that shredded the Bulldogs with four straight over four minutes on his way to a career-high 21 points.
Clearly, Auburn coach Tony Barbee marked Frazier as a defensive priority. If Florida was going to beat his team, it wasn’t going to be with Frazier bombing away.
“They weren’t leaving me at all,” said Frazier, who tried to move to open spots and give point guard Scottie Wilbekin a pass-out target, but Auburn defenders extended out on him across the arc. “They weren’t dropping down to help [on the drives]. I heard the coach saying, ‘No catch! No catch!’ They were pressing up on me and not letting me get the ball.”
Frazier two shots were both 3-point tries. Both were contested. One was an air ball.
Such is life for a marked man.
That was exactly the point Coach Billy Donovan’s made to his shooter in both the halftime and post-game locker room.
“Great lesson for him,” Donovan said afterward. “He’s got to understand that teams are going to come after him, so he’ll have to work and find some other places to impact the game. I think he got frustrated and, maybe, mentally taken out of it. But he’s got to keep playing. He can still help our team elsewhere.”
Added Frazier: “I have to do a better job of controlling my frustration. I let it affect me too much on the [defensive] end of the floor. And I never got into a rhythm because I was getting pulled in and out of the game.”
Frazier is as coachable as anyone on the team, so after his most lifeless outing of the season -- the last time he went without a point was the Elite Eight loss against Michigan last March -- he’ll try to learn from the experience and move on.
It’ll be a lot easier to do so after posting a ninth straight victory.
“That says something about this team and the character of the guys we have,” Frazier said. “It wasn’t my night, but other guys stepped up. Maybe down the line, when it’s not someone else’s night, maybe I’ll be the one picking them up.”
WAS HE EVER HURT?
At Saturday’s pre-game meal, Donovan stood over his players and told them it would be unfair to expect senior forward Casey Prather, the team’s leading scorer at 17 points per game, to return to the court against Auburn and pick where he left off before injuring his knee the week before. Donovan and his staff did not know how much Prather would play, but the Gators could not lean too heavily on him. That was the message.
“I felt great going into the game,” Prather said. “I couldn’t wait to get out there.”
Prather (pictured above) hopped off the bench to score 16 points in the first half, making his first six shots, on the way to leading the Gators with 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” senior center Patric Young said. “The guy said he was ready to go.
With UF’s next game not until Thursday at Alabama -- the team’s first of two straight weekends of SEC Thursday-Saturday turnarounds -- Prather might even be at full strength for the Crimson Tide.
That was sarcasm, by the way.
Prather is now averaging 17.3 points and his .636 field-goal percentage leads the SEC and ranks fourth in the nation. If Prather hits his average Thursday at 'Bama, it'll give him 276 points this season and would match his total for the three previous seasons combined.
Yeah, it's nice to have him back.
Frazier’s scoreless game was his first this season, but he had six last year as a freshman. Of the UF four-man senior class -- Young, Wilbekin, Prather and Will Yeguete -- who has the longest streak without a scoreless game? Answer below in the "Free Throws" section.
Matt Bonner isn’t playing much for the San Antonio Spurs in this, his 10th NBA season. But the former UF forward and 3-point shooter made a splash last week at the team’s annual “Tux N Tennies” charity ball, a fundraiser to benefit the franchise's Silver & Black Give Back Foundation.
The program features players taking part in skits and Bonner won the talent contest by going totally old school. The “Red Mamba,” as Kobe Bryant calls him, reached back into the archives of “Saturday Night Live” and performed a takeoff of Andy Kaufman’s classic character/nervous wreck “Foreign Man,” copying his lip-synching to the theme of the “Mighty Mouse” cartoon. Kaufman did his on his "SNL" debut in 1975.
As Deadspin pointed out in its story, Bonner certainly stepped out of the box with his choice of material. There couldn’t have been more than a handful in the audience that recalled Kaufman’s act from nearly four decades ago, but he pulled off some pretty sophisticated humor to rave reviews.
Here’s Kaufman's original and Bonner’s version.
@GatorZoneChris getting lots of ESPNU play with his shots of the Patric Young orange beard, including one on Tim Tebow statue.— Joey Johnston (@JJohnstonTBO) January 15, 2014
CHARTING THE GATORS
Florida is off to its second straight 4-0 start in SEC play. It’s the eighth time UF has opened a conference campaign with four straight wins, the fifth time in Donovan's 18 seasons. Here’s how the Gators went on to fare the previous times.
YEAR STREAK FIRST LOSS FINISHED SEC
1961 5-0 @Kentucky 9-5 4th
1967 7-0 Tennessee 14-4 2nd
1987 4-0 @Kentucky 12-6 2nd
1994 4-0 @Alabama 12-4 T-1st East
2002 4-0 Georgia 10-6 T-1st in East
2003 7-0 @Kentucky 12-4 2nd in East
2007 11-0 @Vanderbilt 13-3 1st
2013 7-0 @Arkansas 14-4 1st
IRREVERENT GATOR PHOTO
Kids, do not try this at home.
Interesting anecdote about Auburn guard Chris Denson, who was terrific in scoring 21 points and keeping the Tigers in the game Saturday. Denson (pictured at the top guarding Frazier) was not highly recruited out of Columbus, Ga., and tried to shop his services to various programs in the region. He came to UF in 2011 and played pick-up with Erving Walker, Kenny Boyton, Chandler Parsons and that crop of Gators in a tryout of sorts in hopes of drawing interest from Donovan and his staff. For Denson, it didn't work out at Florida, but he's done quite well in leading in the SEC in scoring as a senior. ... As if hardcore Gators aren't aware, the Tennessee Volunteers -- who will test UF's record 25-game winning streak at the O'Connell Center next weekend -- are a masterful 13-6 over the last 19 meetings against UF, a run that includes three straight wins in the series and a 5-3 mark at the O'Dome. Are you listening, Rowdy Reptiles? ... One of Donovan’s former assistant coaches, Minnesota’s Richard Pitino, rang up the biggest win of his young career Thursday night in a takedown of No. 11 Ohio State. Pitino worked as Donovan’s assistant for one season (2010-11) before joining his famous father’s staff at Louisville. He parlayed that post into his first head job at Florida International, where he stayed one season and was hired by the Golden Gophers last spring. Against the Buckeyes, Pitino shed his jacket and chucked it while protesting a call during the second half. Donovan was asked if that jacket-less look was familiar. “Mine comes off way before I get upset,” the UF coach said. ... Trivia answer: Young has scored in 96 consecutive games, dating to a March 2, 2011 home win over Vanderbilt his freshman year. His classmates current consecutive scoring game streaks: Wilbekin 58 (Feb. 7, 2012 at Kentucky); Prather - 31 (Feb. 5, 2013 at Arkansas); Yeguete - 22 (March 2, 2013 vs. Alabama).
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Forward Casey Prather participated in non-contact work during Thursday’s practice and is listed as “questionable” for Saturday when the seventh-ranked Florida Gators (14-2, 3-0) hit the road for a Southeastern Conference date at Auburn (8-6, 0-3).
Prather, who leads UF in scoring at 17 points per game and whose 62.4 field-goal percentage tops the SEC, has missed the last two games with a bruised bone in his right knee.
Just how Prather got the injury remains something of a mystery. The 6-foot-6 forward from Jackson, Tenn., woke up the morning after UF’s 74-58 defeat of South Carolina on Jan 8 with a swollen knee, though he left the floor that night feeling fine. The Gators’ health staff reviewed tape of the game and saw nothing to tip them off regarding the source moment of the injury.
Still, the Gators were able to win two SEC games minus Prather, defeating Arkansas on the road in overtime Saturday and Georgia at home Wednesday, using two different starting lineups.
UF trainer David “Duke” Werner cleared Prather for the first part of practice Thursday, which was exclusively non-contact, but had him sit out the full-go scrimmage sessions and eventually sent Prather to the training room for more treatment.
Prather’s status is not likely to change before the 4 p.m. tipoff at Auburn Arena, with Werner and Coach Billy Donovan probably making a decision whether to play Prather depending on how the player looks and feels at the morning shoot-around.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- OK, one last item from “Patric Young Beard Night.” Last one, I promise.
The seventh-ranked Florida Gators made 72-50 work Tuesday of their Southeastern Conference rival Georgia Bulldogs, capturing a seventh straight win, a 25th in a row at home and moving to 14-2 overall, including 3-0 in league play. As a tribute to Young, the popular senior center, the first 1,000 students from the Rowdy Reptiles student section were given fake orange beards to wear for the game.
A good time was had by all, as Young scored 10 points and grabbed a season-high nine rebounds in one of UF's best defensive efforts of the season.
That much everybody knows, right?
But late last night, we learned that a certain guy in the house who really, really wanted one of those fury, orange things left the O’Connell Center without one.
How do I not get an orange beard on beard night? Oh well getting a win is good enough for me #gogators— Patric Young (@BigPatYoung4) January 15, 2014
The Gators have Wednesday off, but when Young heads to the basketball complex and checks in at his locker room Thursday, he’ll find this.
Nice game. Nice gesture. Nice ending.
On to Auburn.
Sunday January 12, 2014Basket Blog: 'Doe-Doe,' beards, boards, streaks, tweets, etc.
Updated: 6:51pm, January 12
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Dorian Finney-Smith sat out the 2012-13 season under NCAA transfer rules. After making an impact as a freshman at Virginia Tech, a coaching change there prompted him to look for a change of scenery. He opted for Florida, which had recruited him hard during his prep years in Portsmouth, Va.
“I wish I’d come here out of high school,” Finney-Smith said.
Instead, the kid called “Doe-Doe” came here from Hokie Lan, did a year on the UF scout team and at times flashed like the best player on the practice floor. Gators coach Billy Donovan and his staff certainly appreciated the work Finney-Smith was put in -- while not being able to play in games -- but did not have to coach him, per se.
That all changed this season. For Donovan, finding the right buttons to push with Finney-Smith has been a challenge. Donovan coaches one way -- hard -- but he also coaches to his players' personalities and he needed some time to witness Finney-Smith’s vulnerabilities with his confidence.
So the last couple days, Donovan didn’t focus so much on Finney-Smith’s inconsistent motor and how he tends to take a play off here and there or lose his man on defense. Instead, Donovan pumped the guy up, telling him how much he believed in him and to stop worrying about making mistakes.
“He always tells me that I deserve to play well,” Finney-Smith said. “That I put the work in and that he has confidence in me and my teammates have confidence -- and to just go play.”
That was the message to Finney-Smith before his second start of the season Saturday at Arkansas. All Donovan got was a stuffed stat line of 22 points, 15 rebounds, 3-for-7 from 3-point range and three steals in a ridiculously energized 42 minutes of UF’s 84-82 overtime win.
“How many rebounds?” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin asked after the game he sent into OT on his jumper with two seconds left in regulation. “Dang! Those are video game numbers.”
The Gators (13-2, 2-0) hope the “Doe-Doe” joystick ride continues, preferably with Tuesday night’s home game against surprising Georgia (8-6, 2-0), which already has a road win at No. 21 Missouri and Saturday defeated Alabama.
“I’ve got to do a better job with him,” Donovan said of Finney-Smith after Saturday’s big road win at Fayetteville, Ark. “He’s a real, real good team guy. He plays the right way. He’s got a really good feel. But he’s not a guy who plays through mistakes really well. He gets down on himself. Gets frustrated. I have to do a better job of instilling confidence in him and getting him to continue to move on to the next play.”
If he does a better job than he did in prepping Finney-Smith in advance of Saturday’s game, God help the Southeastern Conference. The 6-foot-8, 215-pounder was a workhorse on the glass, bouncing around, tipping balls, keeping plays alive and keeping the Gators in a game without leading scorer Casey Prather (out with a bruised bone in his knee) and with center Patric Young complaining of achy knees.
“I was tuned in,” Finney-Smith said.
As it stands now, Finney-Smith is averaging 10.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. He’s only making 39.8 percent of his shots, but his 15 makes from 3-point range -- including a big one in overtime against the Hogs -- rates third on the team. He also had five assists in the SEC opener against South Carolina, which speaks to his unselfishness.
Now, it’s time to build on Saturday’s game. And mental approach.
“When I do something wrong, I tend to think about it and kind of hide in the game, not wanting to be aggressive,” Finney-Smith said. “Now, I’m trying to break through that.”
A true breakout game was a really good start.
FEAR THE BEARD
No one needs to tell the Rowdy Reptiles to get fired up -- not after the record student turnout of 4,182 last week for South Carolina -- but Tuesday has a chance to be an even wilder atmosphere at the O’Connell Center.
It’ll be “Beard Night,” folks.
The first 1,000 students to enter the O’Dome will get a fuzzy orange beard in honor of Young, the popular senior with the perpetual fuzz on his face.
Therefore, in honor of “Beard Night,” you’ll want to check with @GatorZoneChris in the days/hours leading up to the game. I’ll have some items to get everyone in the mood.
Great shot here of Scottie Wilbekin's game-tying basket with two seconds to go that forced overtime Saturday, courtesy of Michael Woods of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazzette.
Before “Doe-Doe” did his thing at Bud Walton Arena, who was the last UF player to grab 15 rebounds in a game? Answer in “Free Throws” section below.
Remember Walter Pitchford? The 6-foot-10 forward from Grand Rapids, Mich., signed with the Gators in the spring of 2011 and suited up as a freshman, playing in 13 games and totaling six points and four rebounds in 22 minutes.
After the season, Pitchford transferred to Nebraska, where he sat out last season and is now starting and averaging 8.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 38 percent from 3-point range.
In the Cornhuskers’ 71-70 home loss to Michigan Thursday night, Pitchford committed a turnover at the 8:54 mark of second half. Up to that point, Pitchford was -- get this -- the only player in all of Division I men’s college basketball who had yet to commit a turnover, according to hoops statistic whiz Ken Pomeroy.
So to date, Pitchford shows one turnover in 330 minutes.
Very, very impressive.
Don't know if Harris didn't know the score or the time, but driving to basket down 3 with 7 seconds left not a real good idea.— Bob Holt (@BobHoltADG) January 11, 2014
CHARTING THE GATORS -- STREAKING
Florida ended Arkansas’ home streak of 25 straight games (a mark that included two wins at Little Rock). And since Missouri (26 in a row) lost Wednesday night, that means the Gators now own the third-longest streak of consecutive home wins at 24, which also is tied for the longest in school history. UF can set the record Tuesday by beating the Bulldogs.
Team Streak Last loss Next home game
Stephen F. Austin 26 Texas-Arlington 51-47 (Feb. 15, 2012) Jan. 30 vs. Abilene Christian
Duke 25 North Carolina 88-70 (March 3, 2012) Monday vs. Virginia
Florida 24 Kentucky 74-59 (March 4, 2012) Tuesday vs. Georgia
IRREVERENT GATOR PHOTO OF THE WEEK
Prather did not practice Sunday and UF trainer David "Duke" Werner said the senior forward was doubtful for the Georgia game. ... Arkansas coach Mike Anderson is now 43-5 in three seasons at Bud Walton, with two of those losses to the Gators. ... UF's starting lineup Saturday, with Wilbekin and Young on the sidelines, was the sixth different combination to be out there for the opening tip. Should Prather miss Tuesday, whatever combo Donovan goes with will be starting lineup No. 7 this season. ... The Gators went 25-for-34 from the free-throw line Saturday (that's 73.5 percent), including 10-for-14 in overtime when they closed out the game. Wilbekin was 6-for-8, Finney-Smith 3-for-4. ... Trivia answer: It took 107 games for a UF player to grab 15 rebounds in a game. The last to do so was Chandler Parsons in a 75-43 home win against, strangely enough, an Arkansas team coached by current Gators assistant coach John Pelphrey on Jan. 22, 2011.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Senior forward Casey Prather has a bruised bone in his right knee and will be sidelined Saturday when the 10th-ranked Florida Gators (12-2, 1-0) play at Arkansas (11-3, 0-1) in their Southeastern Conference road opener.
Prather, who leads UF in scoring at 17 points per game and whose field-goal percentage of 62.4 tops the SEC, does not know when he injured the knee. He was fine coming out of Wednesday night’s home win against South Carolina, but woke up Thursday morning with swelling in the knee.
“It definitely could have been worse,” Coach Billy Donovan said.
In more ways than one.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who suffered a right ankle sprain late against the Gamecocks, was limited to shooting-only Friday, but has not been ruled for the Razorbacks, who have won 25 straight games at home. That run is tied with Duke for the second-longest active streak in the nation.
Wilbekin figures to be a game-time decision.
Regarding Prather, the UF health staff was concerned about significant damage to his knee, but magnetic resonance imaging Thursday night revealed only a bruise. That was good news for the Gators and great news or Prather, who could be back next week.
In the interim, Florida will have to tweak its lineup. Again.
“It’s not like we haven’t dealt with this before,” Donovan said.
The Gators could replace Prather with sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith (9.9 points, 7.3 rebounds per game) or go with freshman Kasey Hill (7.3 points, 3.2 assists) and a three-guard lineup, assuming Wilbekin is cleared.
If Wilbekin can’t go, then nothing is off the table as far the rotation goes.
Whatever combination Donovan chooses, UF will roll out its sixth different starting lineup of the season and do it at Bud Walton Arena. The Gators were ranked No. 2 in the nation and unbeaten through seven SEC games when they went to Fayetteville last year and were massacred 80-69 and fell behind by 26 in the first half.
Thursday January 9, 2014Wilbekin, Prather held out of practice; both 'questionable' for Saturday's game at Arkansas
Updated: 5:49pm, January 9
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was held out of practice Thursday after spraining his right ankle in Wednesday night’s win over South Carolina.
And that was only half of Florida coach Billy Donovan's injury concerns.
UF forward and leading scorer Casey Prather (left) woke up Thursday with swelling in his right knee. Prather, the senior averaging 17 points, 5.5 rebounds and tops the Southeastern Conference in field-goal percentage at 62.4, did not practice and was scheduled to undergo tests Thursday night.
“He did not get hurt in the game,” Donovan said. “This one came out of nowhere.”
Where it's going won't be determined until the UF health staff sees those tests. But trainer David "Duke" Werner pegged both Wilbekin and Prather as questionable for Saturday when the 10th-ranked Gators (12-2, 1-0) take on Arkansas (11-3, 0-1) in their Southeastern Conference road opener.
"We just have to wait and see," Werner said.
Wilbekin rolled the same ankle late in last month’s game at Connecticut and was not on the floor to defend Huskies guard Shabazz Napier, who sank a 15-foot jumper as time expired for a 67-66 UConn win.
How did this one feel compared to that one?
“About the same,” said Wilbekin, the team’s playmaker and second-leading scorer at 12.3 points per game. “It hurt. It hurts every time I do it.”
It’s been happening a lot lately. Wilbekin actually turned the other ankle -- his left -- during Wednesday afternoon’s shoot-around and had to leave practice for a few minutes. He came back, ran hard and finished the workout.
Against the Gamecocks, Wilbekin was injured when he drove to the basket and missed a runner with just under three minutes to go in UF’s 74-58 win over the Gamecocks. At the time, the Gators were leading 70-47 and junior walk-on Jacob Kurtz was waiting at the scorer’s table to replace Wilbekin in the lineup.
After the game, Donovan spoke about how the UF coaches have tried to break Wilbekin (right) of the habit of driving to the basket, and shooting floaters off one foot. He takes a lot of them, but few go in.
“Yeah, I knew he was going to bring that up,” Wilbekin shrugged.
They’ve even put him through individual drills emphasizing two-footed, jump-stop takeoffs.
Donovan said Wilbekin had done a decent job breaking the habit, but that one time late in the game Wednesday proved one time too many. Plus, the shot was blocked.
“He was driving down the lane, out of control, no [offensive] movement and it’s early in the [shot] clock,” Donovan said. “He has to do a better job.”
Thursday January 9, 2014Donovan, Gators reach out to Harris -- one more time
Updated: 10:40am, January 9
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It was Christmas break and basketball operations had been shut down for a few days, but that did not stop Billy Donovan’s cell phone from blowing up with texts from a certain 6-foot-10 center.
Please Coach give me another chance
Damontre Harris, the South Carolina transfer dismissed from the team a week earlier, was begging for another opportunity to prove he was committed to the Gators. This after virtually going AWOL from the program for more than a month.
So Donovan weighed the circumstances, took them to his team and Monday night decided that Harris will get that one last chance to turn his story of blatant unaccountability into one of utter redemption.
Harris has enrolled at UF for the spring semester and will resume some basketball-related activities with the Gators this week, Donovan told GatorZone.com, adding that no promises have been made to the player regarding his future in a Florida uniform.
“I wouldn’t even say he’s rejoining our team,” Donovan explained. “Damontre is going to be in school the second semester and at some point -- and that time is completely up to me -- he’ll have a chance to practice with our team. I do not intend to play him. In fact, his playing status at the University of Florida is still very much up in the air.”
And so continues the strange odyssey of Harris, who two years ago averaged 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks for the Gamecocks and was named to Southeastern Conference’s All-Defensive Team. When South Carolina fired coach Darrin Horn following the 2011-12 season, Harris transferred to UF and, per NCAA guidelines, sat out the entire ’12-13 season and was eligible to play this fall.
But then he vanished, refusing to return phones calls or text messages from his coaches and teammates, yet all the while meeting his academic and study hall requirements.
Donovan announced Dec. 21 that Harris had been dismissed from the team with an unconditional release to return to his home in Fayetteville, N.C., and try to find another place to play.
Then came the texts messages, as well as contrite calls to teammates.
“The easiest thing for me to do is kick this guy to the curb. I’m not going to do that,” Donovan said. “But I’m not backing down and just putting him in a uniform, either.”
So the Gators, as a team, talked about Harris after practice Monday and agreed to let him back in; on the coach’s terms, of course.
And they are non-negotiable.
It won’t be easy. Harris will have to deal with strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene before he even sniffs the practice court. That didn’t work out well the last time when Harris left in November, only to return for a few days (and sessions with Greene), and then vanish again.
Harris was one of three players, along with senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin and sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who entered the regular season on Donovan’s suspended list. That meant extra work during the offseason at unforgiving hours, plus added responsibilities and some loss of privileges in order to get back in the coach’s good graces.
All three, including Harris, met Donovan’s demands in time to resume practice Oct. 11.
Then things unraveled for the kid from North Carolina.
Now everyone will try to right them. Again.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At one point during Friday’s practice, Billy Donovan stopped play and lit into his players. He did not like their movement. He did not like their defense. He did not like their disposition. Or as he put it (quite loudly) ...
“I DON’T LIKE ANYTHING, RIGHT NOW!” he added.
The Gators responded and were more in tune when they came back for a meeting a walk-through that night. The Saturday morning shoot-around five hours before taking on Richmond was OK, not great.
Sort of like the game.
“He told us in practice that he wasn’t happy with our level of focus and it really carried over,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier said after UF grinded to a 67-58 win over the Spiders at the O’Connell Center. “We didn’t have great focus in the first half. We weren’t locked in.”
That’s one of Donovan’s go-to phrases: “locked in.” There’s also “level of awareness” and “being connected” and “embracing the struggle” and a bunch others.
The Richmond game touched on a handful of them. It also provided the UF with yet another tough, anybody’s-game situation the likes of which were few last season.
“When he yelled at us at practice, we picked it up,” sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “We did it again here" vs. Richmond].
UF’s late-game collapses in 2012-13 (at Arizona, at Missouri, at Kentucky and against Ole Miss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game) were topical subjects last season. The fact Florida went 0-6 in games decided by single-digits got far more mention than going 29-2 in games decided by double-digits, a pretty impressive statistic.
But after Saturday, which ended UF’s non-league schedule, the Gators have now played seven games decided by single-digits and are 5-2 in those situations. The lone losses came at unbeaten Wisconsin (with Scottie Wilbekin and Finney-Smith suspended) and at Connecticut (at the buzzer without Kasey Hill and after Wilbekin left the game with a sprained ankle).
A bunch of Florida fans, no doubt, left the O’Dome grumbling about the ugliness of the game and another poor performance by the Gators at the free-throw line (10 of 19, including just 2-for-8 in the final 57 seconds). Fair points. After the game, Donovan said there are two things he’d like to see his players do better: convert more shot opportunities around the basket (i.e. layups, follows, tips, etc.) and make a higher percentage of free throws.
Had those two things happened with any consistency this season, the Gators likely would not have been in so many single-digit games. But as long as there are flaws in those areas, it’s good that they're figuring out other ways to close out games.
After wrapping the pre-SEC slate, the Gators are 15th in RPI and have played the 40th-toughest schedule in the country.
Florida (11-2) opens league play Wednesday night at home against South Carolina (7-6). The Gators, Donovan believes, are more than prepared.
“I just don’t think we’re going to see anything in our league we haven’t already seen at this point,” said Donovan, whose team beat a big and long team in Florida State, a deep and athletic powerhouse in Kansas, and won on a neutral court against a very dangerous Memphis team (not to mention those trips to two tough venues in Wisconsin and UConn). “There’s nothing that’s going to take us by surprise where our team says, ‘Wow! We haven’t seen that before.’ I’m talking about talent, environment, that type of stuff. I think we can build off that.”
Kudos to Florida Times-Union reporter Matt Soergel for his historical look back at the morning of Dec. 29, 1963, when a fire ravaged the glitzy Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Jacksonville. The blaze never reached above the second floor of the 13-story high rise, yet 20 people died, mostly from the toxic fumes that climbed the building through air shafts.
Among the more than 450 rescued were the reigning 1963 Miss America and the entire Florida basketball team, then coached by Norm Sloan. The Gators were in town that week for the Gator Bowl Tournament, part of the festivities married to the football game that matched North Carolina and Air Force that year.
Soergel’s project relived the terrifying hours and heroic rescues -- City of Jacksonville assistant fire chief James R. Romedy died -- and included a first-person account by Michael Sloan, 10 years old at the time and the son of the former UF coach.
A week ago, senior center Patric Young became the 50th UF player to reach 1,000 points for his career. What active Gator ranks second in career points? Answer below in "Free Throws" category.
He finished as UF’s leading scorer last season, yet Mike Rosario has been around the program enough of late it’s almost like he never left.
“It’s my second home,” he said Friday.
Rosario, the 6-foot-3 guard and hero of the 2013 NCAA Tournament after his 25-point eruption in third-round play against Minnesota, turned down offers to play professionally in Europe and opted instead to play in his native Puerto Rico. During the summer league, Rosario averaged 14 points a game, but wants to improve on those numbers in the upcoming season. He’s been shooting at the practice facility and training with UF strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene to get ready.
On Saturday, the JumboTrons at the O’Dome beamed Rosario’s smiling face from his seat in the bleachers behind the Florida bench.
“The Puerto Rican League is a special league,” said Rosario, adding that they love their basketball down there. “Some fans they really get [ticked] off and throw water on the court. For the game to start back up, it takes literally like 30 minutes. In some parts of the island, it’s like that. Some people are really aggressive because they really love basketball there. That’s the beauty of it. Playing over there, everyone loves the sport.”
TWITTER PATTER (random samplings from my feed)
Florida scored 37 points in the first 28 minutes against Richmond today. #Gators then scored 30 points in the final 12 minutes.— Cody Jones (@CJonesScout) January 4, 2014
Scottie Wlbekin 3 assists last two games combined for #Gators but just one turnover.— David Jones (@DaveJonesUFbeat) January 4, 2014
CHARTING THE GATORS
Florida smashed Richmond in the rebounding department Saturday, doubling up the Spiders by a dominant 44-22 on the glass, including a 15-3 edge on the offensive end. Finney-Smith grabbed 13, the most by a UF player this season. The Gators, who started slowly on the boards this season (especially with Finney-Smith sidelined the first two games) have now out-rebounded their last four opponents by double-digits. That’s the first time that’s happened since 2004-05 when senior David Lee and freshman Al Horford were roaming the paint.
Opponent Margin Edge
Memphis 37-26 +11
Fresno State 47-24 +13
Savannah State 42-30 +12
Richmond 44-22 +22
Totals 170-102 +14.5 (avg.)
IRRELEVANT GATOR PHOTO OF THE WEEK
These numbers will change drastically over the course of the next nine weeks, but the Gators will start SEC play leading the league in three categories: scoring defense (58.8), opponent rebounds (30.5) and fouls (15.5). The first number is particularly encouraging, given Donovan's concerns with his defense early in the season. ... UF's win over Richmond marked the 23rd straight home victory and means the Gators can tie the school record for consecutive home wins Wednesday against Georgia. Right now, UF owns the nation's fifth-longest home winning streak behind Missouri and Stephen F. Austin (26), Arkansas (25) and Duke (24). If the Gators can defeat the Gamecocks, they'll have a chance to climb the active list by halting the Arkansas streak Saturday, as their first SEC road come will come against the Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena (right). Part of that 25-game streak, of course, is an 80-69 pummeling UF took last season -- its lone double-digit SEC loss. That game, by the way, wasn't nearly as close as the 11-point score suggests. ... Trivia answer: Wilbekin, the senior point guard, ranks second on the team with 600 career points through Saturday. Next is Casey Prather with 501, followed by Will Yeguete’s 386 and Frazier’s 357. Of this group, Frazier looms as the most likely to be Florida’s 51st player to hit the 1,000-point milestone. ... Note: If you have any info, want to suggest trivia/fun stuff and maybe have a crazy photo of a Gator for Basket Blog consideration, email me at email@example.com or tweet at me @GatorZoneChris.
Wednesday January 1, 2014Billy D loving his new-found strength in numbers
Updated: 6:30pm, January 1
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The University of Florida campus may look like a scene from “The Walking Dead” right now, but there’s plenty of activity inside the basketball practice facility.
Lots and lots of people, too.
Talk about a happy new year, for Gators coach Billy Donovan it almost seems like a new season, what with all the players he has to work with now.
“It’s been great, especially all this week with the time off,” Donovan said. “This is really the first time we’ve had real numbers.”
The Dec. 14 arrival of freshman center Chris Walker was the first step. Then last week the Gators added Duke transfer forward Alex Murphy to the mix.
Though the 6-foot-10 Walker is still waiting to be ruled eligible and the 6-8 Murphy, per transfer rules, won’t play for the Gators until the end of the 2014 fall semester, their mere presence makes for a more competitive environment, not to mention more options for Donovan and his staff as far as lineups and situational work.
This week, the orange team (or scout squad) has featured a couple former top-20 national prospects in Walker and Murphy, plus walk-on Jake Kurtz (who has logged significant game minutes this season), and any other combination of regulars or walk-ons Donovan may want to roll out.
No more 3-and-3 or 4-on-4 drills by necessity.
Worth noting: And this is without any contribution from a trio of scholarship players in guard Eli Carter (out for the season with leg injury), guard Dillon Graham (out for the season with hip injury) and center/forward Damontre Harris (dismissed from team last month).
Between semesters, the NCAA rule limiting practice to 20 hours per week does not apply. And since the Gators have played just three games during that time -- defeating Memphis in the Jimmy V Classic Dec. 17, Fresno State in the Orange Bowl Classic on Dec. 21, and Savannah State on Sunday -- the team has basically spent the balance of its time the last three weeks focusing almost exclusively on itself.
Rest assured, UF has taken advantage of that time, with two-a-day sessions or individual instruction workouts.
The last three days have seen some ferocious practice sessions, including Monday's all-out block of just over an hour and Wednesday's two-hour run of mostly full-court press actions, with a little bit of defending the Princeton-style offense that a very solid Richmond squad will bring to the O'Connell on Saturday in the final non-conference game of the season.
In fact, on Wednesday a CBS crew was in the house to film an all-access feature -- "The Men of March" -- that already has profiled some of the nation's best coaches (Rick Pitino, Roy Williams, John Calipari, for example). The Donovan segment, which will include scene's from the coach's home on New Year's Eve, his workout regimen with strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene and some team meeting footage, is set to air before the March 1 home date against LSU.
That's a long way off.
In the interim, the Gators have some more time between semesters to use to their advantage. The second term doesn't start until Monday.
“The fact that we can have them here, to me, is the best part,” Donovan said. “There’s nothing else going on. No one’s on campus. It’s basically all basketball right now. It doesn’t mean we have to physically take them to the bring every day, but we can really test them physically and challenge them.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As his team stretched before a practice earlier this week, Florida coach Billy Donovan walked up to me and motioned toward his newest Gator.
That would be redshirt sophomore Alex Murphy, who arrived last week after transferring from Duke.
“He’s going to be good for us,” Donovan said with a smile.
The 6-foot-8, 220-pound Murphy won’t be eligible to suit up for UF until after the 2014 fall semester ends next December. From there, he’ll have one and half seasons of eligibility remaining.
Between now and his first UF game, however, the younger brother of former Gators standout Erik Murphy will be indoctrinated into the way things are done in the Florida program, making the transition from practice to games virtually seamless when his time comes next season.
Following Tuesday’s practice, Murphy had a brutal training session -- alongside fellow newcomer Chris Walker (the two are pictured above on the UF bench during Sunday's Savannah State game -- with strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene, after which he was handed two protein shakes to guzzle down. The plan is for Murphy, who’s a very different player than his big brother, to have a very different look to him (physically) when the games roll around.
He and I chatted about that and some other things.
Chris: I know you just got here, but how’s the transition been so far?
Alex: “I feel really comfortable. I know the program. My brother was here. I’ve been here before. They recruited me. Coming in now, it’s been easy. So far, so good.”
Chris: You went to Duke with a lot of fanfare, a high-profile recruit, but you didn’t play very much there. What was the experience like?
Alex: “Obviously, it was very frustrating for me, but I understand a lot more about what happened there than maybe I did before. I matured a lot in my time there. I understand there are certain reasons why I wasn’t on the court as much as I wanted to be and a lot of those reasons fell on me. I take responsibility for that.”
Chris: Sometimes a change of scenery can work wonders.
Alex: “Having been in college for 2 1/2 years now, I’ve learned a lot. Coming in, I thought it was going to be a lot easier than it was. Coming out of high school, you’re a highly regarded player, you tend to think you’re going to step right in and blend right in. Well, there’s a lot of talent at Duke, as you know, so it takes time and it takes hard work. You have to be invested in that work -- and the team. It’s a team game. I’m here now and the new guy, but I’ve been watching these guys since my brother was here. There’s a lot of individual talent here too, but I’ve learned that individuals look best when they’re playing within the team and when the team plays well. My work ethic is much better than it was before. I was never lazy, but I’ve learned to get where you want to get, you have to take things to another level.”
Chris: How tough will it be doing that work every day, but without any games for the next 11 months?
Alex: “It’s definitely going to be hard. Really hard. I wish I could play right now with this team. I’ve watched this team and played against a lot of these guys when we were playing AAU. It’s a great group. I can tell from my first few days these guys really like each other and there’s really good camaraderie. But there’s been some really good players come through here as transfers and had some good success with Coach Donovan. I want to be another one of those guys. And I’ll put in the work to do it.”
Chris: The coaches here expect you to contribute this season, though, by giving this team your best at practice and good looks on the scout team.
Alex: “For sure. I want to push these guys every day. I want them to get as good as they can be. I just got here, but once I get adjusted I will not be in a mode where I’m laying back. I’m going to work on my game, but also help theirs.”
Chris: Let’s talk about your game versus Erik’s. He was a stretch-4 guy, but you’re more of a true perimeter, face-the-basket and get-to-rim guy, right?
Alex: “My game is very different from Erik’s. I’m more of a wing player. I handle the ball better than Erik. I don’t shoot as well as Erik, but that’ll be one of my focuses here. I’m probably a better athlete. He’s taller than me. I don’t know if I’m still growing, but I know I’m going to get bigger and stronger working with that guy [Preston Greene]. But there are certain players who have been here in the past, like Corey Brewer and Chandler Parsons, who I see myself playing like and in that kind of role. Chandler is a guy I watched when he was here. He played a lot of position, handled the ball, put it down, that kind of thing. I want to be that type of player.”
Chris: Eventually, you’re going to be a guy who can say he played for both Mike Krzyzewski and Billy Donovan. Those are two of the biggest names in college basketball history. I know you just got here, but can you see any similarities in the two so far?
Alex: “Give me a couple weeks and I’ll get back to you on that one. I’m sure there are tons of similarities because they’ve both had a ton of success. I learned a lot from Coach K. He really helped me in my time there. ... I don’t think he was very happy when I left, but I think he understood I was doing what was best for me. That’s one thing I respect about him. He was always honest with me, just like I was always honest with him.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They were far from full strength at the time. Scottie Wilbekin was still suspended. Dorian Finney-Smith was playing just his second game back while trying to shake a virus. And Kasey Hill suffered a severe ankle sprain.
The Florida Gators, though, still managed to build a 16-point halftime lead and upped it to 22 late before emptying the bench and coasting home for a 67-53 defeat of Southern University on Nov. 18 at the O'Connell Center.
Yes, that Southern University.
The same team from the Southwest Athletic Conference that made national headlines Monday by demolishing itty-bitty Champion Baptist College 116-12 after jumping -- get this, folks -- to a 44-0 lead.
“I was surprised at how well we played played defensively,” Southern coach Roman Banks told ESPN.com. “It led to a bunch of transition baskets.”
Guess so. Champions Baptist finished 3-for-44 from the floor (that would be 6.8 percent), as Southern set an all-divisions record for consecutive points scored to start a game. The Jaguars shattered the mark held by Seton Hall, which dropped the first 34 on Kean College in 1998.
The Tigers’ first field goal came at the 5:10 mark of the first half. They missed their first 16 shots, had 11 turnovers and were out-rebounded 28-7 to that point.
“I didn’t even realize they hadn’t scored,” Banks said. “They made a free throw and everyone started clapping. I looked at the scoreboard and asked my assistant if that was the right score.”
Guard Tre Lynch, who scored six against the Gators, led the Jaguars with 27 points.
Champions Baptist, out of Hot Springs, Ark., plays as an independent member of the Association of Christ College Athletics, one of two non-Division I opponents Southern’s budget allows it to bring to campus during the season.
For about $2,000,
Southern, meanwhile, got nice pay days this season from visits to Florida, Arizona, Baylor, Marquette, Denver and Louisiana Tech in exchange to play the team with the blind fold and cigarette.
This trip, though, was a little different for Champions Baptist.
More so even than its 90-36 loss to the Jaguars last season.
“Defensively, I felt like we played aggressive, we played hard and that’s a pretty good showing for us against a D-1 school,” CBC coach Eric Capaci said after holding Southern to 59 percent on 78 field-goal attempts. “Offensively, we just did not show up. We missed our free throws, and missed a lot of easy lay ups.”
But they made news.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Chances are you missed it. Christmas and time with family has a way of taking away from sports.
ESPN gave the story its due with several mentions during Wednesday’s NBA telecast and made follow-up mentions during Thursday’s wrap of Christmas games around the league. And the fact Houston forward Chandler Parsons scored 21 points, went 5-for-9 from 3-point range, grabbed six rebounds and dished six assists in the Rockets’ 111-98 win at San Antonio was a sidebar at best.
What the former Gators star did for a young cancer patient in Houston was heroic at worst.
You may have seen some mentions of Parsons and a contract he got to model underwear -- with Ashley Sky, no less -- these days. Good deal, if you can get it. But check out this story from NBA.com profiling Parsons and his relationship with 10-year-old Patrick Hobbs-DeClaire, who he met last week. Patrick suffers from Stage 4 Neuroblastoma, a cancer that attacks the autonomic nervous system.
“The kid is so strong and so brave,” Parsons told NBA.com. “Here I am going to see a podiatrist for an ingrown toenail and this kid is battling for his life. How he handles it is incredible.”
Before the Christmas night, Parsons honored the boy by shaving his head. He didn't tell Patrick. Instead, he told his parents to have the boy watch the game.
And then he played great for the kid.
SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida practices got a lot more interesting last week with the addition of freshman forward Chris Walker, who the Gators hope will help the team later this season.
They’ll get even more interesting -- and competitive -- next week with the arrival of Duke transfer Alex Murphy, who will help the team next season.
The transfer of Murphy, the 6-foot-8, 220-pound forward and younger brother of former UF standout Erik Murphy, became official late Thursday afternoon. He’ll join the team when the Gators return from Christmas break and start practicing Dec. 27.
Murphy will be eligible to play for UF next December, once the 2014 fall semester ends.
“I’m anxious to see him here,” Florida coach Billy Donovan told GatorZone. “He’s probably a different player than when we recruited him coming of high school. He’s had two years of college to grow and mature. Obviously, he didn’t get to play a lot [at Duke], but he’s been around a great program and great players for two years.”
Murphy was a top-20 national prospect when he signed with Duke out of South Kingstown (R.I.) High, where he averaged 21 points, 7.2 rebounds and four assists per game.
After red-shirting for the 2011-12 season, Murphy played very little for the Blue Devils the last two seasons. He averaged 2.1 points and one rebound a game during ’12-13. He appeared in five of Duke’s 11 games this season and averaged one point and one rebound in 33 minutes.
He’s looking forward to fresh start.
“At the end of the day, it was just my comfort level with the program and the coaches,” Murphy told The Gainesville Sun. “It was a gut feeling. It was where I wanted to be.”
Though his experience at Duke was not what Murphy hoped it would be, Donovan believes the player’s time in Durham -- and in the Mike Krzyzewski culture -- prepared him for what awaits in Gainesville.
“At Duke, like us, they’re competing for championships, so he’s been in that kind of environment and he’s not going to walk in here and say, ‘Wow, this is foreign to me,’ ” Donovan said. “I don’t know why he didn’t play there, but what I admire about Alex is that he’s never said a negative thing about Duke or Coach Krzyzewski or the players there. I think in a lot of ways he put it on himself.”
So when Murphy went looking for a change in scenery, he found one he was already somewhat familiar with.
Obviously, Murphy’s older brother was an advocate for the Gators after Donovan and his UF staff developed Erik Murphy, now with with the Chicago Bulls, into one of the nation’s best “stretch-4” forwards.
Alex Murphy, though, has a different skill set than Erik. He’s more of a face-up small forward and power forward who can drive and finish at the basket; much more athletic off the bounce. He’s a decent perimeter shooter, but nothing like the 3-point marksman Erik became.
“That’s something he’s going to have to work on when he gets here,” Donovan said.
Murphy hopes to join the growing list of players who have transferred to UF and enjoyed success, ala Vernon Macklin, Mike Rosario and Dorian Finney-Smith.
“I don't expect anything to be handed to me,” Murphy told The Sun. “I want to earn what I get. That's why I wanted to come to a big-time program like Florida. I want to come in, play my role and show the coaches what I'm capable of doing and how I can contribute to the team.”
SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida basketball career of Damontre Harris is over before it began.
Harris, the 6-foot-10 center/forward who transferred to UF from South Carolina two summers ago, was officially dismissed from the team Friday after meeting with Coach Billy Donovan.
The parting, Donovan told GatorZone.com, was an amiable one. Also a necessary one.
“He was never disrespectful as far as his attitude. He was a nice kid and never blamed anybody for what was happening,” Donovan said of Harris (pictured right during UF's media day in October). “We tried to help him off the court and help him with some of the challenges he was dealing with. But there was never this reciprocation of wanting to be helped or wanting to to do the things necessary.”
Harris will leave UF in good academic standing, after completing his fall semester work, and with a release to transfer anywhere that might take him. He may look for a school closer to his home in Fayetteville, N.C.
“It may mean him getting to a place where he can play the game on his terms,” Donovan said. “Someone may let him to do that. Here, it’s not our philosophy or belief.”
The Gators were banking on Harris to be a contributing player in their front-court rotation this season, but the relationship between Harris and the program went sideways just before the start of the season and never got back on track.
Harris was one of three players who began the season suspended for violating team rules. Two of them, sophomore transfer forward Dorian Finney-Smith and senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, worked their way back into Donovan’s good graces. Harris did not.
“The things we were asking him to do weren’t anything out of the norm,” Donovan said. “But we’d go a week without hearing from him. He wouldn’t return our phone calls or text messages. His teammates didn’t know where he was.”
Around Thanksgiving, Harris reached out to Donovan, who agreed to meet with the player, but 10 days went by before he heard from him again.
“By then, we were at the end of the semester and I think he realized it was just too far gone,” Donovan said.
During his 2011-12 sophomore season at South Carolina, Harris averaged 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocked shots per game for the Gamecocks and was named to the Southeastern Conference All-Defensive team. But Harris opted to leave USC after a coaching change and transferred to UF.
Along with Finney-Smith, Harris sat out the entire ’12-13 season under NCAA transfer rules, but was allowed to practice -- when healthy. Harris suffered a torn labrum a week into preseason practices and was sidelined for nearly five months. When he returned in March, Harris sustained an ankle injury. All told, he may have been healthy for 10 practices last year.
When the Gators opened practice this season, Harris missed more time due to sore hamstrings and was relegated to the training table and strength and conditioning sessions. Then, without warning, eventually stopped coming to the practice facility.
It was downhill from there.
“I think he realizes that a big opportunity for him is now gone,” Donovan said. “The thing I tried to get across to him, if he has any aspirations of playing professional basketball there is not one team in this country or overseas that is going to tolerate this type of behavior, and I’d be doing him a disservice if I didn’t hold him accountable for these things.”
Wednesday December 18, 2013Media lights beam brightly, kindly on Gators in Manhattan
Updated: 6:53pm, December 18
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They didn’t exactly take Broadway by storm, needing a big defensive stop on the game’s final play to hold on for a tooth-and-nail victory.
But the show 16th-ranked Florida put on Tuesday night in holding off feisty and lightning-fast Memphis in a wildly entertaining 77-75 UF win in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden definitely earned the Gators some respect from the national media.
Or as ESPN.com’s Dana O’Neil called it, perhaps UF’s “most complete team since Billy Donovan won back-to-back championships.”
The Garden was awash in basketball writers who go to a lot of games across the country. In glancing over some of the coverage Wednesday, seeing the Gators in person for the first time -- Patric Young playing feverishly on both ends; the athleticism of Casey Prather; Dorian Finney-Smith’s inside-out versatility; the old-young backcourt of Scottie Wilbekin; the shooter’s eye of Michael Frazier -- sent them away impressed.
Even after those 17 turnovers.
I’m not at all surprised. You see, in a college game riddled with the one-and-done mentality, Donovan and his veteran squad of four seniors -- really good seniors, but seniors nonetheless -- provide a different, understated and in some cases refreshing narrative to the NBA instant-lottery madness.
First, from O’Neil, who also saw the Gators two weeks in their one-point escape act against Florida State.
What makes Florida all the more intriguing, though, is that which you can’t quantify.
The Gators have scars, which Donovan talked about after the Gators' win Tuesday night.
He didn't speak as if his team is hung up on what it hasn’t accomplished, but it knows what it means to have scars.
Nobody has those anymore. Teams don’t cart painful memories around because players don’t last long enough to build up memories together. What you did lately has the shelf life of maybe six months. It’s all about muscle memory, not collective memories.
But the Gators have four seniors, which essentially qualifies them for AARP benefits. These are guys who remember the successes of three consecutive Elite Eight runs but also the flip side of three could-be Final Fours that ended short of the doorway.
“They’ve got a lot of scars on them; they’ve been through a lot," Donovan said. “And maybe it’s because they’ve been scarred enough and wounded enough, they understand that this is a journey."
The journey, however, could be another awfully good one for Donovan.
Luke Winn, of SI.com, used the game profile Prather. Why not? All he did was score UF’s last eight points, including two clutch free throws with 27 seconds to play.
Prather is a testament to Donovan and a program that puts a premium on developing players and grooming them to meeting their potential in the framework of the system.
That’s why a guy who averaged 3.1 points per game over his first three seasons can now lead the team in scoring at 18.3 per game after pouring 22 against the Tigers.
Or as Winn put it:
By Prather’s age, a player typically is what he is as a collegian.
But when you stick around long enough and work hard enough, opportunity finds you. When the Gators had their run of suspensions and injuries, he answered the call.
Tuesday night, SI.com clearly noticed.
Even as the Gators crawled back to near full strength -- with Wilbekin, Finney-Smith and Frazier now in the rotation, and recent wins over Kansas and Memphis -- Prather has remained the focal point. And a very efficient focal point at that: He's scoring 1.23 points per possession while using a team-high 28.6 percent of possessions.
The secret to Prather's late-stage evolution, according to coach Billy Donovan, is self-awareness. "[Prather] is playing to his strengths now instead of trying to prove he can overcome his weaknesses," he said following Tuesday's game. "And I think it's the first time I think he's been playing with a clear head, a clear mind and [knowing], here's who I am as a player, here's now I need to take advantage of it."
Namely, for Prather, it's knowing that he is not a jump-shooter from anywhere far outside the paint, and that if he attacks the basket intelligently (in isolation situations with matchup advantages), he will either score or get to the free-throw line. He's generating 9.7 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes this season and converting at a 75.7 percent clip, compared to 3.7 and 58.3 percent as a junior.
CBSSports.com’s Jeff Borzello used the forum to praise both the Gators and the Tigers, suggesting both have the pieces to go to the Final Four.
When Florida is healthy and has its full allotment of players, the Gators are going to be as talented and versatile as any team in the country. They have weapons at every position, and players like freshman Kasey Hill and transfer Dorian Finney-Smith are only getting better. Moreoever, Prather continues to surprise with his breakout season. No one saw it coming --and only Andrew Wiggins has been able to stop him this season.
"Guys being out has sort of freed him up," Florida head coach Billy Donovan said. "It was good, as a senior, to see him bounce back."
Plus, future first-round pick Chris Walker isn't even eligible yet.
Florida has only been healthy and suspension-free for a couple of games this season, but the Gators have shown the ability to match up with different lineups, going with two point guards, zone defenses, multiple big men -- Donovan has a variety of ways to use his players.
"We've had a lot of different experiences," he said. "Guys have grown and gotten better. There's a ceiling for us to really get better."
The headline to the USA Today piece, courtesy of Nicole Auerbach, played off the experience factor. As in, “For Florida, age could lead to basketball beauty.”
Auerbach pinned Billy D down after his interview session with the media.
"When we walk on the court to play, it's not like our guys are overwhelmed. They've seen just about everything," Donovan said. "Kansas and those teams have great potential, great upside because of their youth. I don't know how many older teams there are. For our eight guys we're playing, four are seniors. … I think there's something to be said for that, having experienced guys."
Technically, there are 77 teams in college basketball with more experience on their roster than Florida, according to KenPom.com. But very few of these older teams have the potential for a deep postseason run quite like the Gators do.
Finally, on the website Sports On Earth, Howard Megdal took a good, long look at the 48-year-old Donovan and, like O’Neil, pointed out how the Florida coach -- after his infamous about-face with the Orlando Magic -- had to navigate the difficult challenge of rebuilding a two-time national championship program (Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski are the only coaches to win back-to-back titles since John Wooden) into a serious challenger for another title.
At Florida, no less.
As for the man himself, Donovan may well exceed what he's done the past three seasons. He's much younger than Krzyzewski, or even his mentor from all those years ago at Providence, Rick Pitino. He spoke about the seniors he has, and how they are able to block out their past accomplishments in pursuit of a new goal. It certainly sounded like a blueprint he follows himself.
"I don't get a sense from them like it's 'we want more,'" Donovan explained. "Like I said earlier, I think they're smart enough to know that this is an entirely different year. And that, although they went to three Elite Eights, it's not like, OK, we're just gonna get back there again. I think that they understand, they've been scarred enough, they've been wounded enough through competition, that I don't get that sense from them.
"I think one of the things we've had to battle -- when you're a senior, there's a monotony sometimes, with practice. There's no more new drills. I may come up with some new ideas, or some different things, but the bottom line is, we've gotta play defense. They've got to guard pick-and-rolls every single day. There's things they've got to do that are tedious. And can you crank yourself up every single day, to really start all over, at the ground floor, and start the process over, every single day?"
Donovan has. He, too, has been forced to make the new year the challenge, or even building his program all over again, after nearly leaving it, the challenge. There's no other Donovan out there for him to try and match. In that context, his difficulty deciding back in 2007 makes all the sense in the world. It's got to be awfully difficult to figure out what to do next when the only one you're competing against is yourself.
Tuesday December 17, 2013Walk-on "Big Z" meets Big Apple -- in uniform, no less
Updated: 3:49pm, December 17
NEW YORK -- He was invited into the Florida basketball program as a walk-on in October. At 6-foot-10, 236 pounds, Zachary Pindar certainly serves a purpose in practice, working in the post as a member of the Gators scout team.
Pindar played at Dr. Phillips (alongside former University of Miami All-American Shane Larkin), but grew up in Stony Point, N.Y. So it probably was no surprise when Pindar told the UF staff his family was traveling to New York City for the holidays and asked if he could attend to the Gators’ game Tuesday night against Memphis in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.
Coach Billy Donovan did one better.
“Put him on the traveling squad,” Donovan ordered.
So Pindar is living the dream -- if only for 30-some hours and a one-shot deal -- of donning Gators gear, hopping on the chartered flight, staying in the team’s Manhattan hotel and, tonight, suiting up for Florida at the world’s most famous sports arena.
“I’m so humbled,” said Pindar, who posed for this photo (right) during Tuesday afternoon's shoot-around at the Garden. “And so appreciative.”
If you see a big redhead wearing No. 21 on the UF bench, that’s the kid they call “Big Z” or sometimes even “Joe Kleine," due to a slight resemblance to the former Arkansas star, 1984 Olympic gold-medalist and 15-year NBA journeyman (pictured right).
Saturday December 14, 2013The kid they call 'Sky' Walker finally where he wants to be
Updated: 10:26am, December 15
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The kid leaned over toward the laptop resting on the scorer’s table. The screen was opened to a story on GatorZone.com. The headline was worth reading out loud.
Chris Walker officially joins Gators
“I like that,” Chris Walker said.
So did a lot of people associated with the Gators, starting with everyone inside the University of Florida basketball complex Saturday after Walker, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound freshman forward, reported for his first day of practice.
Walker, a 2013 McDonald’s All-American and a consensus top-10 national prospect from his signing class, did not qualify academically for the fall semester, but spent the last several months completing his core requirements for admission to the university for the 2014 spring semester.
“Basically, all of my time has been working on the [school] side of things, instead of the basketball side,” said Walker, who for now is eligible to practice, but not compete in games. “It means a lot to finally get where I wanted to be.”
That statement, right there, is why the UF coaching staff is so enthused about Walker coming into the fold; even nine games into the season. He signed with the Gators in November 2012, but did not let his off-court setbacks deter him from accomplishing his goal of putting on a Florida uniform.
“Think about it, you graduate from high school and all your friends and teammates go off to college. You’re a McDonald’s All-American and you can’t,” said UF assistant coach Matt McCall, who recruited Walker out of Bonifay (Fla.) Holmes County High, where he led his team to the Class 1A state title last spring. “Not once did he blame anyone else. He took ownership that he could have done a better job with his responsibilities and set out to fix his situation.”
For that, Gators coach Billy Donovan praised Walker’s resiliency and determination. Now, he and the rest of the UF staff will start implementing their plan of crash-coursing the new big man in the way things are done -- on and off the court -- in the UF program.
Translation: Even with a player as talented as Walker, expectations need to be tempered.
“He hasn’t been in anything structured or organized. He’s just been working out on his own and trying to stay in shape,” said Donovan, who introduced Walker to the basic concepts of the offense Saturday. “It would be unfair to expect this kid to come in and dominate and be unbelievable. That would be putting him in a bad situation. But clearly, he has great upside and potential.”
Walker averaged 32 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocked shots a game as a senior. He also won the slam-dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-America game.
In his own words, none of that matters now.
“That was high school,” Walker said.
True, but in Walker the Gators have a rare and extraordinarily gifted athlete for someone his size. Think Casey Prather plus five inches. For UF, off to a 7-2 start, that figures to mean a deeper front court and more options on defense, whether in man, zone or in full-court pressure.
Now, throw that unique energy element that garnered “Sky” Walker -- good nickname, eh? -- a reputation in high school and on the AAU circuit as going full-bore all game long.
“He’s not a polished player, but the one thing that makes front-court players really good is an incredible threshold to handle fatigue -- and he’s got that,” Donovan said. “He never stops. He just keeps playing. I’m not saying he’s in great shape now, but when I watched him play [as a recruit] he just kept coming and coming and never got tired.”
UF point guard Kasey Hill, an AAU teammate of Walker’s and the other half of Florida’s heralded two-man freshman class, knows that player better than anyone on the team.
“He’s going to make some crazy plays; rebounds, dunks, tip-backs, alley-oops, you’ll see," Hill said. "It’ll be fun.”
Walker was watching on television Tuesday when the Gators rolled out a 1-3-1 half-court zone defense and completely discombobulated Kansas with their length, quickness and athleticism. He thought about playing at the top of that defense. He thought about playing in the middle, too. Or on a wing.
Or anywhere, as long as it was in a UF uniform.
He wore a practice one Saturday. It's a start.
“I just envisioned myself being in there, blocking shots, tipping balls and keep guys from going in the lane,” Walker said. “I thought about running the court and catching lobs from Kasey. You know, like old times.”
Like present times. Chris Walker is officially a Gator.
And he likes it.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When the calendar flipped Friday -- and the University of Florida’s fall semester ended -- the Gators’ basketball roster flipped, too.
In a really big way.
Welcome, Chris Walker.
UF coach Billy Donovan and his team officially greeted Walker, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound freshman forward and reigning McDonald’s All-America Game dunk champion, to the program Saturday. Walker, who did not qualify academically for the fall semester, spent the last several months completing his academic entry requirements and last week was admitted and enrolled for the spring semester.
“Chris Walker has been admitted to UF and is eligible to practice, but is not yet eligible to compete,” the school announced in a statement around 10 a.m. “He will begin practicing with our team today.”
His timeline to play in games is uncertain, but Walker was quite the sight -- a very large one, donning No. 23 -- when he entered the gym Saturday after the first of two practices, much to the delight and excitement of his new teammates.
Because UF is between semesters, Donovan and his staff can use the holidays to bring Walker as up to speed as possible on the system, try to work him into basketball condition and prepare him to contribute whenever he is cleared to play.
Walker is believed to be the first scholarship basketball player to join the Gators in midseason; certainly the first in Donovan’s 18 seasons. He also figures to be worth the wait.
After averaging 32 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks a game and leading Bonifay (Fla.) Holmes County High to state championship last spring, Walker’s length and high-flying athleticism will make for a special addition to the frontcourt depth and a provide even more defensive options for the Gators. Florida has started the season 7-2 -- the lone defeats coming with depleted rosters at Wisconsin (now unbeaten and ranked fourth) and Connecticut (also unbeaten and ranked ninth) -- and only now is rounding into form relative to its health and regular rotation.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The day after a game is usually an off day from practice, but Coach Billy Donovan sometimes brings his team in for a film session and that was the case Wednesday, the morning after the 19th-ranked Florida Gators defeated No. 13 Kansas 67-61 in a marquee matchup at the sold-out O’Connell Center.
The bulk of the highlight-reel plays that lathered up the Rowdy Reptiles weren’t included in the screening.
Instead, the Gators got a defensive horror flick.
“Disgusting,” UF assistant coach John Pelphrey said. “Despicable.”
Those were the words Pelphrey chose when asked about the final 3 minutes, 8 seconds Tuesday night. That’s when the Gators, after holding the Jayhawks to just 44 points over the game’s first 37 minutes, allowed KU to score 17 on its final 11 possessions.
That’s a DER (defensive efficiency rating) of 1.45 points per possession.
For context, Florida’s goal is .90.
That’s why Thursday’s practice was defensive loaded, with the blue team (the starting rotation) in the coaching staff’s crosshairs. There was no mention of Memphis, the nation’s 16th-ranked team and the next opponent on the UF schedule.
That game is Tuesday in New York. These next few days will be Gators focusing on Gators.
“We’re building for a different day when we’ve got to play two halves, like we did our first [against Kansas],” Pelphrey said. “We’re building for a day when we’re in the SEC or NCAA Tournament, or maybe trying to win an SEC championship. Hopefully, in the last three minutes we’ll have a chance to win the game. We won’t win it if we foul a bunch, let the other team score and hit 3s or if we miss free throws and turn the ball over.”
This is not just a reaction to Kansas, either. Consider the last three games.
* The Gators had an eight-up lead with three minutes to go, but needed a free throw (one of two) from forward Dorian Finney-Smith with 1.1 second left to defeat Florida State 67-66. The Seminoles, though, nearly threw in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer.
* UF had a 1-point lead with time expiring at Connecticut, when a Husky crashing the glass tipped Shabazz Napier’s badly missed shot back to Napier, who hit a 15-footer at the horn to hand the Gators a crushing 65-64 loss. If a Gator gets even a finger on the ball, Florida wins.
* Against Kansas, UF was leading 56-44 with just over three minutes to go, then let freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins get loose for a trio of 3-pointers to put some drama in the game. Fortunately for the Gators, they hit enough free throws to keep the margin from shrinking below four, but that was after building an 18-point first half lead.
During Thursday's practice, Donovan called for better communication, more aggression and even an element of violence in the way his players competed.
Yes, against one another.
Reminders about fundamental principles -- boxing out, securing loose balls and proper defensive positioning -- were a constant.
“Our defense? Yeah, it was bad,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “It’s gonna get better.”
Memphis will be an ideal measuring stick. The Tigers are explosive, especially on the perimeter, and have a pair of outstanding frontcourt players in sophomore Shaq Goodwin and freshman forward Austin Nichols.
Neither of those names, nor any other Tiger, was mentioned Thursday.
That’s one of the blessings rolled into the tedium of December, when the Gators play just five games the entire month (after playing seven in the last three weeks of November). There’s time to work on things, rather than prepare for opponents.
“We accomplished our main goal against Kansas, which was to win the game,” Pelphrey said. “But there’s something about learning lessons -- and it’s good to learn them in a win.”
Time to soak in the knowledge and apply it.