Monday April 27, 2015 Eli Carter intends to transfer
Updated: 4:28pm, April 28
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GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The roster turnover continued for the Florida basketball team Monday with official word that combo guard Eli Carter intends to transfer to another school pending his graduation.
The 6-foot-2 Carter, a fourth-year junior out of Paterson, N.J., was UF’s third-leading scorer last season at 8.8 points per game after shooting 36.2 percent from the floor and 30.5 from 3-point range.
“I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had here at Florida,” said Carter, who is on track to graduate with a degree in African American Studies, in a statement. “I’ll always appreciate the coaches, teammates and fans that made my time here memorable.”
Injuries impacted much of Carter’s two seasons with the Gators after he transferred to UF in 2013 from Rutgers, where he averaged 14.3 points over two seasons. At the time of his arrival, Carter was still recovering from a broken leg that ended his sophomore season with the Scarlet Knights. The injury did not heal properly and Carter was shut down after just 53 minutes over seven games in ’13-14, and eventually was granted a medical redshirt year.
Back and healthier in 2014-15, Carter went 8-for-9 from the floor and scored 21 points against Miami in the second game of the season, but three days later sprained his foot during practice. The injury hampered Carter for the better part of the next six weeks, though he eventually settled into a starting spot and went on to eclipse 1,000 career points (1,049).
“We appreciate everything that Eli has done in his two years in Gainesville,” Coach Billy Donovan said in a statement. “We all wish him well and will do whatever we can to help him take this next step in his career.”
Carter is the third UF player from last season’s 16-17 who won’t return for 2015-16. Both junior guard Michael Frazier II, the team’s second-leading scorer, and sophomore center Chris Walker placed their names in the underclassmen pool for the NBA Draft.
Florida now has eight players on its roster for next season -- the NCAA limit for men’s basketball is 13 -- pending the arrival of next season’s freshman class.
Updated: 8:28pm, April 26
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When pinch-hitter Jessica Damico stepped to the plate Sunday in the bottom of the fifth inning, it marked just the fourth at-bat of the season for the senior from Gray Summitt, Mo. Damico had appeared in 38 of Florida’s 50 games coming in, but mostly as a pinch-runner or late-game defensive substitution.
Three years ago, Damico was named to the All-Southeastern Conference Freshman team, but Coach Tim Walton’s penchant for adding marquee prospects to his program year after year impacted Damico’s opportunities to get in the lineup. Eighty-six at-bats in 2012; then 74 in 2013; down to 10 in 2014.
And now came just her fourth of 2015.
In the final home game of Senior Weekend, no less.
So it was fitting Damico delivered two big plays to finish the game in run-rule fashion. She went with a pitch on the outside corner and slapped it sharply to right field for an RBI single and her first base hit of the season, then raced to second on a throwing error. On the very next pitch, Kelsey Stewart punched a single to short left field, with Damico rounding third base and scoring the game-winning run in a 9-1 defeat of Texas A&M.
That’s 15 straight victories for the No. 1-ranked Gators (47-4, 16-4), who with the sweep of the 25th-ranked Aggies (34-17, 9-12) maintained a half-game lead on Auburn in the race for the SEC regular-season title.
“It’s pretty awesome to know I still put in the work to get the job done that my team needed me to do,” Damico said. “They’ve supported me and I’ve supported them. It’s nice to go out and give them what I have.”
Her career statistics won’t approach the home runs and pitching wins of Lauren Haeger (right), or the big hits by Bailey Castro or Brianna Little, or the stellar defense of Kathlyn Medina, but now Damico has another sweet memory to tuck away with all the others compiled alongside her senior sisters who came to Gainesville together in summer of 2011.
Throw in Francesca Martinez, who transferred to UF in 2014 from Daytona State, and all six seniors scored at least one run during the A&M series. Some of them did a lot more.
Haeger, as usual, comes to mind.
After surrendering a home run to Tori Vidales in the top of the first, Haeger set down the next 14 Aggies -- the only ones she faced -- as UF’s national player of the year candidate improved her pitching mark to 23-0. She also had an RBI single.
All told, the Gators cranked out 12 hits, all but one of them singles. A&M starter Kayla Ober came into the game having yet to allow an extra base hit in SEC play, but Stewart took care of that streak when she led off UF’s first by blasting a triple off the wall in centerfield. The Gators erased an early deficit for the third straight game by plating three runs in the first and leaving matters to Haeger’s right arm. She finished with seven strikeouts and no walks in her five-inning one-hitter.
Pretty good senior weekend, but don’t confuse it for a senior send-off. After UF ends the regular season with a series at Missouri next weekend, there’s the SEC Tournament at Baton Rouge, La., and then the NCAA Tournament.
These elder Gators are far from finished with making memories at Pressly Stadium.
“I don’t think it’s going to hit me until I’m done,” Haeger said of her three-day senior celebration. “We still have a really long last part of the season, hopefully.”
More like definitely.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sophomore center Chris Walker is leaving Florida and will put his name in the NBA Draft pool.
Walker, the 6-foot-10, 220-pounder who averaged 3.7 points and 2.7 rebounds during his two UF seasons, toyed with his decision in the six weeks since the Gators’ 2014-15 campaign ended in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. After weighing his options, consulting with Coach Billy Donovan and family, plus getting feedback from NBA scouts, Walker opted for an early exit.
The deadline for underclassmen declaring for the draft is Sunday at 6 p.m.
Walker (pictured right) was a McDonald’s All-American and top-10 recruit when he signed with the Gators in the fall of 2012. Though he never came close to meeting the sky-high expectations that proceeded his arrival to UF, Walker’s athleticism and ceiling have kept him in conversations in some NBA front offices, despite a sophomore season when he averaged just 4.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and played just 15 minues per game.
Walker is the second UF players to put his name in the NBA pool, joining junior guard Michael Frazier II, who also is a marginal prospect -- late-first round to undrafted -- according to a survey of mock drafts.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The beaming smile so often associated with Bridget Sloan had been replaced by what could only be described as blankness. And, sure enough, Sloan's first words put Friday’s bombshell at the Florida gymnastics studio into perspective.
“For the first time in my life, I’m speechless,” she said.
Coach Rhonda Faehn, just six days removed from leading the Gators to a third straight NCAA title, called her team into a meeting after posing for its national championship photo and, fighting back tears, told them she was leaving to become senior vice president of USA Gymnastics.
The news hit the Gators like a balance beam to the teeth.
“When she got up there to talk to us, then started crying a little bit, I knew it wasn’t going to be good news,” junior Bridgette Caquatto said. “It hurts to see someone so strong like that be in such a sad moment.”
After 13 seasons at UF, the 43-year-old Faehn will now be a powerful voice in Elite gymnastics, with a heavy hand in everything from club level to the national team to the World Championships and Olympics. Faehn, a former Elite gymnast and 1988 Olympian, will be USA Gymnastics' second in command to National Team coordinator Marta Karolyi.
“It’ll be all-encompassing,” Faehn said.
Lynda Tealer, UF’s executive associate athletics director for administration, spoke briefly to the team and assured the athletes a search to replace Faehn would yield an outstanding candidate.
In their broken hearts, each Gator athlete had to know this was an opportunity of a lifetime for their coach -- and with success comes great opportunity.
And each of those Gators was at the core of Faehn's success.
“From our standpoint, it’s a little confusing, but you have to take a step back and look at all the awesome things she’s done for the program,” said Caquatto (pictured right), who has known nothing but national championships since arriving as a freshman from Naperville, Ill. “She’s built this program to be successful and taught her athletes, each and every one of us, life’s lessons; not just in gymnastics, but how to grow and be a better person. This is a tremendous opportunity for her.”
Sloan, the 21-time All-American, 2013 Honda Award winner and arguably the No. 1 college gymnast in the country, admittedly was having trouble processing the events of the morning. Like Caquatto, Sloan has been at Florida three years and won three national championships, meeting every bit of the immence expectations that accompanied her from Indiana and an Elite, international career. Not bad.
But her all-world coach had just dropped the mic and walked off the stage.
“We were still on a high from winning our third straight national championship, so, right now, we all have to let this all sink in ... this is not what we were expecting,” said Sloan (pictured top right with her coach). “I have no doubt Rhonda will be great in her new position and have no doubt whoever they bring in will be the best fit for us.”
“But we’re a bunch of 19-, 20-, 22-year-old girls and we’re a difficult task to handle,” Sloan added. “She’ll be greatly missed. Best coach I’ve ever had. It’ll be different.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – For Keith Carodine, the event represents something of a rite of passage.
Carodine, senior associate athletics director for the Office of Student Life, thumbed through the program following Thursday’s luncheon honoring UF’s graduating seniors. Each had their own page and action shot. Each had written their own Gators story.
Carodine, like all UF administrators, coaches, support staff and teammates could relate to just about every one of them.
* Basketball player Kayla Lewis: “She competed this year as a post-grad.”
* Distance runner Macy Huskey: “Knew her family long before she got here. I remember her as a toddler.”
* Golfer Eric Banks: “Overcame open-heart surgery. Talk about courage and perseverance.”
* Thrower Jayla Bostic: “I remember the coach calling me and saying he didn't know much about her, only that she was tall, long and going to be really good.”
* Volleyball player Holly Pole: “She’s working in our accounting office now.”
* Swimmer Matthew Thompson: “Just got a job at Northwestern.”
You get the idea.
All told, 69 student-athletes are set to graduate in the spring or finish work toward their degrees this summer. Woven in that number are players who helped win 24 conference championships, nine national titles and received 50 all-league academic honors.
“Now they’re all grown up and are ready for that next chapter,” Carodine said.
The keynote speaker of the event, always a former athlete, was 2013 graduate Kelsey Horton (pictured right), a four-year standout on the UF softball team. She recalled being in the very same Gator Room for her senior luncheon two years ago and listening to the message from that day’s speaker, former gymnast Ashley Kerr.
The words resonated.
“When Ashley spoke about never having to let go of being a Gator student-athlete, I always thought of that when I was trying to fill that void as I looked at who I was going to be after softball,” Horton said. “Well, what I found out is that you can still be that Gator athlete and also be who else it is you’re going to be.”
Horton went to Auburn to start pharmacy school, stayed there a year and transferred back to UF. Last June, she asked for three days off from her summer job in Tampa so she could come back and watch the Gators face Alabama in the championship series of the NCAA Women's College World Series.
She sat with friends in a midtown restaurant that roared as her former teammates won the program's first national title.
"It was so exciting," Horton said.
And now it’s time for these young men and women – these Gator athletes – to move on to the next chapter of their lives. For them, that's exciting.
They’ll leave, though, knowing the book on their UF experiences will be there to go back and read forever.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- That Lauren Haeger was 1-for-19 in her career against Florida State was pretty amazing, but that didn’t stop the Seminoles from showing Florida's senior slugger the kind of respect worthy of a national player of the year candidate.
When Haeger (right), who last week set the Southeastern Conference record for all-time home runs, stepped to the plate Wednesday night at Pressly Stadium in the UF first with a couple runners on, FSU’s third baseman was positioned in the outfield grass.
Haeger attempted a bunt.
“I think that’s a message to everybody,” Gators coach Tim Walton said later. “You can’t play us behind the base and not expect our athletes to put the ball down at times.”
Haeger’s bunt attempt went foul, but she eventually grounded to second and plated Nicole DeWitt with the first run of what turned out to be a 5-0 victory for top-ranked Florida over the No. 10 rival Seminoles. Two innings later, Haeger got the second hit of her career -- a two-run single -- against FSU and the first in 15 at-bats against ace Lacey Waldrop.
“It felt so good,” Haeger said of the line drive to left that scored DeWitt and Kirsti Merritt for a 3-0 edge and paired nicely with her victory in the circle (yet another one) to improve to a sparkling 21-0 on the year. “It wasn’t the best hit, but I’ll take anything I can.”
That’s how the Gators (44-4,), winners of 12 straight now after finishing their non-conference schedule unbeaten in 31 outings, approached the game against an outstanding pitcher in Waldrop, who has mastery of off-speed, drops and risers. The plan, Haeger explained, was to just keep things short, stay in the middle of the field and avoid big swings.
“Beat the ball into the ground and use our speed,” Haeger said.
A sacrifice here, squeeze and stolen base there, with some hit-and-runs for good measure. Walton’s team is perfectly capable of playing smash ball, but the Gators demonstrated in this win their ability to do small ball. That's always a good thing heading into the home stretch of the regular season. Come the SEC and NCAA tournaments, better be able to win a bunch of different ways.
“Sometimes you got to do little things like that,” Walton said.
UF shut out a top-10 opponent without an extra base hit; with only six hits total. Instead, the Gators manufactured their runs with smart, decisive and swift base-running and those couple timely hits, with Haeger adding to her team-leading RBI total with three and Merritt knocking in another with a sacrifice bunt.
Florida touched up Waldrop for two unearned runs, thanks to an error and paszed ball.
“It was nice to see us produce runs without big hits,” Merritt said. “We like to say, ‘Getting it done.’ Even if we get out, get a run. That’s what Lauren did her first time up.”
Haeger’s fielder’s-choice RBI “got it done” early and got the Gators off to a decent start against a pitcher who two years ago came to town and -- get this -- struck out 18 UF batters.
This time, she struck out four in 4-plus innings.
No, UF didn’t touch Waldrop up.
The Gators just got it done.
“We had to make a couple adjustments. You can see they were made,” Merritt said of facing Waldrop, who dropped to 24-6 as the Gators made just enough contact to do their jobs. “You practice and think about and watch video, so when it rolls into the game, it’s good.”
FORT WORTH, Texas -- The NCAA Championships in the Lone Star State means a homecoming of sorts for the Florida gymnastics team.
Just about every other team here, too.
A survey of the 12 squads on hand for college gymnastics’ marquee event shows 28 athletes from the state of Texas (or 15 percent of the competitors), with only UCLA and Nebraska without representation. What makes that statistic all the more insane is that the nation’s second-most populated state has -- get this -- zero Division I gymnastics programs.
“It's crazy,” UF senior and native Texan Rachel Spicer said. “If they had a school [with the sport] in Texas, they would dominate.”
But they don’t, which is good news for some of the elite programs across the country, including two-time reigning NCAA champion Florida, which lists five Texans on the roster; and that doesn’t count senior superstar Kytra Hunter, who was born in San Antonio.
“I think of Texas as my second home,” UF coach Rhonda Faehn said. "I have to."
That's because recruiting well is oil-like rich with gymnasts in these parts, which is how Faehn happened upon Spicer (Highland Village), Claire Boyce (Arlington), Ericha Fassbender (Katy), Kennedy Baker (Flower Mound) and Grace McLaughlin (Allen). Each is from the metropolitan Dallas area. Baker and Boyce came out of the prestigous Texas Dreams club.
Coming this fall: Freshman Peyton Ernst, by way of Coppell and a Senior International Elite gymnast and two-time member of the U.S. Senior National team.
Yes, everything is bigger in Texas. Apparently, the gymnasts are better, too. Certainly plentiful.
“My house is literally 15 minutes from here,” Boyce (pictured above) said Thursday after the team’s NCAA practice sessions at Fort Worth Convention Center Arena. “I told [the coaches] I wanted to go home for just a few hours, but they wouldn’t let me.”
Well, after all, there is some business to tend to here. And the fact it is here -- where these athletes have plenty of family of friends -- should be helpful when the competition begins Friday at 2 p.m. (ET) with the first of two six-team sessions, with the field be cut in half for Saturday night's Super Six.
Florida will be in that first Friday session.
“We’re going to have a huge crowd backing us up,” said Hunter, whose mother's side of the family hails from Houston. “We love to have the Gator Nation represented. We get six tickets each, but everybody’s been like, ‘Got any more tickets?’ ”
Baker noted the Gators could have something of a home-gym advantage, but added a caveat.
“So will just about everybody,” she said. “I kept running into [athletes] today and saying, ‘Hey, I haven’t seen you in years!’ I know I wasn’t the only one.”
The meet is being hosted by Division II Texas Women’s University, home to the lone gymnastics program in the Lone Star, and figures to a grand showcase for the sport in a place where it could use some showcasing. Who knows what it might lead to? An actual gymnastics program somewhere in the state, perhaps?
What a radical thought.
“We're always in support of other schools trying to pick up gymnastics,” Faehn said. “It might ignite something. We would love that.”
Updated: 9:01am, April 13
Matt McCall (left) rose through the ranks of Coach Billy Donovan's staff from manager to assistant coach. Now he's off to be head coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Matt McCall could have pursued other head coaching opportunities in the past. The timing just wasn’t right.
It is now.
McCall, 33, was hired Sunday as head coach at Tennessee-Chattanooga and will leave Billy Donovan’s staff after four seasons, 107 victories, two Southeastern Conference titles, three NCAA Tournament berths and a trip to the Final Four. He’ll take over for a program left in very good shape by Will Wade, who was hired this week to replace Shaka Smart as head coach at Virginia Commonwealth.
“My family and I could not be happier,” said McCall in a UT-C release. He thanked athletic director David Blackburn and UT chancellor Steve Angle. “It takes a special place for me to leave the University of Florida and that is exactly what we see in Chattanooga.”
He truly rose through the Florida ranks to get this opportunity.
McCall was a manager during the 2002-03 season and was promoted to director of basketball operations where he remained from 2004-08, including the back-to-back NCAA titles of ’06-07. In 2008, McCall went to Florida Atlantic as an assistant for Mike Jarvis, where he helped coach the Owls of the Sun Belt Conference for three seasons before returning to Florida in 2011 as a full-time member of Donovan's staff after the exit of Richard Pitino.
Now in the Southern Conference, McCall will inherit a team that went 22-10 last season, including 15-3 in the league, before being eliminated by Furman in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.
“Matt has done a tremendous job for the University of Florida and he will deeply be missed,” Donovan said in the release. “I knew it would take a special situation for Matt to leave, and without question, Chattanooga is a great opportunity. The Mocs are getting a great coach and an even better person. Matt will do a tremendous job.”
The Moccasins are expected to return seven of their top eight scorers, including junior guards Casey Jones (14.2 points, 7.0 rebounds per game) and Greg Pryor (11.3 ppg).
McCall is the fifth Donovan staffer to jump to a first-time head coach opportunity, joining John Pelphrey (South Alabama in 2002), Anthony Grant (VCU in '07), Donnie Jones (Marshall in '07) and assistant to the head coach Mark Daigneault (Oklahoma City Blue, of the NBA Developmental League, in '14).
Donovan had gone three seasons with the same assistant coaching staff, but now will be in the market to fill a post for the first time since Norm Roberts left in 2012 for Kansas and was replaced by Rashon Burno, by way of Manhattan.
It was smiles all around Saturday for the Gators, who completed their first sweep of an SEC series this season by pummelling South Carolina in both games of a double-header by a combined score of 35-3.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- There was no reason to tempt fate.
The third-ranked Florida Gators had tattooed a double-digit lead on South Carolina for the second time in two hours Saturday at Pressly Stadium and thus were on the verge of their first Southeastern Conference series sweep of the season.
It’s the first week in April, so there’s lots of time to fix whatever is wrong with sophomore pitcher Delanie Gourley. UF coach Tim Walton -- with an eye toward the threatening clouds to the north -- wasted no time determining that was an issue for another day.
Enter Lauren Haeger with a huge lead in the fourth.
Exit the Gators with that much-needed sweep six outs later.
“We didn’t want to sit here and waste the day away,” Walton said of the threat of a rain delay. “We wanted to get it over with.”
Did they ever. Try 16-3, thanks to a couple homers and six RBI from Haeger, plus four of the team’s 17 hits from red-hot second baseman Kelsey Stewart. That lopsided victory paired nicely with the first game of the double-dip when the Gators rolled the Gamecocks 19-0. Throw in Friday’s 10-2 win in the series opener and UF totaled 45 runs (to USC's five), shattering the record for most in a three-game series.
“We’ve been working really hard on getting our bats going again, [with] line drives, ground balls,” Haeger said. “We worked hard on it all week and we’re glad it paid off.”
More like ecstatic. Especially after failing to finish off potential series sweeps the last two weekends at SEC venues. The Gators (36-4, 8-4) dropped Game 3s at both Alabama and Mississippi State, including a blown 3-0 lead in the seventh in the later series that ended when freshman Alesha Ocasio served up five runs, with the last three on a walk-off homer.
So there was a sense of urgency to finish off the Gamecocks (26-15, 2-10). Even more so when a steady rain started coming down.
“We wanted a sweep,” Haeger said. “We just had to buckle down.”
As for Gourley (pictured left), the talented lefty is going through a funk right now, with her ERA having climbed to 2.32 after surrendering 12 earned runs over her previous 12 2/3 innings.
After Ocasio held USC to just four hits in the 19-0 blowout Saturday, Gourley started Game 3 by hitting a batter and then serving up a 3-run homer in the first inning to stick the Gators in an early hole.
Credit Gourley for settling down after that -- she surrendered just one more hit in her three innings -- but after the Gators bombarded Gamecocks starter Julie Sarratt for 12 runs in the third inning alone, Walton saw the grayish clouds on the horizon, felt a few drops here and there, and pulled the trigger.
Florida has some big SEC series ahead, with Kentucky coming in next weekend and a road trip to Georgia after that. Heck, the Gators go to Florida State for a tough one Wednesday night. They are going to need Gourley to get her groove back.
But they did not need her to find it Saturday.
“We’re going to have to change how she comes out of the bullpen,” said Walton, adding he plans to give his players a day off from defense drills, line ‘em against Gourley and see what happens. “Her stuff is plenty good enough to win. We’re going to need to look at her routine and figure out what we need to change to make her more effective.”
She probably could have benefited from a pressure-free few innings Saturday with a 13-3 lead after three, but there was too many other really good things going on for the Gators. Like the opportunity to win two games the same day in mercey-rule fashion and enjoy an off Easter Sunday with a sweep in the review.
When Haeger got the final out, setting South Carolina down 1-2-3 in the top of the fifth, there was a unison chant in the UF dugout.
Updated: 11:20am, April 2
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Final Four week means it’s time for the annual list of the top-paid college basketball coaches, courtesy of USA Today.
The data, obtained by the newspaper via public-records requests and research across the country, brought to light that Florida’s Billy Donovan signed a contract extension in December that takes him through five more seasons and makes him one of five coaches in the country making $4 million a year.
It's the second one-year contract extension Donovan has signed in the last two years.
The inner-workings of the new Donovan deal actually began when then-UF president Bernie Machen and Athletic Director Jeremy Foley huddled in the middle of the 2013-14 season while the Gators were on their way to a third Southeastern Conference title in four years, a school-record 30 straight victories, Donovan’s fourth Final Four appearance and graduating a four-man class of the winningest seniors in program history.
The new Donovan contract runs through the 2019-20 season and includes base salary, television and radio commitments, his Nike contract, pension, expense account and longevity incentives, bringing the annual average to $4,002,834 per year over the next six years. It adds about $1.92 million -- or approximately $321,000 annually -- to the contract extension he agreed to in 2013.
According to USA Today’s annual salary survey, only four other coaches have hit the $4 million per-year mark: Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski ($9.682 million), Louisville’s Rick Pitino ($5.758 million), Kentucky’s John Calipari ($5.511 million) and Kansas’ Bill Self ($4.960 million).
Heading into the '14-15 season, the Gators had a streak of 16 consecutive 20-win seasons. That run was broken, as UF went 16-17 -- the program's first losing season since 1997-98 -- but along the way Donovan became the second-youngest coach in NCAA history to win 500 games, doing so at the age of 49.
Center John Egbunu (orange jersey during a practice last October) sat out the 2014-15 season per NCAA rules after transferring from USF, but figures prominently in the team's plans next season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For Florida, the 2014-15 basketball season ended nearly three weeks ago, but for a handful of players the 2015-16 season -- the preparation thereof -- has begun.
NCAA rules allow teams eliminated from postseason competition to convene eight hours per week until the start of final exams, two hours of which can be spent on the floor. Don’t think for a second Billy Donovan wouldn’t take advantage of that rule, especially coming off a 16-17 record. The Gators who are in the mix for next season had a couple hour-long practices last week, then another on Tuesday.
And John Egbunu is now a center of attention.
Egbunu transferred from South Florida last summer and sat out the season per NCAA rules. The 6-foot-10, 255-pound post player would have been a welcomed sight in a Florida uniform the last few months, given the Gators struggles for production in the paint, but now his preparation and repetition -- even here in April -- are for real.
Although Egbunu must wait another eight months to make his UF debut, he’s no longer a player-in-waiting.
“A sit-out year is a year for getting better, so I made every single day like a game day for me,” Egbunu said Tuesday. “Just come in and work and try to help the guys get better and get ready for the teams we were playing. That’s what helped me stay focused.”
It’s natural for players in that “sit-out” year to grow frustrated without the reward of the games. Egbunu, though, swears that was never the case with him. The UF coaches and support staff love the kid and rave about his work ethic, willingness to be coached and his locker room presence as a teammate.
Egbunu, in turn, felt for the Gators during their struggle through the program’s toughest season in years; their biggest, most physical player could only watch -- behind the bench during home games, on television during road games -- unable to do a thing about it.
“Anytime you’re sitting down you wonder how you could contribute in any way. We worked so hard and didn’t get the results we wanted, so it was tough,” he said. “But I guess that was just part of the obstacles we had to overcome and understand going forward next season and learning how we have to handle some things.”
When he arrived from USF, Egbunu checked in at 265 pounds. He not only lost 10 pounds of body fat, but sculpted his frame under the direction of strength and conditioning coordinator Preston Greene, further honing an athletic build that already was armed with a 40-inch vertical jump.
Though far from a polished offensive player, the native of Nigeria by way of both Atlanta and Fort Walton has only been playing the game for five years. A year ago, his minimal experience was good enough to average 7.4 points on 58.9-percent shooting, plus 6.2 rebounds and nearly 25 minutes per game as a USF freshman and American Athletic Conference All-Rookie selection. When Bulls coach Stan Heath was fired, Egbunu looked to transfer and eventually chose UF over Michigan State, Georgetown, Virginia Tech and Arizona.
Then came a year of banging bodies at practice and devoting extra time with coaches in individual instruction, working on post moves and fundamentals. Like all of his current teammates, he’ll need to work on his free-throw shooting too (54.5 percent at USF).
But make no mistake, Egbunu will be a factor in the Southeastern Conference next season.
A big, physical factor.
Updated: 5:26am, April 2
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Ran across an item on ESPN.com today, as writers Chris Low and Adam Rittenberg ranked the greatest football-basketball coaching combinations in collegiate history.
The Gators -- and some Gators ties -- were well represented.
Tough to argue the No. 1 overall duo of the “Baron” and the “Bear,” as in Adolph Rupp and Paul “Bear” Bryant in their seven years together at Kentucky (1946-53). Everyone knows Rupp’s impact on the hardwood during his time at UK, but fewer know that Bryant led the Wildcats to the Orange, Sugar and Cotton bowls in consecutive years, along the way halting Oklahoma’s historic 31-game winning streak in 1950.
At No. 2 is Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Steve Spurrier from 1987-89. Their time together was fleeting, but it was fun (even before the gun). While Coach K was building one of the nation’s premier programs at Cameron Indoor, Spurrier (left) was doing amazing things on the football field. His “Airball” offense (that’s what it was called in Durham) ignited the Blue Devils to their only Atlantic Coast Conference title in the last half-century.
Billy Donovan and Urban Meyer showed up at No. 3, though I’m not so sure they shouldn’t be a notch higher, considering they teamed up for four combined national championships compared to none from the Duke duo ranked ahead of them. Here’s what ESPN.com had to say:
Good luck finding a year they remember more fondly at Florida than 2006. Donovan guided the Gators to their first national championship in basketball, which turned out to be the first of two straight national titles. Meyer delivered later that fall with a football crown, the Gators’ first in a decade. Donovan joined Bobby Knight this season as only the second coach in history to win 500 games before his 50th birthday. He’s guided Florida to four Final Fours and seven Elite Eights in 19 seasons. Meyer had the football side of it at Florida covered with a pair of national championships in 2006 and 2008 before taking a year off and then landing at Ohio State. All he’s done in Buckeye Land is go 38-3 in three seasons, including the first Collegiate Football Playoff national championship this past season. And only two FBS coaches -- Meyer and Nick Saban -- have won national championships with two different schools.
After Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Nick Saban (1995-99) at No. 4, then North Carolina’s Dean Smith and Mack Brown (1988-97) at No. 5, Donovan and Spurrier both make repeat appearances at No. 6 for their time together at Florida from 1996-2001.
Donovan and Spurrier each make their second appearance on this list thanks to the six years they spent together in Gainesville. Although Florida had some success in both basketball and football, Donovan and Spurrier elevated the programs to elite status. In 2007, Donovan joined Adolph Rupp as the only SEC coaches to win back-to-back national championships. He has led Florida to four Final Fours, three championship game appearances, six SEC titles and 16 straight 20-seasons from 1998 to 2014. Spurrier won nine or more games in each of his 12 seasons and dominated the SEC with an 87-12 record. He had nine top-10 finishes at Florida and later added three more as South Carolina’s coach. Both are by far the winningest coaches at their respective Florida programs.
The rest of the top 10:
No. 7: Fred Taylor/Woody Hayes (Ohio State, 1958-76).
No. 8: John Wooden/Tommy Prothro (UCLA, 1965-70)
No. 9: Denny Crum/Howard Schnellenberger (Louisville, 1985-94)
No. 10: Eddie Sutton/Frank Broyles (Arkansas, 1974-76).
For what it’s worth, the story included a second 10 that included former UF basketball coach Norm Sloan, but alongside Lou Holtz for their days at North Carolina State (1972-75), where “Stormin’ Norman” won the 1974 NCAA title.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If you were following me on Twitter last Wednesday, you probably figured out I was enjoying myself during a full day lurking behind the scenes as ESPN filmed the Garrett Grayson installment of "Gruden's QB Camp" as part of its run-up coverage to the NFL Draft next month.
In case you missed my story, check it out here.
Grayson is the Colorado State prospect getting a lot of positive pre-draft buzz after the Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year erupted for record-breaking numbers last fall under Coach Jim McElwain, now coach of the Florida Gators.
Special thanks to Gruden and ESPN producer Jay Rothman for allowing me a full day of "QB Camp" access to write this story. I covered the Buccaneers for The Orlando Sentinel for nine seasons, including each of Gruden's seven years on the sidelines. And I had a front-row seat to chronicle the 2002 world championship run that culminated with a 48-21 obliteration of the Oakland Raiders -- the very team Gruden was pried from nearly a year earlier for the price tag of two first-round draft picks, two second-rounders and $8 million -- in Super Bowl XXXVII at San Diego.
Note: Somewhere in the Tampa Bay area there is probably a copy or two of "Tales From the Bucs Sidelines," the first history book written about the franchise (co-authored by veteran Tampa Tribune staffer Joey Johnston and I), in a 50-cent bin. Enjoy it ... if you can find it.
Anyway, it was cool catching up with Gruden after a few years and doing so at the very same venue, Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports, to which he moved training camp (about 70 miles up Interstate 4 from Tampa) upon his arrival and staged three weeks of intense work in the oppressive, unforgiving Central Florida heat.
"Training camp is where you capture your team," Gruden always liked to say.
He certainly captured that first Bucs team while there. In his first team meeting, he actually challenged the Tampa Bay defense, which had defined and carried the club during Tony Dungy's six previous seasons, to be even better in 2002. He challenged the defense, in fact, to score -- get this -- nine touchdowns over the course of the year and see where that put 'em.
The Bucs' defense scored its seventh, eighth and ninth TDs in the Super Bowl.
Now, with his "QB Camp" show, Gruden has captured the imagination of fans who answer in the affirmative to one of his most famous questions; one he routinely puts to his quarterback subjects.
"Do you love football?"
Loved writing this story, too.
If you want to see the hour-long Grayson episode, tune into ESPN on April 18 at noon, with seven total airings of the segment on the program slate. Along with Grayson, Gruden also sat down with Florida State's Jameis Winston, Oregon's Marcus Mariota, UCLA's Brett Hundley and Baylor's Bryce Petty.
For a schedule of all the episodes with all five QBs -- both debuts and repeats -- go here.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Executives, personnel types and scouts from around the National Football League will be in town on April 7 as the Florida football staff hosts the Gators' annual "Pro Day" workouts for its prospects at Florida Field.
The on-field drills are scheduled to begin at 10:30 a.m., with the stadium open to the public.
UF has submitted a list of 22 players who will take part in the workouts, headlined by defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., who is being projected as a top-five pick with most mock drafts placing the Gators sack specialist as the No. 3 overall selection to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Fowler, who had a spectacular showing at the NFL Combine in February, is expected to become the 14th UF player taken in the draft's top 10 and the first since cornerback Joe Haden went seventh to Cleveland in 2010.
Another Gator who figures in early round conversations is offensive tackle D.J. Humphries, who may have surprised some by opting to go pro early like Fowler. But also like Fowler, Humphries (pictured above) opened eyes that mattered with some impressive work at the combine.
Here's a list of the rest of Florida's Pro Day participants:
Gideon Ajagbe (fullback)
Neiron Ball (linebacker)
Mack Brown (running back)
Trenton Brown (offensive lineman)
Clay Burton (tight end)
Kyle Christy (punter)
Darious Cummings (defensive lineman)
Andre Debose (wide receiver/kick returner)
Quinton Dunbar (wide receiver)
Drew Ferris (long snapper)
Max Garcia (offensive lineman)
Jabari Gorman (defensive back)
Chaz Green (offensive lineman)
Matt Jones (running back)
Hunter Joyer (fullback)
Tyler Moore (offensive lineman)
Leon Orr (defensive lineman)
Michael Taylor (linebacker)
Frankie Velez (placekicker)
Tevin Westbrook (tight end)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The offseason basketball news cycle tipped off Thursday with word that guard Michael Frazier II would bypass his senior season at Florida and put his name in the NBA draft pool.
The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Frazier was hampered by a high-ankle sprain that spiraled his playing time and productivity the last third of the season. He averaged 12.1 points and 4.1 rebounds, while shooting a career-low 38 percent from 3-point range during his junior year, but missed eight games spanning February and early March before returning to make just two of 16 shots the team’s last three games.
The final shots of his UF career, as it turned out.
Frazier will leave UF with 998 points, two shy of becoming the 51st player in the program’s 1,000-point club. His career 3-point percentage of .432 ranks seventh in team history and his .854 free-throw shooting third all time.
The ankle injury that sidelined Frazier occurred in the first half of a 68-61 home loss against Kentucky on Feb. 7. Frazier tried to return to the game, but could not put weight or cut on the ankle.
Without a healthy Frazier to space defenses with his shooting, the Gators went 3-7 and struggled to score the rest of the year.
Where (and if) Frazier figures into the NBA draft conversations likely will depended on his combine and individual workouts. He’s never excelled at ball-handling or driving the ball and as such there are some draft sites -- such as DraftExpress.com and NBADraftNet.com -- where he does not appear in the Top 100 prospects and another, CBSSports.com, where he’s ranked as the No. 70 overall prospect in what will be a 60-player draft.
His status, though, could certainly change now that he’s officially thrown his name in the pool, as teams delve more deeply into his skills set. There are plenty of NBA teams (along with D-League and overseas teams) in need of a great shooter.
Updated: 4:25pm, March 24
Men's basketball strength and conditioning coordinator Preston Greene spots Chris Chiozza during a workout at the UF hoops facility, which will undergo a $1.2 million renovation starting next month.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The weight room at the Florida basketball complex is about to bulk up.
The University Athletic Association has approved an estimated $1.2 million renovation to the 14-year-old facility that houses the men’s and women’s basketball programs and serves as training base for Florida's golf and tennis teams, as well. The project will double the facility’s current workout space, as well as expand office space for training coordinators and make room for a nutritional bar.
Construction is scheduled to begin in April and targeted for completion in late August.
“The administration’s commitment to the development of our student-athletes on this front is greatly appreciated,” said men’s basketball strength and conditioning coordinator Preston Greene. “We’ll basically have twice the floor space, allowing us to implement greater training methods and protocols. Also, the nutrition station is vital to post-workout supplementation and regeneration.”
The facility’s strength and conditioning area currently measures at 1,525 square feet, but plans call for demolition of two walls that will allow the weight room to expand into space currently used for a laundry room on one end and storage on the other. The program coordinators, Greene and Tyler Stuart, will have their own offices and convenient access to the fuel bar.
When finished, the new weight room and area will measure 3,056 square feet.
“This project will enhance the top-tier training space for our men’s and women’s programs in that facility,” said Chip Howard, UAA’s executive associate director for internal affairs. “When completed, it’ll ensure our coaches can continue to recruit, retain and empower our student-athletes to perform at the highest possible level.”
For the first time in 18 years, Billy Donovan and his basketball team will be on the sidelines when the NCAA and NIT tournaments start this week.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- How different was Selection Sunday for Billy Donovan?
The Florida coach went to church with his family, then took them out for sushi, and after that stopped to visit his parents. He did see a portion of the NIT selection show -- the one most Gators were interested in, for obvious reasons -- but it wasn’t like he was glued to the set.
Donovan heard earlier in the day that UF was not getting in.
Whether his players engaged in the TV-watching ritual, Donovan assumed they did. And, frankly, he hopes the moment sunk in nice and deep.
“This is not a rite of passage. You build a resume and a history and you’re rewarded by what you do,” Donovan said late Sunday night after official word came that UF -- with no NCAA or NIT tournament berth -- would be out of postseason play for the first time since 1996-97, the year 30-year-old "Billy the Kid" took over the Florida program. “Just because you’re at Florida and the last four years have brought a high level of success in the [Southeastern Conference] and the NCAA Tournament, it doesn’t mean that happens the next. They’re no different than anyone else. ... The reality of it: We did not earn our way into any postseason play.”
Looking back, the Gators’ doomed “March Madness” -- and 16-17 record -- may have been somewhat self-inflicted, the coach said. UF played the fourth-hardest schedule in the nation, according to the Ratings Percentage Index, with 23 games against teams that reached the NCAA or NIT fields. Florida went 3-11 against the NCAA teams and 5-4 against the NIT teams.
Worth noting: Against the SEC teams selected for the NIT -- Texas A&M, Alabama and Vanderbilt -- the Gators went 4-2. Each of those opponents, however, had winning records, whereas Florida, with a schedule that included three games against NCAA overall No. 1 seed Kentucky, plus non-league dates against No. 2 seed Kansas, No. 4 seeds North Carolina and Georgetown, plus reigning national champion Connecticut.
As for the NIT-bound SEC teams, A&M’s schedule checked in at No. 96th, Alabama’s 56th and Vandy’s 115th.
In retrospect, this version of the Gators may have been comparable (maybe better) than the 2008 and ’09 teams -- with Nick Calathes and Chandler Parsons in their freshman and sophomore seasons -- that ended up in the NIT two straight years, but was aided by notoriously easy non-conference slates.
“We’ll have to look at scheduling to see what makes sense for us,” Donovan said.
The coach and his assistants, bank on it, will look at a lot of things about the the program in its current state and see what makes sense. Donovan is nothing if not heavy into evaluation. That includes self-evaluation.
His players, particularly the ones slated to return, will have a lot of time to do the same; to reflect back on what might have gone wrong and ponder what lies ahead.
“Going into the year, there was an unrealistic expectation that our guys had of how good they thought they were, and I don’t think last year’s season helped with that,” Donovan said of the 36-3 rampage that ended at the Final Four. “As much as I tried to get that through to them, I think it’s an area where I fell short. I could never get them to deal with how far they had to go. In November and December, I’m sure they thought they were getting to the NCAA Tournament. Now, comes the time when you deal with truth and reality.
When it comes to college basketball, there's no more powerful truth and reality than watching March basketball -- all of it -- from the couch.
Coach Tim Walton huddles with his team after Sunday's 10-3 loss to LSU, which gave the third-ranked Tigers two wins in their three-game series against the top-ranked Gators. [Photo by Jim Burgess]
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Lauren Haeger tapped freshman pitcher Aleshia Ocasio on the shoulder.
“I got it,” she said.
Haeger was referencing the post-game mini-scrum of media waiting to hear reaction to LSU’s 10-3 beating Sunday of the top-ranked Florida, a decisive defeat that came less than 24 hours after Ocasio surrendered a grand slam in the final inning in what turned out to be a 14-10 victory for the Tigers and UF's first loss of the season. On Sunday, it was Haeger serving up a three-run homer in the sixth to hit machine Bianka Bell, the key blow in 10 unanswered runs against the UF pitching staff.
As a senior, Haeger felt it her responsibility to speak on the team’s behalf. And make no mistake, as a senior she’ll also make it her responsibility -- as well the rest of veterans on this team -- to do whatever is necessary to bounce back from two eye-opening outcomes.
“We need to play better. We need to execute better and have better approaches at bat,” Haeger said. “That was not our best series at all.”
Far from it.
Coming into their Southeastern Conference opening series, the top-ranked, unbeaten Gators had played a difficult non-league schedule and along the way surrendered just 28 runs in 27 games.
Well, third-ranked LSU left town with 27 runs over three games. And with two wins on the road, the Tigers (27-1) likely left town as the nation’s new No. 1 team.
It’s also just March 15.
Florida has 25 more games to play.
“I don’t think we’re going to overreact,” said junior center fielder Kirsti Merritt, who provided all of UF’s offense with a three-run homer in the third to give the Gators a 3-0 lead that the Tigers vaporized over the final three innings. “They’re a good team. We’re a good team. We just have to keep going hard at practice. As long as we do that, we’ll be OK.”
Rest assured, the Gators will keep going hard. Coach Tim Walton knows no other way.
“I’m not happy, I guarantee you that,” he said. “We’re going to have to make some adjustments, but fortunately, we’re early in the season.”
Florida’s hitters were behind the count on LSU starter Kelsee Selman virtually the entire game. Unproductive at-bats, though, pretty much were the theme of the weekend against the high-powered Tigers. With the exception of Taylore Fuller (three homers Saturday; nine of her team's 12 RBI in the series) and Kelsey Stewart (6-for-11), the Gators really struggled to mount offense. Their 3-4 hitters, Haeger and Bailey Castro, combined to go 2-for-17; he bottom third of the order went 1-for-22.
And then there was Bell, the LSU shortstop and Tampa product who came into the series hitting .513 -- and raised her average by 32 points. She was 10-for-14 against the Gators, with eight RBI, including the big blast in Sunday’s game.
Yeah, LSU is a good team, all right. A really good team. One Florida figures to see down the line again when the stakes are much, much higher.
If Walton's track record is any indication, when the time comes to see the Tigers again, the Gators will be much, much better because of the events of this weekend.
“We didn’t play very well, didn’t pitch very well, didn’t hit very well, but I’m not going to say it’s alarming. What are we now, 28-2?” said Walton, correctly calling the team’s record. “If we had won 3-2 today, I wouldn’t have been satisfied. We'll go back and look at some things, like personnel, and see what we have to do better.”
Updated: 11:24pm, March 12
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No doubt, there are historic records out there that track such things, but for argument’s sake let’s ponder the odds of two college softball teams facing off nearly a month into their respected seasons and both undefeated.
“Has to be unheard of,” Florida coach Tim Walton said.
No. 1-ranked and defending national champion UF (27-0) welcomes No. 3 and unbeaten LSU (25-0) in a three-game weekend series at Pressly Stadium.
For the Gators, Friday's 6 p.m. opener will mark their first home appearance since Feb. 25, after the club went a perfect 10-for-10 during a 9-day road swing through California. Along the way, UF beat No. 2 Oregon (twice), No. 3 Michigan (for a second time in a month) and run-ruled No. 13 Arizona.
Heading into the Southeastern Conference season, Florida has outscored opponents 212-28, is hitting .323 as a team (compared to .158 for opponents) and has three pitchers with a combined ERA of 0.76.
Yeah, the Gators are really good. They know it, too.
So how does Walton keep them grounded?
“I ask them what their goals are,” he said. “Do you want to be the best team the first half of the season or the best team at the end? We’re a good team, but we’re not the best team at the end right now.”
Like they were last year.
If the Gators need additional grounding, a glance at the LSU stat sheet may help. The Tigers have put up some pretty gaudy numbers themselves, with three wins over ranked foes -- two against No. 20 Notre Dame and a 4-3 defeat of Arizona -- and can stack their stats up against UF’s, for sure. LSU has a 199-28 margin in runs, hits .375 as a team (.185 for opponents), and will trot out four pitchers with an aggregate ERA of 0.86.
“It’s a good way for us to start the SEC off and see where we are,” Walton said. “Let’s measure up and see what we have to improve on and get better on, whether that’s offensively, defensively or pitching.”
And what if some flaws rear themselves? What if the Gators actually, you know, lose a game?
How will they react?
“I don’t think it’s about how they’ll react. It’s how I react,” Walton said. “I’m the one who makes the practice plan. I’m the one who makes them comfortable or uncomfortable. I have players I love to death and I love coaching them because they go as hard as they can without worrying about the outcome.”
Should make for an interesting weekend.
Updated: 7:11pm, March 12
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Southeastern Conference rolled out some news on the second day of its basketball tournament with the announcement that Greg Sankey had been tabbed to replace Mike Slive as the league's next commissioner. For the last 12 years, Sankey (pictured right) served as Slive's right hand man as SEC executive associate commissioner.
Said Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley: "Greg is the perfect person to lead the SEC into the next chapter of its storied history. Like Commissioner Slive, he is a consensus builder who understands the big picture and understands the complex issues facing collegiate athletics today. He is well respected and has the ability to connect with his peer groups, coaches, administrators and student athletes."
After the Gators defeated Alabama 69-61 in second-round tournament action, Coach Billy Donovan was asked to weigh in on the hire.
"I love Greg. I think it's a great hire," Donovan said. "I think he's really smart. I think he's bright. I think he gets the big picture. He's been involved in a lot of different committees. I think he's got a really, really good pulse on the NCAA. I think he's got a really good pulse on where college athletics is moving. Just in my interaction with Greg, I couldn't be any happier for our league because I really believe they hired a great guy."