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Saturday May 31, 2014 More slapping means more mashing for Bailey Castro

Updated: 12:11pm, June 1

Castro home run swing OKLAHOMA CITY -- The question directed to Florida outfielder Bailey Castro during Friday night’s post-game news conference came from a Daily Oklahoman reporter who said he’d been covering the Women’s College World Series for a long time.

He added that he’d never seen a home run launched as far as the one Castro parked off Oregon’s ace Cheridan Hawkins in the second inning of UF’s 4-0 win over the top-ranked Ducks.

“It was a good pitch and I took a hack,” said Castro, the junior from Penbroke Pines, Fla., who went 3-for-4 with a pair of RBI in the game. “That’s kind of my thing. I take hacks. It felt nice coming off the bat, and I was smiling all the way, for sure.”

Felt nice? Guess so.

The rest of her team, though, wasn’t as impressed as the media gallery.

“She can hit it farther,” senior pitcher Hannah Rogers said.

Added Coach Tim Walton: “Usually she swings out of her shoes. She can hit it far, but that was the easiest swing I've seen her have.”

The ball left Castro’s bat like a rocket -- a dead-solid line drive over the bleachers in left-center field -- and was last seen disappearing down toward the ASA Hall of Fame Stadium complex field house.

Castro running bases And, yes, she was smiling (left) all the way around the bases.

It was quite the kick-starter for the Gators against the mighty Ducks. In fact, it was Castro who helped get her team going the night before when she smashed a two-run double into the right centerfield alley in the bottom of the first to push UF to a 3-0 lead against 17th-ranked Baylor en route to an 11-0 run-rule victory.

That was the hit that earned Castro and her teammates some funnel cake, as promised by Walton, but her hunger for WCWS pitching looks insatiable right now.

Through two World Series games, Castro is 4-for-6, with four RBI and a couple runs scored.

“We've been talking all year about line drives and that was my "go-to" play of the day -- to go up there with line drives,” she said. “It worked out well for me.”

Castro was one of the most sought-after power-hitting prospects in the country during her career at American Heritage High, where she led her team to a pair of state championships and was named Florida’s 2011 Class 3A Player of the Year. As a senior, she hit .618 with 16 home runs and every Southeastern Conference team wanted her bat.

A “grip-and-rip type” when she arrived at UF, according to Walton, the Gators had to work with her swing and only recently got her comfortable with the slapping concept.

Now she’s making some of the best contact of her career.

“More than anything, it’s helped her just calm down in the box,” Walton said. “She doesn’t have to think about mechanics, just timing. Timing is almost everything when it comes to hitting and [the slap] has taken the mental element out of the game.”

It's allowed Castro to do what she does best.

Hack away.

The one she crushed against Oregon, a change-up, might still be rolling somewhere across the Oklahoma countryside.

“I changed to the slap and I think that has been really effective for me,” Castro said. “I can stay on top of the ball a little more. [The home run] pitch was a little up in the zone, I kept my barrel above it, took an easy swing and it kinda went out.”

Yeah.

Kinda.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Somewhat lost in the post-game euphoria of Florida’s 11-0 bombing of Baylor was how game ended.

If you watched Thursday, you saw UF lefty pinch-hitter Chelsea Herndon come to the plate with no outs and the bases loaded with the Gators ahead 7-0 in the fifth inning, then promptly pound a 1-2 pitch over the centerfield fence for a walk-off grand slam.

That bears repeating.

Grand slam by HerndonIn her first at-bat in the Women’s College World Series, the freshman hit a walk-off grand slam to advance the No. 6 Gators (51-12) into the winner’s bracket and a date Friday night against No. 1 Oregon (55-7-1).

It was a moment most kids grow up only dreaming about, but Herndon lived it. When asked to relive it, she humbly underplayed it.

“I went up there with a clear mind and I was calm,” said the rookie from Carrollton, Texas. “I wasn’t going to let the nerves get a hold of me. When I saw a good pitch, I took a hack at it.”

Did she ever.

Making Herndon’s game-winner/ender all the more rich was the fact it came off Baylor reliever Heather Stearns, who was Herndon’s teammate at Plano (Texas) Hebron High.

Stearns was a year ahead of Herndon as a prep and earned 2012 Texas Gatorade Player of the Year honors. She came into the WCWS with a 1.69 ERA, with 123 strikeouts to just 30 walks.

But she just happened to come up against a familiar face.

“I’d faced her a lot in practice, but I wasn’t going to let that get to me,” Herndon said. “We stay in touch, congratulated each other in making the the World Series and the success we’ve each had ... but that’s about it.”

Herndon mugHerndon wasn’t as decorated her former prep teammate, but the .530 average and single-season school records for hits (53), runs (46), RBI (44), triples (7) and stolen bases (20) was enough for All-State honors and the attention of UF coach Tim Walton. 


On Thursday, Walton saw an opportunity to end UF’s first WCWS early and tabbed Herndon with the chance to do it.

All the Gators needed was a sacrifice fly to go home with a mercy-rule win.

They got a big fly, instead.

“How about a freshman in her first at-bat at the College World Series hitting a grand slam off one of her former teammates?” Walton said. “I thought that was good stuff.”

Great stuff.

Make that, grand stuff.

Tim Walton OKLAHOMA CITY -- Tim Walton arrived at Florida in 2006 and promptly led the Gators to the NCAA Tournament. Two years later, they were in the Women’s College World Series for the first time.

The Gators have been there six of the seven years since, including their current trek to the grounds of ASA Hall of Stadium, where No. 6 UF (50-12) faces No. 17 Baylor (47-14) in opening-round play Thursday at noon.

In its previous five trips, Florida came up short in its quest to win the program’s first national championship. Berths in the 2009 and 2011 best-of-three championship rounds ended with sweeps at the hands of Washington and Arizona State, respectfully.

So now what?

Here’s a look at three things that need to happen -- besides pitching and playing defense, which is the identity of this Florida team -- to give UF the best chance to stick around Bricktown a while and make a deep run into the eight-team, double-elimination bracket.


2013 WCWS 1) WIN THE FIRST GAME 


If it sounds obvious, well, it’s because it is. But the ramifications of winning Game 1 -- more to the point, not losing Game 1 -- run deep.

A victory on the first day in OKC is a huge confidence and moral builder. It sends an internal message to the team that it belongs. Better yet, it keeps the team out of the loser bracket.

The Day 1 losers get a day off to rebound from the defeat, but that’s also a day to think about, stew on it and (worse) worry about. They'll also probably hear how it’s been 11 years -- UCLA in 2003 -- since a team lost its first game and crawled from the loser’s bracket to win a national title.

The Gators lost their opener last year, as ace Hannah Rogers walked three of the five batters she faced before Walton gave her a quick hook. UF trailed by three runs before it even batted and went on to lose 9-2. The Gators bounced back to defeat Nebraska in a 15-inning elimination game marathon the following night, but they were pretty much spent the day after that in a 3-0 loss to Texas.

In 2009, when the Gators won their opener, they strung three straight together and played for it all. In 2011, they won the first and hung around for seven games.

It’s the better, safer, more optimistic path.


2) MUCHO AT-BATS FOR STEWART

Stewart slidingWalton says sophomore Kelsey Stewart (right) makes the UF offense go. The numbers bear that out.

Stewart, the first-team All-America second baseman who has started all 129 of her games with the Gators, leads the team in average, (.435), hits (94), runs (63) and stolen bases (34 on 39 attempts. When she’s on base it puts the defense on high alert -- on edge, too -- and Florida plays with a little more pop.

In the Super Regional win over Washington, the bottom of the UF batting order, namely catcher Aubree Munro and shortstop Katie Medina, out-performed their averages and got some really timely hits that turned the lineup over and put Stewart up to the plate.

This is a leadoff batter with 55 RBI. That’s third-most on the team.

Get her to up to bat.


Haeger 3) COVER FOR HAEGER

Junior slugger Lauren Haeger (left) has been the big bat in the UF lineup, leading the Gators in homers in each of her three seasons.

But Haeger needs help around her.

Specifically, behind her.

Haeger is a threat to go yard every time she’s at the plate. Opposing teams know that, so they will pitch her accordingly. That means the batter behind Haeger, usually third in the lineup, needs to deliver or else Haeger will see very few pitches she likes to hit.

Last year, Haeger came to Oklahoma City hitting .336 with 18 homers and 70 RBI. In UF’s three games, she went 1-for-12 (.083), struck out four times and left nine runners on base. Clearly, she was pressing, knowing how badly her team needed to her to deliver.

But worth noting: Kelsey Horton, who batted behind Haeger in each of those games, went 0-for-9 with six strikeouts.

That hole in the middle of the lineup was contagious, as the Gators hit a collective .165 before in their three '13 WCWS bowing out.

Walton has used several players in that after-Haeger role, most recently Briana LIttle (.326, 5 home runs, 24 RBI). But Bailey Castro (.265, 7 homers, 26 RBI) and Kirsti Merritt (.289, 11 homers, 47 RBI) are candidates for that spot, also.

If Walton really wants to protect Haeger, he may toy with the idea of moving Stephanie Tofft (.356, 10 homers, 59 RBI) from second in the order to fourth. He has options.
 

Thursday May 22, 2014 Donovan talks: NBA, transfers, Damontre

Updated: 9:04am, May 23

Horford GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The NBA has called and Billy Donovan has answered.

That’s all the Florida Gators basketball coach would say on the subject Thursday.

“It’s always flattering, but at the same time, I’ve always said that I’m very happy here and like it here,” Donovan said during his first meeting with the media since the 2013-14 season ended with a loss to eventual national champion Connecticut at the Final Four in Arlington, Texas. “I like where the program is and the direction we’re going.”

Pressed on whether he had closed the door on the NBA, Donovan said, “I fully plan on being back next season.”

The Cleveland Cavaliers, Los Angeles Lakers, Minnesota Timberwolves, New York Knicks and Utah Jazz are the NBA franchises currently searching for coaches. How specific and lengthy were the conversations, Donovan was asked.

“I’ve got a few calls from a couple NBA teams. I’m going to leave it at that,” said Donovan, who famously accepted the the Orlando Magic job in June 2007 -- two months after winning the second of back-to-back NCAA championships -- only to change his mind two days later and return to UF. “After the Orlando situation, that’s all I’m saying. That’s it. So I’m not going to get into, ‘He’s lying, he’s not being truthful.’ I got a couple of calls, that’s all it is.”

As far as hard news goes, that was pretty much was it also. The bulk of Donovan's 20 or so minutes focused on the arrival of UF's newest front court additions: 6-foot-10, 250-pound Jon Horford (pictured above), the transfer from Michigan who will be eligible to play in 2014-15 as a post-graduate student, and 6-10, 245-pound sophomore John Egbunu, who will sit out the upcoming season per NCAA rules.

Here’s Donovan on:

* Horford, who is the younger brother of former UF All-American Al Horford and averaged 3.8 points and 4.2 rebounds while playing 14 minutes a game as a reserve for the Wolverines:  “The thing that he’ll bring to our team is certainly a lot of success at Michigan while he was there. Some very good teams, some deep runs in the tournament. He’s got an understanding of what goes into winning. He’s got a really, really good work ethic. He has natural leadership qualities and leadership abilities. He’s here on campus now. He’s already in school. He’s getting acclimated with the players and what we’re doing here. But I think he gives us maybe a little bit more experience in our front court with the loss of Will [Yeguete] and Pat [Young] and Casey [Prather], another older guy. ... Even though he’s only got one year to play, I think the transition for him will be pretty smooth.”

* Egbuno, who as a freshman at South Florida averaged 6.2 points and 7.4 rebounds on his way to be named to the American Athletic Conference All-Freshman team. “He has unbelievable upside and potential. He's really long, he's athletic. I think this year, sitting out, will be really, really important for him in terms of his development. He did some really great things for South Florida this year. He's got incredible upside, just his size, his athletic ability. His potential is huge. He wants to be really good player. He knows he needs development in skill. He's probably not a polished offensive player with his back to the basket, although I think this year could be important in helping him do that.”

* On center Damontre Harris, who never played a minute in two years at UF after transferring from South Carolina, and earlier this month left the program for the second time since December. Donovan said encouraging Harris to move on had nothing to do with the former Southeastern Conference All-Defensive Team member being a trouble-maker or disrespectful. “He had to earn his way back and he had every opportunity to do that. He had a whole semester to do that, and just could not do the things he needed to do, [that] we expected him to do. What Scottie Wilbekin had to do [to earn his way back from suspension last summer] was way, way more difficult than what Damontre had to do, because when Scottie’s situation happened it was in the offseason and he was totally removed from our team. This guy was in practice. He was used on the scout team. The things we're talking about were like going to class, being on time, being in the weight room, lifting, showing up to practice, those kind of things. Basically, we evaluated him over that two and a half, three months over that second semester and clearly nothing had changed at all. And I was just not going to have him come back in this kind of situation.”

* On what could be the most pronounced difference in next season’s UF team compared to the one that just went 35-3, including 30 wins in a row. “The group we have coming back right now is not a disciplined group, and in order for them to be successful they’re going to have to get disciplined. I’m not talking about discipline in terms of off-the-court. I’m talking on the court; of doing your job more often than not. And getting that reliability and accountability and responsibility that you are going to do your job. We had [Dorian Finney-Smith], Kasey Hill, Chris Walker, DeVon Walker; all those guys had discipline problems [on the floor] last year. That’s why you saw them up and down. That’s why you saw their minutes during the season up and down; their discipline was up and down. There were moments when Kasey Hill showed us some great flashes of who he can be. And then there were signs of giving up 3-point shots and guys going around him. That never happened to Scottie Wilbekin. Now, Scottie wasn’t always that way. He developed into that. Patric Young developed into that. Kasey Hill needs to develop into that. ... Hopefully, they’ve taken from this group how disciplined they were, how connected they were and how they played together."

* This and that: Eli Carter, the Rutgers transfer who sat out last season mending a broken leg suffered his sophomore season, is “probably 80-85 percent” recovered and taking part full-bore in offseason conditioning. Carter was not able to do that last summer. ... The UF coaching staff is enthused about adding forward Alex Murphy, the transfer from Duke who comes eligible to take the floor when the fall semester closes in mid-December. Donovan said the 6-9 forward and brother of former UF star Erik Murphy is working to develop to more consistency with his scoring, but is considerably more skilled than Erik. ... Guard Dillon Graham is trying to work back from a pair of hip surgeries that sidelined the sophomore all of last season. Graham is not expected to be cleared for any contact work until as late as September or October, which figures to impact his development relative to next season.

Thursday May 22, 2014 Billy D to address Harris exit, Horford and Egbunu arrival today

Updated: 9:53am, May 22

Damontre GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Billy Donovan will meet with the media Thursday morning for the first time since he guided the Florida Gators to the Final Four early last month.

At the top of the list of topics Donovan will address is the news that broke Tuesday regarding nomadic center Damontre Harris, who left the program two weeks ago for the second time in six months.

Harris, the 6-foot-10 junior who transferred to UF two summers ago after a solid two seasons at South Carolina, never played a minute for the Gators despite being eligible by NCAA guidelines the entire ’13-14 season.

Accountability issues last fall got Harris suspended from the team twice. In December, Donovan had had enough and dismissed Harris from the squad, only to agree to bring him back for the start of the spring semester with the understanding Harris would not play the rest of season and have to meet pre-determined requirements to be reinstated for the ’14-15 season.

He did not meet them.

As a sophomore in 2011-12, Harris averaged 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and was second in the Southeastern Conference with 2.3 blocked shots per game while being named to the league’s All-Defensive team. He certainly could have helped the Gators, but it’s not like they’ll miss him now that he's gone. As far as the rotation, he was never really here.

For Harris, his options are limited. Because he only has one year of eligibility left, he'd have to drop down to Division II classification to play right away, unless the NCAA granted him some sort of waiver, which is unlikely. He could also opt to give professional ball overseas a try.

As for the Gators and the low post, the addition of 6-10 transfer Jon Horford, by way of Michigan, offsets the loss of Harris. Horford averaged 3.8 points on 54.7-percent shooting and 4.2 rebounds in just under 14 minutes per game as a reserve for the Wolverines. All told, Horford played in 69 games the last two seasons, as Michigan advanced to the national title game in '12-13 and NCAA East Region final in '13-14.

Because Horford graduated from UM with a year of eligibility remaining and enrolled in post-graduate classes, he's eligible to play for UF next season.

The Gators also will benefit from the addition of 6-10, 245-pound sophomore John Egbunu, whose transfer from South Florida became official earlier this week. Egbunu averaged 6.2 points and 7.4 rebounds for the Bulls on his way to be named to the American Athletic Conference All-Freshman team.

Egbunu, who had 20 points and 14 rebounds in a game against Memphis, must sit out next season per transfer rules, but his availability at practice will be a significant, especially for the development of sophomore center Chris Walker.

Monday May 19, 2014 Patric Young opens eyes at NBA combine

Updated: 8:11am, May 20

Pat at combineGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s going to seem weird around here next basketball season without Patric Young.

Hell, it already does.

Young, the consummate student-athlete and one of the most accomplished big men in the history of the Florida basketball program, is knee-deep in the evaluation process heading toward next month’s NBA Draft. So far, so good, also.

Projected as a likely second-round pick, Young went to Chicago last week and measured in at 6-foot-10 -- one inch more than his UF height -- to go with a 7-foot and 3/4-inch wingspan. And to exactly no one’s surprise, Young dropped down on the bench press and cranked out a combine-best 25 reps of 185 pounds and popped a 37 1/2-inch vertical jump that was second only to Arizona’s Aaron Gordon.

Young then went out and played well against the combine competition. His face-up game wasn't great (not his strength), but he made good on those baby jump hooks that helped the Gators win 30 in a row last season, capture both the Southeastern Conference regular season and tournament titles with a perfect (and unprecedented 21-0 mark), and advance to the Final Four. Young finished his career as just the 11th player in UF history to score at least 1,300 points and grab at least 800 rebounds (1,307 and 849, respectively).

His draft stock is on the uptick, which makes sense -- and shouldn't be a big surprise. Once the NBA draft starts venturing into the late-first round (and actually well before that in most years), it's all about projection and fit, especially with so many international players. A team that is looking for a reliable young player to develop for its frontcourt -- someone who who can come off the bench, play defense and be absolutely no problem in the locker room or away from the court -- may take a good, hard look at the former Gator.

In the below video, Young sat down during the combine with Seth Davis and my friends at CampusInsiders.com. He was asked about coming to terms with the disappointment of falling to Connecticut in the Final Four.

Leave it to @BigPatYoung4 to give such a true orange-and-blue answer.

“I hate to say it,” Young began, “I was just really glad Kentucky didn’t win it all.”

 

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Some of the best strength and conditioning work among the nation’s college basketball programs is done in the Florida Gators’ gym under the watchful and demanding eye of Preston Greene. All anyone need do is look at Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather to know that.

Note: Chris Walker, who arrived in midseason, is finding out all about it now (much to his dismay).

This week, though, Greene said goodbye to another one of his proteges, top assistant Collin Crane, who will take over the strength program for Missouri State basketball starting next week. He’ll also oversee the men’s and women’s golf teams.

CollinCrane, 23, played basketball at Division II Carson-Newman, so he has a built-in understanding of the best way to condition for the game. And now he’ll embark on the next step of his career with the experience of apprenticing under Greene, one of the absolute best in the business, with a chance to apply what he learned at UF to players in the Missouri Valley Conference.

“I’ve watched tape of them and tried to determine how they play,” Crane said, noting the Bears had a 20-point lead on unbeaten Wichita State during the season, only to become just another victim of the Shockers' 35-game winning streak. “It’s an opportunity to build a foundation with a really young team and make what we do in the weight room part of the culture there.”

Crane, who doubled as strength coach for the Gators men's tennis squad, is one of several support staff members leaving Coach Billy Donovan's program. Assistant video coordinator Billy O’Meara is headed to Minnesota to head up the video crew for the Gophers and Coach Richard Pitino, while the manager trio of Colby Donovan, Brandon Gilbert and David Moats -- yes, all of @UFManager fame on Twitter -- graduated earlier month.

I stopped by the gym Friday to say goodbye to Crane, who in addition to "smashing" Gators the last two years also was gracious with his time for the support staff’s workout sessions. For that, I say thank you.

How key is building relationships with players in the weight room?  “I believe that is huge in this industry. We take those guys to the dark side, push them to their limits and see them at their weakest moments. You can’t take advantage of them. You have to build trust. You’re building them mentally and physically, but also tearing them down mentally and physically. You have to know where to draw a line once you’ve taken them to those weak spots.”

How has your philosophy for training athletes changed since coming to UF? “It definitely has, though I wouldn’t say it’s night and day. It’s improved my perception of how college athletes should train. We’re preparing these guys for battle. It’s not just about bench press and squat numbers. We’re sculpting these athletes and putting their body armor on them so they can withstand the longest season in college sports. Guys have to be tough.”

Two years ago, Will Greenberg was here and now he's the head strength coach at Army. Last year, Griffin Waller left to join the staff at Stanford. Now you. What will you take from your time with Preston? “The guy is the best. I don’t just mean that in a professional sense. He’s one of the top strength coaches in the country because he’s so innovative. He’s been in the industry for 16 or 17 years and he’s seen a lot of changes. There are a lot of strength coaches out there that haven’t adapted with the times. They don’t alter their methods and program to adapt to the evolution of how the game is played. I think Preston has done a great job of adapting and keeping in tune with the changes, pace and physicality of the game.”

How much pride did you take in a 21-0 Southeastern Conference record, 30 straight wins and a trip to the Final Four? “We take a lot of pride in that, but all the credit goes to the players. They buy into the system and realize the importance of what we’re doing in here. They’ve been committed. And you love it when you get through a season without any major injuries ... and then winning all those games along the way, that was special."

Emmitt GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Forgive me while I step back into my NFL writers mode.

Anyone who follows this blog knows I like to revisit the old days, so while colleague Scott Carter hacks away about the Gators and the 2014 NFL draft, I figured it was a good time to delve into Florida’s draft history.

This is the fifth year the NFL has split the draft into three days, with the first round getting Day 1 -- Thursday night in prime time -- all to itself. No Gators are expected to go when Commissioner Roger Goodell gavel’s the proceedings to order, so it looks like it'll be the ninth time since 1983 a UF player has not been taken in Round 1.

Those other years: 1992, ’93, ’94, ’96, ’04, ’05, ’06 and ’12.

While we’re on the subject of first-round picks, the Gators have had 45 of them since running back Paul Duhart was taken in Round 1 (second overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1945. That was the same year Steve Spurrier was born and, ironically, Spurrier happened to be the next UF player taken in the first round.

Spurrier was selected third overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 1967, but never developed into a top-flight quarterback, though he did set a franchise record with five touchdown passes in a game (a mark later broken by Joe Montana). Spurrier, however, hung around the NFL for 10 seasons and was a pretty good punter, but I'm not sure that disqualifies him the list of infamous first-round Florida flameouts along with the likes of John Reaves, Huey Richardson, Reggie McGrew, Derrick Harvey and Tim Tebow.

As for my list of best UF first-round picks, what do you think?

1) Emmitt Smith (Dallas, 1990, 17th overall). NFL’s all-time rushing leader with 18,355 yards, three-time Super Bowl champion, eight-time Pro-Bowler, four-time NFL rushing champion and first-ballot Pro Football Hall-of-Famer. Smith (pictured above right) is the only choice for this spot, right? Right.  

Wilber 2) Wilber Marshall (Chicago, 1984, 11th overall). Beastly outside linebacker -- maybe the greatest defensive player in UF history -- who starred on arguably the greatest defense in NFL history for the Bears. In 1988, Marshall (right) signed a free-agent contract before there was even free agency. He got big money from Washington and helped the Redskins win a Super Bowl, too.

3) Wes Chandler (New Orleans, 1978, 3rd overall). Was great for the Saints, but even greater as one Dan Fouts’ targets for those explosive “Air Coryell” offenses in San Diego.

4) Jack Youngblood (Los Angeles Rams, 1971, 20th overall). Linebacker from Monticello became the first UF-produced Pro Football Hall of Famer in 2001. One of the toughest, most ferocious and passionate players of his era.

5) Lomas Brown (Detroit Lions, 1985, 6th overall). An 18-year offensive left tackle whose career spanned three decades (1980s, 1990s and 2000s), was voted to seven Pro Bowls and named first-team All-Pro three times. Won a Super Bowl as a backup with Tampa Bay in ’02.

Kevin Carter 6) Kevin Carter (St. Louis Rams, 1995, 6th overall). Exemplary student-athlete, Carter became a Pro Bowl defensive end for the ’99 Super Bowl champion Rams and went on to star for Tennessee, Miami and Tampa Bay, as well. Carter (right) is one of only 30 players in NFL history to record 100 sacks in a career, Carter’s 104.5 is tied for 25th all-time. 

7) Jevon Kearse (Tennessee Titans, 1999, 16th overall). They were calling him “The Freak” before everybody it seemed was called a “freak.” He broke the league’s rookie record for sacks with 14.5 and won ’99 Defensive Rookie of Year honors while helping the Titans reach the Super Bowl (where they lost to Carter’s Rams).

8) Fred Taylor (Jacksonville Jaguars, 1998, 9th overall). One of only 28 players in NFL history to reach 10,000 career rushing yards, Taylor currently ranks 15th on the all-time list with 11,695 yards. He retired after the 2010 season.

9) Trace Armstrong (Chicago Bears, 1989, 12th overall). Another 100-sacks club member. He checks in at 24th with 106. Armstrong returned to school to get his law degree, went on to become president of the NFL Players Association and now is agent for several high-profile coaches and sports media personalities.

10) Percy Harvin (Minnesota Vikings, 2009, 22nd overall). Tough to imagine 21 players better than this guy in that draft. Harvin was Offensive Rookie of the Year playing alongside Brett Favre. Granted, Harvin has had his injury issues -- that's why he was traded to Seattle for 1st, 3rd and 7th-round picks -- but he showed his dazzling game-changing skills in the Seahawks Super Bowl XLIII blowout of Denver in February with that 87-yard kickoff return to start the second half and break the game open.

Now, as an off-shoot (and perhaps more applicable, given where many of the 2014 Gators are rated heading into this year’s allocation), here’s a look at who I consider the 10 best bargain draft picks who came out of Florida.

1) Nat Moore (Miami Dolphins, 1974, 3rd round, 78th overall). He caught 510 passes for 7,466 yards and 74 touchdowns in 13 NFL seasons -- all with the Dolphins. He started his career catching passes from Bob Griese and ended it catching them from Dan Marino, both of Hall of Famers. In 1984, Moore was voted NFL Man of the Year and went on to be the color analyst for Gators replays on Sun Sports.

Culpepper 2) Brad Culpepper (Minnesota Vikings, 1992, 10th round, 264th overall). One of the all-time great student-athletes at UF -- also student body vice president -- Culpepper was considered too small for the league and lasted into a round that doesn't even exist anymore (the draft is just seven rounds now). Despite being the 29th defensive tackle taken that year, he went on to play nine seasons in the NFL. His bests days were as Warren Sapp’s nose tackle and wing man in that vaunted Tampa 2 scheme with the Buccaneers. He had 34 sacks in his career, including 8.5 in 1997.

3) Max Starks (Pittsburgh Steelers, 2004, 3rd round, 75th overall). Started 96 of his 125 NFL games and played on two Super Bowl championship teams with the Steelers, blocking for Ben Roethlisberger.

4) Don Chandler (New York Giants, 1956, 5th round, 57th). He eventually became the placekicker for Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers teams that won the first two Super Bowls and was named as the punter of the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 1960s. Chandler still holds a share of the record for most field goals in a Super Bowl (4). Oh, and in 1965, he had -- get this -- a 90-yard punt in a game against the 49ers.

5) David Little (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1981, 7th round, 183rd overall). Played 12 seasons in the NFL, started 125 games, including 81 in a row during one stretch. Little died in 2005 at the age of 42 when he accidentally dropped 250 pounds of bench-press weights on his throat.

6) Alex Brown (Chicago Bears, 2002, 4th round, 104th overall). Played nine NFL seasons, all but one with the Bears, and started 123 of 145 games -- losing to Peyton Manning in Super Bowl XL at Miami -- and totaled 45.5 sacks.

7) Bobby McCray (Jacksonville Jaguars, 2004, 7th round, 249th). Played four years with the Jaguars, but made a much bigger name (and more money after signing a five-year, $20 million free-agent deal) with the New Orleans Saints. McCray put the infamous “bounty” hit on Arizona’s Kurt Warner in a 2009 playoff game, then a week later did the same to Favre against the Vikings and was fined $20,000 for his actions.

Bobby Joe Green8) Ray McDonald (San Francisco 49ers, 2007, 3rd round, 97th overall). Has been a key player on the 49ers defensive line the last several seasons and started in Super Bowl XLVII won by the Baltimore Ravens. McDonald, who signed a $20 million contract extension in 2011, has 134 career tackles and 13 sacks.

9) Bobby Joe Green (Pittsburgh Steelers, 1959, 9th round, 102nd overall). Still holds the UF record for punting average in a season (44.9 yards). Green (that's his football card to the right) was traded to the Bears in 1962 and was a member the ’63 NFL championship squad coached by he legendary George Halas. Green died at his home in Gainesville in 1993 at the age of 57 following a heart attack.

10) Cooper Carlisle (Denver Broncos, 1999, 4th round, 112th overall). He was neither flashy nor talkative during his UF days, but Carlisle was a mid-round draft pick of Mike Shanahan's and and stuck in the NFL as an offensive guard for 13 seasons, playing in 190 games and starting 133 of them.

Thursday April 24, 2014 Jaterra Bonds gets the WNBA call

Updated: 3:23pm, April 24

Bonds on phone GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Jaterra Bonds was listening to the keynote speaker during Thursday’s luncheon for graduating University of Florida student-athletes when her phone started vibrating. The caller ID said it was basketball coach Amanda Butler.

Bonds quietly answered.

“Step outside really quickly,” Butler said.

Bonds popped out of the Gator Room and then got the news; the WNBA Indiana Fever was wondering if Bonds, the point guard, top scorer and unquestioned leader of the Florida’s 2013-14 NCAA Tournament squad, might be interested in coming to tryout camp this weekend.

First, there was silence, the deafening variety, followed by some some stammering.

“It was so emotional,” Bonds said. “I didn’t cry, but I was sort of lost for words.”

Added Butler: “I know the kid well enough to know exactly what her face looked like and what was going through her mind. She didn’t scream, but she was over the moon. Jaterra wanted a chance so badly and didn’t think it was going to happen, but you never know when those opportunities are going to come. You have to be ready.”

She wasn’t taken in the WNBA draft last month, so Bonds will have to do it the hard way. That’s OK, too. Bonds, the Gainesville P.K. Yonge product who averaged 15.6 points as a senior and finished seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,602 points and first in career minutes played with 4,294, has never been one to take the easy route. In fact, she was all set to give professional hoops overseas a crack this summer.

Then her phone rang at lunch.

"I can't believe it," she said.

Now, Bonds will finish up classes Friday, be on a plane Saturday to Indy, deal with tryouts and preseason games next week, then be back the following weekend walk the O'Connell Center's graduation stage and pick up her degree in telecommunications.

But first, you can say she has the Fever.

“Before that phone call, everything was up in the air, but you just never know when you might get that call,” Bonds said. “You just want to be ready -- and I will be ready when I get there, I promise you that.”

Thursday April 24, 2014 Safety Marqui Hawkins to transfer

Updated: 12:21pm, April 24

Hawkins GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Redshirt freshman safety Marqui Hawkins has decided to transfer from the University of Florida and look to continue his collegiate football career elsewhere.

A 6-foot-1, 213-pounder from Columbus, Ga., Hawkins was part of Florida's 2013 signing class and came to UF as a wideout. He did not play during the fall season and was moved to the secondary during spring practice by the coaching staff.

Hawkins had one tackle in the Orange & Blue Debut spring game earlier this month.

“Marqui came to me and expressed an interest in getting a fresh start on the football field,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “He was never in trouble off the field and was attentive in the classroom. We appreciate the way he carried himself and represented the program and wish him nothing but the best of luck in the future.”

Hawkins, who caught 41 passes for 800 yards and six touchdowns during his senior season at Columbus Carver High, chose UF over a list of 15 schools that also included Clemson, Tennessee, Southern Cal and North Carolina.

“I appreciate the support that has been in place since the day I got to Gainesville,” Hawkins said. “I will always remember my boys in the locker room and the coaching staff, but I think it’s in my best interest to get a fresh start playing football somewhere else. I will be watching next fall as the program continues to rise back to the top.”

Sunday April 20, 2014 Talking milestones with 600-game winner Tim Walton

Updated: 9:58am, April 22

Tim Walton GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It wasn’t intended as a trick question, but you wouldn’t have know it from the look on Tim Walton’s face.

“I honestly don’t remember,” Walton said when asked last week to recall his first game as a college softball coach. “I know where we were. It was at Texas-San Antonio. And I know we lost.”

When you’ve coached as many as Walton  a few are bound to slip from the memory banks.

But the very first one? C’mon.

“Wait,” he said. “I think we actually won.”

Yes, Wichita State defeated Texas-San Antonio 5-1 on Feb. 14, 2003 to mark Walton’s first career win.

On Sunday, the fifth-ranked Gators defeated No. 21 Texas A&M 8-0 on Sunday to not only hand UF a huge sweep in a pivotal Southeastern Conference series, but present Walton with his 600th career victory. Over his 12 seasons (the first three at WSU, the last nine at Florida) that averages out to 50 a year. Walton’s 2014 Gators improved to 40-8 and are on pace to hit that 50 mark -- and then some -- with seven regular-season games to go, plus the postseason after that.

With the milestone approaching, Walton was asked last week what it mean to be in such rarified numerical air.

“Not a whole lot, personally,” said Walton, whose team crushed the Aggies by a combined score of 30-5 at College Station, Texas. “What it makes you think about is the span of players you’ve coached. That’s the beauty of winning games and winning a lot of games. You think of all the kids and personalities.”

His record at Florida now stands at 477-110, which converts a .813 winning percentage.

“It’s funny,” Walton said. “Every coach always says, ‘Yeah, wait till next year, we’ve got these guys coming in.’ Now, after all these wins and you asking me about it, you start thinking, ‘Man, I remember this kid or that kid and that kid.’ You go backward, but that’s a cool thing.”

One day, one of those kids he’s thinking about will be pitcher Hannah Rogers, who struck out nine Sunday on the way to her 20th win of the season and 117th of her UF career.
That’s 37 percent of Walton’s wins for the Gators.

"He's just an awesome coach,” said Rogers, the senior from Lake Wales, Fla. “He's always trying to fix anything that we might be having a problem with. Whether it's hitting, pitching, defense or communication, he's always trying to get better in all aspects.”

Rest assured, he’ll continue to do just that ... all the way to 700.

And beyond.


CHARTING THE GATORS
With Tim Walton ringing career win No. 600 Sunday, here's a some other Florida coaches with big numbers on their career ledger.

Coach                      Sport                      UF record                         Career record
Mary Wise                Volleyball              23 seasons, 714-84         27 seasons, 795-147
Tim Walton               Softball                 10 seasons, 477-110       13 seasons, 600-135
Billy Donovan           M-Basketball        18 seasons, 451-169       20 seasons, 486-189
Becky Burleigh         Soccer                  19 seasons, 337-90-28    25 seasons, 419-113-34
Roland Thornqvist    W-Tennis              13 seasons, 321-38         18 seasons, 396-89
Kevin O'Sullivan       Baseball                 7 seasons, 278-145         7 seasons, 278-145
Bryan Shelton          M-Tennis                 2 seasons, 30-19            15 seasons, 257-127
Amanda O'Leary      Lacrosse                5 seasons, 78-20-5        18 seasons, 240-85
Rhonda Faehn        Gymnastics           12 seasons, 210-43-4      12 seasons, 210-43-4 
Amanda Butler        W-Basketball           7 seasons, 140-95            9 seasons, 180-117

Friday April 18, 2014 Nine Gators in NBA playoffs tied for most of any program

Updated: 10:56am, April 19

UPDATE: Several hours after this story was posted, reports surfaced Friday night that Memphis Grizzlies guard Nick Calathes, an All-Southeastern Conference player at Florida during the 2008 and '09 seasons, had been suspended by 20 games for violating the league's substance policy. According to a Yahoo! story Saturday, the NBA Players Association will appeal the ruling. In the interim, Calathes will not play for Grizzlies when their series against Oklahoma City opens Saturday, which reduces the Gators in the playoffs to eight (one less than former North Carolina players).


Beal GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The NBA playoffs tip off this weekend and guess what college will  have the most players suiting up in the postseason?

Well, since you’re reading GatorZone.com ... 

That’s right. Out of the 12 former Billy Donovan pupils that played in the NBA this season, nine of them are on teams still playing and competing for the world championship. Only Atlanta’s Al Horford, who will miss the Hawks playoff series against Indiana with a pectoral tear, Minnesota’s Corey Brewer and Erik Murphy, who was waived by Chicago two weeks ago, are sitting the postseason out.

[Note: We’ll say Brewer’s consolation prize was that career night Monday when he blew up for 51 points in a win over Houston]

UF tied the alums-in-postseason count with North Carolina. Duke is next with eight, followed by Kansas, Kentucky and Texas at seven, and Connecticut with six.

Heading into the 2013-14 NBA season, Florida’s 12 players on NBA rosters tied with UConn for the fourth-most of any college program. Kentucky led the way with 22, followed by UNC with 14, then Duke with 13.

Here’s a quick look at the Gators in the playoffs, along with a video at bottom, courtesy of our colleagues at GatorVision, profiling the Donovan and his staff’s impressive track record for sending players to NBA.

* Bradley Beal, forward, Washington Wizards
One of just two Donovan players who took the “one-and-done” route, Beal (pictured above) helped guide the Wizards to their first playoff berth since 2008 in just his second season since being taken No. 3 overall in the 2012 draft. Beal, still only 20 years old, averaged 17.1 points, 3.7 rebounds per game, 3.3 assists and shot 40.2 percent from 3-point range. Beal and point guard John Wall, the former No. 1 overall pick in 2010 out of Kentucky, make up one of the top young backcourts in the league. The Wizards, the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference, open their series with the Chicago (and another former Gator) Sunday night.

* Matt Bonner, forward, San Antonio
Now in his ninth season, Bonner still gets some minutes here and there for the Spurs, who finished with the league’s best record and have the top seed in the Western Conference. He averaged 3.2 points, 2.3 rebounds and 11.3 minutes in his 61 games this season. San Antonio opens its series with Dallas on Sunday.

* Nick Calathes, guard, Memphis
The rookie who played four seasons in Greece before jumping to the NBA this season came on strong late in the year. Calathes finished the year averaging 4.9 points and nearly three assists per game while shooting nearly 46 percent from the floor. Calathes' first taste of the NBA playoffs comes Saturday at Oklahoma City.

* Udonis Haslem, forward, Miami
He’s certainly not the player he was in his prime -- remember his contributions with Dwayne Wade during the run to the 2006 crown? -- but now 33 and in his 10th season, Haslem has a chance to win a third straight NBA title alongside LeBron James. He only played 14 minutes per game and averaged 3.8 points and 3.8 rebounds, but the Heat know they can count on him to do his job. The Heat and Charlotte, making the first playoff appearance in franchise history, are first-round opponents. That series starts Sunday.

* David Lee, forward, Golden State
The loss of center Andrew Bogut to a broken rib makes Lee all the more important to the Warriors in their series against the Los Angeles Clippers. Bogut’s loss takes 7.3 points and 10 rebounds from the Golden State lineup. Lee, the two-time all-star, has better numbers than that (19.2 ppg, 9.3 ppg), but he’ll probably need more than his usual 33 minutes in the playoffs to help offset the missing Bogut.

* Mike Miller, forward, Memphis
In addition to being a Grizzly, he’s the most grizzled of all the Gators’ NBA vets -- with 913 career games (not including the playoffs) over 13 seasons and those back-to-back titles in Miami alongside Haslem, his buddy and former UF teammate. You know what Miller does. He’s just solid and steady: 7.1 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists in nearly 21 minutes in all 82 games for Memphis (only four starts).

Noah* Joakim Noah, center, Chicago
If there were a second tier of MVP conversations (the one after James and Kevin Durant), Noah would be in them. His second straight all-star season shows 12.6 points per game, 11.3 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.5 blocks per game. Noah (pictured left) likely is headed for a second straight naming to the NBA’s All-Defensive Team. He’s definitely headed for a first-round playoff matchup against Beal. No, the two didn’t play with one another, but their Gator bonds will make for something of a series storyline -- and a lot of interested viewership in the UF coaches offices.

* Chandler Parsons, forward, Houston
The guy’s on the brink of being a superstar -- and a very wealthy one, also. Parsons, the 2011 Southeastern Conference Player of the Year for the Gators, averaged 16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.2 steals while nailing 37 percent of his 3-point shots. Oh, and he's doing freaking underwear ads now. The Rockets tip their series against Portland at home Sunday night.

* Marreese Speights, forward, Golden State
He’s a key sub off the bench for the Warriors and the aforementioned Bogut situation likely impacts him, too. Speights only started three games this season, averaging 6.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and just over 12 minutes. But the way Golden State and the LA Clippers get up and down the floor, he could be in the middle of some high-scoring action in that series.

Billy D & UPSALACHUA, Fla. -- Tom Rose was holed up in a third-floor conference room Wednesday morning at his RTI Surgical office about 15 miles north of the University of Florida campus. RTI’s executive vice president for administration was on a video conference with the company’s president and CEO, whose image was projected on large screen at the front of the room.

Suddenly, the meeting was interrupted.  

In walked a UPS courier.

In walked UF cheerleaders, followed by Albert the Alligator, plus a film crew.

And in walked Billy Donovan.

“I have no idea what’s going on right now,” said a stunned Rose (pictured right).

Just a routine work-day delivery, that’s all.

OK, maybe not so routine.

Donovan, just off his 2013-14 basketball team’s run to the Final Four, donned UPS logo wear and made the day for a pair of local execs who double as big Gator fans and loyal UPS customers. The special deliveries were part of Donovan’s endorsement deal with UPS -- a follow-up to his “logistics” commercial (see below) that ran throughout the NCAA Tournament in 2013 -- and will be featured along with several other basketball personalities (such as this one with Jay Bilas) on the company’s website.

In the packages handed off to both Rose and later to Jody Phillips, chief financial officer at Exactech in Gainesville, were basketballs that were soon unpacked, signed and presented by the UF coach to the customers for their steadfast commitment to UPS.

Both men were afforded photo opportunities with the coach and his delivery crew, followed by some Gator cheers and chants alongside co-workers. Donovan even had a few words for that RTI executive, Brian Hutchison, on the other end of the teleconference being beamed in from Germany.

“Congratulations on a great year,” said Hutchison, who oversees a corporation that provides sterile biological implants for surgeries worldwide. “Hopefully, you can find some replacements for those four seniors in time for next year.”

Said Donovan: “If not, I’ll be doing a lot more UPS deliveries.”

Unlikely.

It won’t take long for RTI Surgical or Exactech, a global innovator for bone and joint restoration products, to get the word out of their unexpected and pleasant distraction Wednesday. 

“Total shock,” Rose said later. “Everybody in the company will know within about 15 minutes what just happened. We’ll have it on our internal website and I’m sure people will be calling friends and family. What a great surprise.”

ExactechPhillips, who attended the Final Four with his son two weekends ago, was in a closed-door presentation when Donovan and friends came calling. After the mini-ceremony, Phillips had glowing things to say about the Gators, the UF program and the coach.

“I just love how he does things and how he does it the right way,” said Phillips (surrounded by his Exactech colleagues, right). “Great delivery guy too. Certainly travels with quite the entourage.”

Some may recognize the real-life courier in the photo above. That’s Wyndell Jenkins, the Gainesville-area UPS delivery man who appeared in the last year’s commercial with Donovan and his staff.

But it’s also Wyndell Jenkins, local hoops hero. He led Hawthorne High to the 1987 Class 1A state title, averaging 21 points, eight assists and six steals a game. Jenkins eventually signed with UF, played sparingly as a freshman and transferred to Daytona Beach Community College.

Donovan strapped into the fold-down passenger seat in the UPS truck and rode shotgun alongside Jenkins to both delivery sites.

“Got the whole treatment," Donovan said. "First class all the way." 

Same for his customers.

UConn wins GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The final poll of the 2013-14 season was released Tuesday and I must say I was a little surprised with how the voters of the USA Today/Coaches balloting ranked the rest of the Top 25 field after Connecticut defeated Kentucky for the national championship Monday night.

That UK finished second and Florida third wasn’t a total surprise, though I can’t for the life of me see the reasoning for filling out a ballot that way. UF lost just three games during the season, with two of them to the team that won it all (UConn), and the third to the other team (Wisconsin) defeated in the national semifinal at the Final Four. Along the way, of course, the Gators beat the Wildcats three times (at home, on the road, on a neutral site; twice by double digits).

Yet, there was Kentucky, with its 11 losses, not only checking in at No. 2, but someone actually gave the Cats a first-place vote. That’s just wrong -- and probably the difference between UF finishing with its second-highest end-of-season ranking in school history (UF was second in 2000; fourth in 1994).

Note: The Associated Press does not do a final poll, rather lets the tournament stand on its merit. Good idea.

Wichita State actually got a first-place vote in the coaches poll too, but you an almost -- almost --  make a case for it, if you want to think the voter was making a statement to the Shockers, 34-0 heading into the year, drawing under-seeded UK in the second round, but even that’s a stretch.

A second-place vote? Sure.

But a first? C’mon, man.

Same goes for the Kentucky vote ... times 10.

Now, having gone on that mini-rant, allow me to put some perspective to it all.

Who cares?

I guarantee Billy Donovan doesn’t.

And he as long as we’re writing about who-cares stuff, that brings me to the ridiculously early preseason projections for the 2014-15 season, several of which were rolled out Tuesday. Some mentioned the Gators, who not only have some question marks on the roster as to returning players, but will have to replace four senior starters who accounted for 58 percent of the team’s scoring and 51 percent of its rebounding.

* ESPN.com’s Eamonn Brennan ranked the Gators No. 8, behind Arizona, Duke, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Wichita State, North Carolina and Virginia. His take on UF:

“Billy Donovan, as is his wont, has another strategically perfect class coming in. It's a group of four-star players who should be able to contribute and fill needs right away, but they won't necessarily need major minutes or lots of touches right off the bat. That's good, because losing Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Patric Young creates a need for a smooth, structured transition. The talent is here: Kasey Hill flashed brilliance in a backup role before wilting in the Final Four; Michael Frazier II is a knockdown shooter; Dorian Finney-Smith is a highly skilled forward; and rising sophomore center Chris Walker is a complete athletic freak whose late start to the season gave him no time to develop. When he does, look out. Florida may have some growing pains, but Donovan will get them there.”

* USA Today put Florida at No. 7, courtesy of Scott Gleeson, behind Duke, Arizona, Wisconsin, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina:

“Billy Donovan's Final Four squad will take a big hit — losing senior starters Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Patric Young, Will Yeguete. That doesn't mean the Gators won't be the Gators next fall. They'll bring back sharpshooter Michael Frazier II (12.4 ppg) and key reserve Dorian Finney-Smith (8.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg). Heralded freshmen Kasey Hill and Chris Walker haven't yet developed into NBA prospects, and if Walker comes back, both should have a pivotal roles. Rutgers transfer Eli Carter should be available as well. The crafty guard averaged 14.9 points in his sophomore year with the Scarlet Knights. Incoming freshmen wing players Devin Robinson and Brandone Francis have the skillset to play right away. Chris Chiozza is a smaller version of former Gators guard Jason Williams.”

* Seth Davis of SI.com did a video from AT&T Stadium after Monday night’s title game and picked his top five for next year. No Gators, but his 1-through-5 goes Duke, Wisconsin, Arizona, Villanova and North Carolina. Davis on Tuesday tweeted out a list of his top 25, where he placed Kentucky ninth and UF at No. 15 (just after UConn).

* CBSSports.com didn’t provide any analysis, just a list of its Top 25 (plus 1) and who’s coming back. Gary Parish, Jeff Borzello and Matt Norlander combined notes and put the Gators at No. 5, the highest of any of these publications. Probably too high (and definitely, if you ask Donovan). The CBS crew had Duke, Arizona, Wisconsin and Kansas in the top four.

* NBCSports.com gave a breakdown of its projected top 10, but the Gators weren’t in there. UF showed up at No. 14, which is probably more along realistic lines given the rebuilding job in front of the coaching staff.

UT-ArlingtonARLINGTON, Texas -- Standing at center court of the University of Texas-Arlington practice facility, Billy Donovan surveyed his team as they took pre-practice free throws Friday morning.

“There’s a great coaches quote,” Donovan told me. “All practices are 50-50.”

As in some good, some bad.

The objective right now, obviously, is for good.

Really, really good.

The No. 1-ranked Gators (36-2), winners of 30 in a row, have not played a game since last Saturday night, so over the course of the last six days the UF coaching staff has tried to manage the team with a steady and progressive build-up of to Saturday night’s showdown with 18th-ranked Connecticut (30-8) in the Final Four at AT&T Stadium.

Donovan gave his players both Sunday and Monday off from practice, but met with them as a team. The Gators returned to floor Tuesday with a specialized work and individual instruction at the O’Connell Center, then had a solid practice that included some full-contact segments Wednesday before leaving for Dallas late in the afternoon.

On Thursday, Florida had hard 90-minute closed workout inside the vastness that is “Jerry World” and that practice was pretty good, too.

After this morning’s sessions (that included some live scrimmaging and working on both themselves and UConn), the Gators were to bus from UT-Arlington to AT&T for their required media obligations and 50-minute open shoot-around. Both of those constitute “distractions” that Donovan has told his players over and over are part of the deal when reaching the Final Four.

“Every team has to do it," Donovan said. "And it's better than the alternative."

As in being home.

Nothing 50-50 about that statement.


Sunday March 30, 2014 Basketball Notes: Lots more about the Final Four

Updated: 12:21pm, March 31

Final Four in Texas GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The other half of the 2014 Final Four field was locked up Sunday night, so let your orange and blue imaginations run wild.

The Florida Gators, ranked No. 1 in the nation and winners of 30 in a row after defeating Dayton 62-52 Saturday in the NCAA Tournament South Region title game, will face 18th-ranked Connecticut in Saturday’s national semifinals at 6:09 p.m. from AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. UConn, of course, was the last team to defeat UF, handing the Gators a 65-64 road loss when guard Shabazz Napier, the MVP of the East Region, hit a 15-foot jumper at the buzzer way back on Dec. 2.

Yes, 118 days ago.

And in the event you’re comatose and not at all intrigued at the rematch prospect, well the other half of the Final Four may rattle your cage. No. 12 Wisconsin (30-7) gets suddenly surging Kentucky (28-10) for the rights to a national-championship game berth. That means if the Gators are fortunate enough to advance -- and don’t expect Coach Billy Donovan to provide much insight into that possibility when he’s asked about it a thousand times between now and Saturday -- they could face the only other team that beat them, the Badgers, or the Southeastern Conference nemesis Florida beat three times already.

Tumbleweeds blowing across the Texas plains will bump into Florida story angles, they're so many.

What a week it’ll be.

Let the “madness” continue.

 

WELCOME HOME, SOUTH REGION CHAMPIONS!

When the Gators' chartered flight from Memphis returned to Gainesville early Sunday morning, an estimated crowd of about 400 were at the airport to salute the team and celebrate the fifth trip to the Final Four, the fourth under Coach Billy Donovan and the first since 2007. 

GatorVision was there to capture the moment.

 

WHAT MIGHT HAVE NOT BEEN

DeVo cutting Monday will mark the one-year anniversary of Michigan totally smashing Florida 78-58 in the South Region title game last year. In the days that followed, little-used freshman guard DeVon Walker began pondering the possibility of transferring.

A month later, Walker announced he was leaving.

A week later, he announced he was staying.

"This is crazy,” Walker said Saturday in the locker room euphoria at FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn. “I don't know what was going through my head when I was about to leave and all that. I'm glad I didn't. I thank God for that. I love these guys. It's never been like this before on a team and I don't know if it will ever be again. That's why we're trying to enjoy this moment. What we have here is special. I keep trying to find words, but it's feelings and stuff that you just can't explain."

That pretty much explains it.

Walker, the sophomore from Winter Haven, Fla., averaged just 2.5 points per game this season and combined to score just three over the last seven games after hitting 10 3-point shots over six games during a critical midseason run.

But Walker’s thinking bigger picture. He may have played only eight minutes against Dayton, missing his only two field-goal attempts and grabbing two rebounds, but he can’t begin to imagine what it would have been like being on another campus somewhere watching his former teammates going to the Final Four.

He played his role and helped deliver something great to his senior brothers.

“There was just this whole vibe. Everybody was focused like we were going to war,” Walker said. “The other guys aside from the four seniors, we knew we had to pull our weight because we knew they deserved it. We knew everybody in this room deserved it."

 

OTHER VIEWS

Here's a couple links to some national perspective of the Gators' defeat of Dayton; specifically on this senior class that, for some reason, getting an awful lot of attention these days. Maybe it's the 120 combined victories.

* Yahoo!'s Pat Forde summed up the journey of the four seniors that suffered and perservered through those three Elite Eight disappointments.

* ESPN.com's Eamonn Brennan didn't see much similarity between the Gators in the 2014 regional title and the ones in the '11, '12 and '13 games.

* And SI.com's Pete Thamel with a terrific column about the growth of this senior class.

 

CHARTING THE GATORS

Billy D has now joined an elite group of just 16 coaches in college basketball history to go to four Final Fours. On this list, only three names (in boldface type) ever led their team to back-to-back national championships.

FFs    Coach                      Schools                                                                      Titles
12      John Wooden           UCLA                                                                           10
11      Mike Krzyzewski       Duke                                                                             4
          Dean Smith                 North Carolina                                                             2
7        Rick Pitino                    Providence (1), Kentucky (3), Louisville (3)          2
6        Denny Crum                Louisville                                                                     2
          Tom Izzo                      Michigan State                                                            1
          Adolph Rupp                Kentucky                                                                     4
          Roy Williams                Kansas (4), North Carolina (2)                                2
5        Bobby Knight               Indiana                                                                        3
          Guy Lewis                   Houston                                                                        0
          Lute Olsen                  Iowa (1), Arizona (4)                                                   1
         John Calipari               Massachusetts (1), Memphis (1), Kentucky (3)     1
4       Jim Boeheim               Syracuse                                                                      1
         Jim Calhoun               Connecticut                                                                   3
         Billy Donovan             Florida                                                                           2
         Jerry Tarkanian           UNLV                                                                             1  

 

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Some stuff I saw pop up on my timeline that caught my eye maybe a little more some other Gators-centrist tweets.

 

Friday March 28, 2014 Marshall Henderson hops on Gators bandwagon

Updated: 4:19pm, March 28

Marshall MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Our post-game stories from Florida’s 79-68 defeat of UCLA were filed around 2 a.m. local time, so GatorZone colleague Scott Carter and I began making our way back to the UF team hotel when we decided to duck into a bar for nightcap.

Yes, there were one or two still open here.

The place was called Local, on Main Street, and there were a handful of folks still hanging out. Scott and I joined good friend Pat Forde, of Yahoo!, and watched some hoops highlights, chatted with the bartenders and some patrons, when a guy and his girl wandered in and caused something of an immediate buzz.

Welcome, Marshall Henderson.

[Of course, we took advantage of the photo opp]

Decked out in his Gator shirt, the Ole Miss shooting guard had come to Memphis for the game, had great seats right behind the CBS crew and fellow gunner Reggie Miller, from where he did the Gator chomp and cheered on his Southeastern Conference brothers as they advanced to the Elite Eight.

Henderson raved about Florida -- “Love the way they play” -- and had nothing but great things to say about Scottie Wilbekin. Henderson brought up the 25 he had in a loss at Gainesville last season, flashed a humongous championship ring from his MVP performance in beating the Gators in the 2013 SEC Tournament title game, and reminded us that he hung 22 on UF and that defense in the first half when the Gators and Rebels played at Oxford last month.

Me: “And none in the second half.”

Again, he credited Wilbekin and a UF defense that played far better in its zone defense and turned his 23-footers into 28-footers.

All and all, nice visit with a guy who may have been a lightning rod the last two seasons -- and a Florida foil, for sure -- but now he’s on the Gators bandwagon.

Hop on, Marshall.

There’s plenty of room.

Tuesday March 25, 2014 Gators 'hunker' down in land of Elvis

Updated: 8:27am, March 26

Will and Pat on plane

Florida seniors Patric Young, left, and Will Yeguete prepare to board plane for Memphis.


The Hunker MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The team’s chartered flight from Gainesville bolted around 4:15 p.m. and landed here around 5:30 p.m. local time.

After the plane was unloaded and buses were loaded -- with team, support staff, families, cheerleaders, pep band, etc. -- police escorted a caravan of the No. 1-ranked and top-seeded Florida Gators to their home base for the next several days.

The historic and landmark Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.

Yes, the place with the ducks.

No, the Gators did not see the famous lobby duck march to the elevator. They missed it by an hour or so, but the little critters will be back in the morning. 

In the interim, the UF basketball team went right to work. First, the Gators ate dinner together, with the players getting a couple hours afterward to relax while the coaching staff huddled in “the hunker” -- the nickname for the hotel suite where they study tape this time of year -- and further broke down the UCLA Bruins, their opponent in Thursday night’s NCAA South Region Sweet 16 game at FedEx Forum.

Elvis At 9 p.m., the entire team met again to crunch some more UCLA tape.

The Gators will practice at a local church Wednesday morning, before heading to the Forum for their media responsibilities an hour-long open shoot-around in the arena.

As for the rest of the traveling party?

Can you say ribs at Rendezvous? Music on Beale Street? Or Graceland?

Thank you, thank you very much.

Tuesday March 25, 2014 Alex Murphy does his best Kyle Anderson

Updated: 2:16pm, March 26

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Alex Murphy became really good friends with Kyle Anderson a few years back when they were AAU teammates. That's come in handy this week for the Florida Gators.

Murphy had to become Kyle Anderson.

“Obviously, I’m not him,” Murphy said after Florida’s practice Tuesday. “But I think I did OK pretending to be him.”

Alex Murphy mugMurphy, the transfer from Duke who is sitting out this season per NCAA rules, got the assignment of mimicking Anderson, UCLA’s long and lanky do-everything point guard, for Florida’s “orange” scout team as the top-seeded, top-ranked Gators (34-2) prepared for Thursday night’s South Region Sweet 16 showdown against the Bruins (28-8) at Memphis.

The choice was a logical one, given Murphy goes 6-foot-8, has a really good face-up game, can take contested 3s, has dribble-drive skills and finds the open man.

Anderson does all that too, only he’s expected to be doing it in the NBA next season. The 6-foot-9, 230-pound Anderson averages 14.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, 6.6 assists and shoots 48 percent from the floor and 49 percent from the arc for the No. 25 team in the country. He’s expected to be a top-10 NBA lottery pick in the June draft.

However the Gators choose to defend the Bruins -- they average nearly 82 points per game, which ranks 12th in the nation -- someone must account for Anderson's playmaking skills in both the halfcourt and in transition, where he's really dangerous.

Anderson’s nickname is “SlowMo,” as his game is more methodical and analytical than it is explosive, and he’s the biggest reason the team ranks fifth nationally in assists at 17.3 per game.

The guy, with his combination of size and savvy, can stuff a stat sheet. Murphy saw that first hand (and as a teammate, enjoyed it) when played alongisde Anderson on the AAU squad adidas Nation.

Kyle Anderson“He looks like he’s not moving fast, but he’s really efficient,” Murphy said after UF's final practice before the team left for Memphis late Tuesday afternoon. “I think people have a perception that he’s slow and handles the ball slowly, but he’s very smart, knows and feels the game, and really, really knows angles. You’re not going to take the ball from him. And he’s so big, he can see over smaller defenders and find open guys. I know in my time with him, he was a lot of fun to play with because he’s such a great passer.”

Murphy has played a pivotal role for the UF scout team this season, along with Jacob Kurtz, Billy Donovan (the son), Lexx Edwards and Damontre Harris. The goal is always to give the “blue” team a realistic look of the upcoming opponent.

“Obviously, there are some differences with Alex and Kyle,” UF coach Billy Donovan said with a grin.

But probably more important than mimicking an individual player is assimilating what an opponent, schemewise, does on offense and defense. That takes the entire group.

Example: There’s no assimilating Kentucky’s size, but the Florida orange team's most outstanding performance of the season might have been the day before the Gators faced the Wildcats in the regular-season finale. The orange squad scored, got shots, grabbed offensive rebounds and basically played the style Kentucky was going to play.

That’s all a coach can ask.

The orange team doesn’t have 6-9 twins like UCLA’s Wear brothers (twins Travis and David) or a 6-5, 220-pound post-up guard like Jordan Adams.

Or Kyle Anderson.

But the have a group of players committed to impersonating an opponent to the best of their abilities.

“The guy’s definitely got a lot of swag to him,” Murphy said. “And it translates over and helps him on the court.”

Monday March 24, 2014 Charting the Gators: 3 SEC teams in Sweet 16

Updated: 9:23pm, March 24

CHARTING THE GATORS

Gator champsGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Southeastern Conference took quite a beating during the 2013-14 regular season for being down. That fact remains, though, the portrayal was hardly unfair. The league was woefully top-heavy, with one team, Florida Gators, going 18-0 and then sweeping through the postseason tournament. 

As it turned out, the three teams projected in the preseason to contend for the league title all made the NCAA Tournament -- the lone SEC reps to do so -- and remain alive heading into the Sweet 16.

Take a bow Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee.

The SEC is one of three conferences with three teams still playing. The Big Ten has Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State, while the Pac-12 has Arizona, UCLA and Stanford.

What does it mean? Not a whole lot, according to Gators coach Billy Donovan.

“If everybody in the SEC was out of the tournament, they’d say, ‘See, I told you the league is no good,’ ” said Donovan, who guided UF to back-to-back national championships in 2006-07 (pictured right). “Now, that we’ve got some teams advancing, [it’s] ‘Wow, the league must be really underrated.' Sometimes, it has to do with match-ups. Sometimes it has to do with who you’re playing. Sometimes it has to do with how well you’re playing. There are a lot of variables.”

And there’s some history.

That three SEC teams are still playing in the Sweet 16 is not a particularly rare occurrence for the conference. Actually, it’s the ninth time it's happened -- and one of those times, the SEC had four teams in the Sweet 16.

Here's a history lesson.

LSU 1986
Teams: Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky, LSU
Fallout: LSU advanced to Final Four (pictured right); Auburn and Kentucky fell in regional final.

1987
Teams: Alabama, Florida, LSU
Fallout: LSU lost in regional final; Alabama and UF lost in Sweet 16.

1993
Teams: Arkansas, Kentucky, Vanderbilt
Fallout: Kentucky advanced to Final Four, losing to Michigan in NCAA semifinals; Arkansas and Vandy lost in Sweet 16.

1995
Teams: Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi State
Fallout: Arkansas lost to UCLA in NCAA final; Kentucky lost in regional final; MSU lost in Sweet 16.

Kentucky champs1996
Teams: Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi State
Fallout: Kentucky defeated Syracuse for NCAA title (pictured right); Mississippi State lost to Syracuse in NCAA semifinal; Arkansas and Georgia lost in Sweet 16.

1999
Teams: Auburn, Florida, Kentucky
Fallout: Kentucky lost in regional final; Auburn and Florida lost in Sweet 16.

2000
Teams: Florida, LSU, Tennessee
Fallout: UF lost to Michigan State in NCAA final; LSU and Tennessee lost in Sweet 16.

2007
Teams: Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt
Fallout: UF defeated Ohio State in NCAA title game; Tennessee and Vandy lost in Sweet 16.

2014
Teams: Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee
Fallout: TBD

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