Sunday March 9, 2014 'Basket Blog:' Patric's candid statement, Senior Day video, SEC Tourney sked, Cody Larson, etc.
Updated: 9:25pm, March 9
Welcome to Harry Fodder!
Updated: 9:25pm, March 9
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Last October, Patric Young made some news (and rattled some metaphorical rims) in the Commonwealth State with his unfiltered remarks about Kentucky’s “one-and-done” basketball business model.
The scene was Southeastern Conference Media Days in Birmingham, Ala., the annual preseason dog-and-pony show to preview the upcoming basketball campaign. The topic of yet another UK freshman class deemed among the greatest of all-time was put to Florida’s senior center and two-time SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year.
Young happened to start for a team coming off an SEC championship the year. That team won the league over another class of young Wildcats proclaimed to be one of the greatest ever.
That team went to the NIT. Even lost in the first round.
So there was Young, surrounded by tape recorders and brimming with confidence about the prospects of the Gators' season and a senior-laden team out to defend its league championship.
Facing another collection of big-name prep All-Americans did not impress him.
"I hope they think that they can just walk on the court and beat everybody," Young said. “As soon as they step on the court and play a real top team, they’re going to see that it's not just a walk in the park. One-and-done is not for everybody.”
Those words rang truer than ever Saturday, as the No. 1-ranked Gators bludgeoned Kentucky 84-65 behind a senior class that accounted for 51 points and left the O’Connell Center with the most-lopsided defeat of the Wildcats in the 77-year history of the series and the first 18-0 record ever posted by SEC play.
It’s entirely possible that Florida (29-2) and Kentucky (22-9) will play again this week in the SEC Tournament at Atlanta, and the Wildcats -- stacked with the most talented, deepest roster in the conference, according to UF coach Billy Donovan -- could indeed have the last word.
But for now, give Young, who played one of his finest games of the year (season-high 18 points, 7 rebounds), a nod for speaking his mind and backing it up. He was already a five-star ambassador for not only Florida basketball but college basketball in general. With candid "takes," like the one in Birmingham, he's well on his way to applying that telecommunications degree and his goal of being a TV talking head.
SENIOR SALUTE IN MOVING PICTURES
If you weren’t among the 12,604 at the O’Dome Saturday, then you didn't the pre-game ceremony honoring UF’s senior class of Young, Will Yeguete, Casey Prather and Scottie Wilbekin.
But GatorVision had your back.
SEC TOURNAMENT SCHEDULE
Here’s how the SEC Tournament slate shapes up, with the Gators not even leaving for Atlanta -- even if they did go, they couldn’t get on the Georgia Dome court to shoot, anyway -- until after practice Thursday. Florida, of course, is the No. 1 seed, followed by Kentucky (2), Georgia (3) and Tennessee (4), each of which get byes through the first two rounds and into Friday’s quarterfinals.
Higher seeds are listed first.
Game 1: Auburn (14-15, 6-12) vs South Carolina (12-19, 5-13), 7 p.m.
Game 2: Vanderbilt (15-15, 7-11) vs Mississippi State (13-18, 3-15), 9:30 (est.)
Game 3: Missouri (21-10, 9-9) vs Texas A&M (17-14, 8-10), 1 p.m.
Game 4: Arkansas (21-10, 10-8) vs Game 1 winner, 3:30 p.m. (est.)
Game 5: LSU (18-12) vs Alabama (13-18, 7-11), 7 p.m.
Game 6: Ole Miss (18-13, 9-9) vs Game 2 winner, 9:30 (est).
Game 7: Florida (29-2, 18-0) vs Game 3 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 8: Tennessee (20-11, 11-7) vs Game 4 winner, 3:30 (est.)
Game 9: Kentucky (22-9, 12-6) vs Game 5 winner, 7 p.m.
Game 10: Georgia (18-12, 12-6) vs Game 6 winner, 9:30 (est.)
Game 11: Game 7 winner vs Game 8 winner, 1 p.m.
Game 12: Game 9 winner vs Game 10 winner, 3:30 (est.)
Championship Game, 3:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Florida 2013-14 became just the third team in SEC history to win the league’s regular-season title by at least six games. Who were the others? Answer below in “Free Throws” section.
FORMER GATOR UPDATE
Chicago’s Joakim Noah had a second triple-double in three games and Memphis point guard Nick Calathes was named NBA Rookie of the Month. Good work, fellas.
But since so much of the week focused on the Florida seniors, it seemed appropriate to recognize the fifth member of that 2010 signing class.
Cody Larson, a center/forward from South Dakota, arrived at UF along with Prather, Wilbekin, Young and Yeguete, but stuck aroundfor just two seasons before transferring to South Dakota State in 2012.
Now a fourth-year junior, Larson is averaging 13.4 points per game (hitting 52 percent from the floor, 69 from the free-throw line) and 6.9 rebounds for SDSU. He has five double-doubles this season, including a career-best game of 24 points and 10 boards in a win back in November against Howard.
SDSU, the Jackrabbits, was 18-11, with wins in eight of the last nine games, heading into Sunday night’s Summit League Tournament quarterfinal against Western Illinois in Larson’s hometown of Sioux Falls.
Larson (something of a fifth Beatle, you could say) was extremely close to his UF freshmen classmates and remains in touch with them.
And you just know he felt good for those guys on Saturday.
Nothing quite like senior day and your last game in the O'Dome...let's go boys #gators— Erik Murphy (@e_murphy31) March 8, 2014
CHARTING THE GATORS
They won their 113th game together, but for further context here's a look at some of the UF seniors' individual numbers (which figure to swell in the coming weeks). The goal, obviously, is to pad that 113 and top the school record of 117 victories over four years, a mark set by guard Walter Hodge from '05-06 to '08-09.
Games/Starts Mins/Avg Points Rebs Assists
Patric 142/99 3,423/24.1 1,216 801 112
Scottie 135/56 3,188/21.6 842 278 393
Will 119/51 2,176/18.2 485 589 103
Casey 119/31 1,793/15.1 698 343 96
Totals 515/237 10,580/20.5 3,241 2,011 704
A couple weeks ago, the Gators were having trouble hitting 3-point shots. The last three games, they're a combined 33-for-69, which converts to 47.8 percent. UF won those games by a combined 63 points. ... Florida’s 19-point margin over UK was the biggest for the Gators in a series that dates to 1928. Among their 35 previous all-time wins, UF had beaten UK four times by 17 and twice by 18 (in 1968 and ’87), but never by 19. It was also just the second time Florida swept the season series by double-digits. The Gators won by 10 in Lexington last month. ... My good friend Mike Bianchi, columnist for The Orlando Sentinel, swooped in Saturday and cranked out a pretty good piece sizing up Billy D and his place in the SEC. ... Michael Frazier II’s 11 makes from 3-point range at South Carolina were the most at Colonial Life Arena since Lee Humphrey went 7-for-8 from deep in an 84-50 blowout of the Gamecocks in 2007. Frazier, of course, is one of the reasons the Gators are so red hot from deep lately. Over the last five games, he's 25-for-48. That's 52.1 percent. Yeah, that'll stretch a defense and open the lane. ... Trivia answer: Kentucky had six-game cushions in the SEC final standings twice. The Wildcats of ’95-96 went 16-0 and won the league by six games over Mississippi State, only to lose to the Bulldogs in the SEC Tournament title game; UK ’11-12 went 16-0, which was six games better than Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Florida, but the Wildcats again fell prey in the league tournament, losing to Vandy in the final. Worth noting: Both of those Kentucky teams went on to win national championships.
Updated: 11:08am, March 5
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Don’t look now, but Michael Frazier II just made another 3-pointer.
The Florida sophomore shooting guard rained 11 on South Carolina in a 72-46 road win Tuesday night. The performance, obviously, was significant for the team because it fueled a 22nd straight win and improved the top-ranked Gators to 28-2 overall and 17-0 in Southeastern Conference play. It was significant for Frazier because the 11 treys were the most ever by a player in an SEC game, breaking the mark of 10 held collectively by LSU’s Chris Jackson, Auburn’s Lance Weems and Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks.
As for UF context, Frazier was 17 points shy of the school record for points in a single game held by Tony Miller, who went for 54 against Chicago State on Feb. 29, 1972 at the old Florida Gym. Frazier was three points shy -- and actually missed his last long ball attempt -- of becoming just the seventh Gator to hit the 40-point milestone and first since Eugene "The Dunking Machine" McDowell flushed 40 on Biscayne on Dec. 21, 1982.
It was the 102nd time a UF player went for 30 in a game, but just the 13th time during Coach Billy Donovan’s 18 seasons. That’s because the system Donovan runs -- when executed correctly, as in the way the Gators are doing it now -- is not designed to get a guy a shot; it’s designed to get the best shot for any one of five guys on the floor.
Against a South Carolina defense that continuely left UF's 3-point assassin open from his most deadly long-distance spots, that guy was Frazier.
“That’s why I love the offense,” Frazier said after his lights-out performance made him just the 10th Donovan player to go for 30 and the first since Erving Walker in 2012. “It could be anybody. Tonight it was just my night.”
Of course, it helps when what you do best counts for one point extra.
Here’s the Billy D 30-point honor roll, led by guard Anthony Roberson (pictured right), who did it three times.
Pts Player Date Opponent Outcome
37 Joakim Noah March 1, 2006 Georgia W 77-66
Michael Frazier March 4, 2014 at South Carolina W 72-46
35 Anthony Roberson March 13, 2004 *vs Vanderbilt W 91-69
34 Anthony Roberson Jan. 12, 2005 at Auburn W 84-78 (OT)
33 Greg Stolt Dec. 10, 1996 South Florida W 85-53
Matt Walsh Dec. 21, 2002 at Miami W 94-93 (2OT)
Nick Calathes Feb. 10, 2009 at Kentucky L 68-65
32 Nick Calathes Jan. 3, 2009 North Carolina St. W 68-66
31 Jason Williams Dec. 9, 1997 at Texas L 85-82
Kenyan Weaks March 5, 1998 *vs Auburn W 68-64
Matt Bonner Dec. 8, 2001 at South Florida W 92-73
Erving Walker Feb. 18, 2012 at Arkansas W 98-68
30 Anthony Roberson Jan. 15, 2005 at Vanderbilt W 82-65
* Denotes SEC Tournament game
Updated: 4:22pm, March 2
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Tulane and Georgia Tech left the Southeastern Conference after the 1964 season, dropping the league from 12 to 10 teams. The following year, each SEC team began playing 18 conference games and did so until the league expanded back to 12 teams (adding Arkansas and South Carolina) for the 1991-92 season.
Over those 27 seasons of playing an 18-game league schedule, three schools managed to go through the SEC season with a 17-1 mark: Kentucky did it three times (’65-66, ’69-70, ’85-86); Vanderbilt (’64-65) and LSU (’80-81) once each.
But never an 18-0.
That LSU team, by the way, is the only one in league history to have a 17-0 mark in conference play. The '80-81 Tigers lost their regular-season finale against Kentucky.
You know where this is going, right?
The numbers “18” and “zero” were not bandied about by Florida coach Billy Donovan or his players following their 79-61 thumping of the present-day Tigers Saturday, but this UF group sees an opportunity to do something truly special; something that has never been done before.
On a team that already has clinched an outright conference championship and is close to locking up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, there needs to be other quests (and conquests) during the journey to keep the troops challenged, focused and motivated.
“There are opportunities out there for them to chase things,” Donovan said.
That will be the theme as top-ranked UF (27-2, 16-0) enters its final week of the regular season, with a Tuesday game at South Carolina (11-18, 4-12) and Saturday finale at home against Kentucky (21-8, 11-5) that will mark the final O’Connell Center appearance for seniors Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Patric Young.
What a week it could be.
Or, frankly, what a reality check it could be.
As the Gators like to say, they're chasing greatness.
LSU coach Johnny Jones was impressed by the effort Florida put forth in destroying his high-scoring Tigers despite having locked up the league title and top seed in the conference tournament.
“It says a lot about their team,” Jones said. “They sit here and they’ve already clinched the championship, and for the guys to come out and play as motivated and hard as they did tonight ... .”
“The other motivation is for them to go undefeated in the league.”
Jones can talk about it. Others will talk about it.
On Sunday the Gators were back at work. They were talking about South Carolina.
THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES
Kudos to the O'Dome crowd for making members of the 1988-89 UF basketball feel welcome Saturday during their reunion to commemorate the 25-year anniversary of the program's first SEC title. A number of players, including Livingston Chatman, Clifford Lett, Renaldo Garcia and Brian Hogan were on hand. So was Ken Schintzius, father of Dwayne Schintzius, the 7-foot-2 center who died in 2012 following a battle with a rare form of leukemia. The sight of Mr. Schintzius breaking down as an image of his son was beamed on the JumboTron was a poignant one.
If you missed it, here's a video of the halftime celebration, including the highlight tribute to that team.
After watching the Gators shuffle nine guys in and out of their main rotation Saturday, I got to thinking about minutes. UF’s active leader in average minutes played for his career is Young at 24.1. Two-part question: Who is Florida’s all-time minutes leader per game and who is the leader during the Donovan era? Answer below in “Free Throws” section.
FORMER GATOR UPDATE
This one was a little out of the box, but it was an easy call.
Sydney Moss, who starred for the UF women’s team as a freshman last season but opted to transfer to be closer to home, set a Division III single-game scoring record Friday night when she poured in 63 points for Thomas More College (Ohio) in the title game of the Presidents Athletic Conference Tournament.
Moss, averaging 28.6 points per game, went 24-for-41 from the floor (she made just one 3-pointer in four attempts) and 14-for-16 from the free-throw line against Waynesburg on the way to breaking the mark of D-III 61 set by Oberlin’s Ann Gilbert in 1991.
The daughter for former NFL star Randy Moss was Kentucky’s 2012 “Miss Basketball” as a senior. As a UF freshman she averaged 11.6 points and 6.7 points per game in helping lead the Gators to the semifinals of the WNIT.
In leaving Florida, Moss transferred to a school just across the Kentucky state line in suburban Cincinnati. Thomas More is 27-0 and ranked seventh in the D-III poll.
It's mind boggling to me no #Gators player is projected in 1st or 2nd rnd of NBA draft. Why wouldn't u want a winner who plays O and D?— Wally Szczerbiak (@wallyball) March 1, 2014
CHARTING THE GATORS
That 13-for-22 performance from the 3-point line Saturday was far and away the best of the season. It’s not been a great year shooting the long ball for the Gators, with the exception of Michael Frazier II (and even his stats are down in SEC play compared to last year), so it seemed like a good time to crunch some 3-point numbers. This UF team is on pace to tie the third-worst shooting percentage from distance among Donovan’s 18 teams, yet it is taking, on average, the fewest of any Billy D squad at 15.6 per game. The 6.5 makes trending for the third-lowest of any Gators team since Donovan arrived in 1996-97. Wouldn't it be something if that .353 trend began tilting more in Florida’s favor and inching close toward the UF-under-Donovan all-time average of 37.4 percent and nearly eight treys per game. As Wilbekin put it after the LSU onslaught, “If we shot like this every game, we’d never lose.”
Season Pct. Attempts per Makes per
‘96-97 .374 22.6 8.46
‘97-98 .400 24.5 9.83
‘98-99 .379 24.6 9.32
‘99-00 .363 19.7 8.10
’00-01 .383 21.5 8.26
’01-02 .353 21.2 7.48
’02-03 .390 22.2 8.70
’03-04 .377 21.3 8.03
’04-05 .390 19.5 7.63
’05-06 .392 18.9 7.41
’06-07 .409 18.1 7.40
’07-08 .363 20.8 7.55
’08-09 .367 22.2 8.17
’09-10 .313 19.0 5.97
’10-11 .352 17.7 6.30
’11-12 .380 25.3 9.65
’13-13 .378 21.5 8.10
‘13-14 .353 15.6 6.51
Totals .374 21.1 7.86
Nice return to action by freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who led UF with five assists against the Tigers. Hill had missed the previous three games with a groin strain. ... Dorian Finney-Smith, after clanging 22 of 23 shots from 3-point range over a seven-game stretch, has gone 7-for-14 the last two games. ... Look for a big spread in Sports Illustrated this week, written by Andy Staples, that profiles the No. 1 Gators and focuses on their four seniors. Ace photographer Bill Frakes has been virtually embedded with the team for two weeks. ... Lots of complaints from fans about the Gators -- did we mentioned they’re ranked No. 1 in the nation -- being pretty much snubbed on ESPN SportsCenter Saturday night and Sunday morning for repeated coverage and highlights of Wichita State, Virginia and Oklahoma State, all of whom rang up huge wins during the day. Relax, people. Not only is that not a bad thing, this group of players doesn’t need that stuff to feel justified right now. Publicity does not drive this bunch. ... Trivia question: UF’s all-time per-game minutes leader is forward Ronnie Williams, who also happens to be the school’s all-time scoring leader with 2,090 points from 1981-84. He logged an insane 35.43 per game. Under Donovan, it’s point guard Nick Calathes, who went 32.97 a game in ‘08-09.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The big story Saturday will be No. 1 Florida (26-2, 15-0) playing LSU (17-10, 8-7) with a chance to extend its school record to 21 straight victories and maintain its quest for an undefeated Southeastern Conference season.
But it's also an opportunity to remember another big story.
And a very big guy.
At halftime of the UF-LSU game, the 1988-89 Gators basketball team will be honored in recognition of the 25-year anniversary of the school's first Southeastern Conference championship. I wrote about that team and that magical season here, but I figured this was a a good opportunity to roll out a story I wrote in 2007 about the famous and equally infamous Dwayne Schintzius.
The 7-foot-2, 265-pound UF center, Schintzius was a lightning rod in the SEC along the lines of say, Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson these days. He was a villified target everywhere he went. Much of it of his own doing, by the way.
But he also was one of the greatest players in Gators history -- and the only player in SEC history to score 1,500 points, grab 800 rebounds, dish 250 assists and block 200 blocks.
Think about those numbers.
Seven years ago, as Billy Donovan and that incomparable bunch led by Joakim Noah was about to embark on defense of its NCAA title, I was working in Tampa as abn NFL writer for The Orlando Sentinel and managed to track down Schintzius (not an easy task, by the way, and certainly worth the photo opp above) to commemorate the 20-year anniversary of UF's first NCAA Tournament game. Schintzius was a freshman and huge part -- literally -- of that team and thus began his high-profile and engimatic existence as Florida basketball worked its way, first to relevance, then to prominence.
Schintzius died at the age 42 following complications from a rare form of leukemia. His parents, Ken and Linda, will represent him today.
In his memory, here's the story I wrote of a man who grew to find both perspective and peace in his life after a very successful, very controversial time as a Gator.
20 years ago today, Dwayne Schintzius and the Gators found themselves in the Big Dance.
March 13, 2007
By Chris Harry
Orlando Sentinel Staff Writer
BRANDON, Fla. -- As he ducked through the doorway into the Sonny's Real Pit Barbecue on State Road 60, heads turned, eyes widened, lips whispered.
A smallish 70-ish man, wearing a John Deere hat, was waiting to be seated. Staring straight up, he couldn't help himself.
"My God! How tall are you?"
"Two-point-two meters, sir."
"What's that in English?"
Dwayne Schintzius removed his sunglasses, dropped a monstrous hand in the man's direction and answered the question as calmly as if he was ordering a side of slaw.
"Seven-foot-two, sir," he said. "You have a nice day."
Schintzius swears similar conversations take place 30, 50, sometimes 100 times a day. Between mouthfuls of all-you-can-eat brisket, four such exchanges (three customers, one waiter) occurred during a 50-minute lunch last week.
"I love it," he said.
There was a time when Schintzius viewed his height as a curse more than a blessing. Like the days when strangers would approach the biggest man on Florida's campus and ask, "How's the weather up there?"
The stock reply came after the loogie.
Even giants need time to grow up.
"I look back on my life, and I didn't like myself," Schintzius, now 38, said with a smile. "I like myself now."
If only such admiration had been there in the 1980s. Without it, Schintzius never got to fully enjoy -- or lament -- his time as the lightning rod of Florida basketball. Exactly 20 years ago today -- March 13, 1987 -- the sixth-seeded Gators defeated North Carolina State 82-70 in Syracuse, N.Y., in Florida's first-ever NCAA Tournament game. The win was followed by an 85-66 rout of third-seeded Purdue that moved the Gators into the Sweet 16 and gave UF fans the first taste of a tradition it's grown to expect.
Schintzius, a gawky freshman from Brandon High, wasn't just in the middle of it all; he was the impetus of it all.
"We had some good players, and we'd been to three straight NITs," recalled then-UF assistant Monte Towe, now an assistant at North Carolina State. "But we didn't make the NCAAs until Dwayne got there. He was the missing piece."
Schintzius arrived in Gainesville in the fall of 1986. He stood 7 feet 1 and weighed a shade over 200 pounds, yet was a graceful athlete -- a former baseball pitcher and Punt, Pass and Kick champion who had outgrown every sport but one.
In addition to his size and wing span, Schintzius could run the floor, and had soft hands, a deft shooting touch and terrific basketball instincts. And he could pass.
From either the high or low post, Schintzius carved up defenses with pinpoint dishes to perimeter scorers Vernon Maxwell, Andrew Moten and Pat Lawrence. The 1986-87 team went 21-9 in the regular season, finished second in the Southeastern Conference at 12-6 and received an at-large NCAA bid.
"That was a fun team to watch," UF Athletic Director Jeremy Foley said.
It became a nightmare team to watch over, though.
An NCAA investigation into violations by then-coach Norm Sloan and his staff and DEA investigations of Maxwell and some teammates scandalized the on-the-rise program and made Florida basketball a national embarrassment -- even as the Gators captured the school's first SEC title two years later in 1989.
"More than anyone else," Towe said at the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament in Tampa last week, "I think Dwayne was affected most by what happened to us."
On his way to becoming the only player in SEC history to amass 1,500 points, 800 rebounds, 250 assists and 200 blocks, Schintzius' fame on the court was overshadowed by his infamy off it. Police run-ins, frat-party melees and the most controversial haircut (the "Lobster") in college sports turned Schintzius into a sideshow.
"I made a lot of mistakes back then, but I was a kid. And those mistakes got blown out of proportion because of who I was," said Schintzius, the No. 6 scorer in UF history with 1,624 points in 110 games (all starts). "If I had to do it all over again, I'd do some things differently. But that's not how life works."
Schintzius said his greatest regret was the decision to quit the team and renounce his scholarship 11 games into his senior season in 1989-90, after the preseason firing of Sloan and hiring of disciplinarian Don DeVoe. He and Schintzius clashed instantly, and Schintzius eventually announced his exit from the program via a release stating his refusal "to sail under the authority of Captain Ahab."
The decision left UF without its All-America center, left Schintzius' younger brother, Travis, to be the brunt of DeVoe's frustration and sank the reigning SEC champions to a 7-21 mark and last-place league finish.
Schintzius shrugged when asked to reflect on the Herman Melville reference.
"I'd never even read Moby Dick. Some lawyer who wanted to be my agent gave me a few drinks and told me to say it," Schintzius said. "I should have toughened it out and stayed my senior year, at least for my brother's sake, but I was too selfish.
"Without me there, DeVoe took everything out on him."
Had Schintzius left school after his junior season, NBA scouts had him pegged as a top-10 draft choice. Instead, his senior-year baggage brought a tumble to No. 24, where San Antonio -- already armed with center David Robinson -- selected him. One year and one painful back injury into his pro career, Schintzius was traded to Sacramento, starting a nine-year NBA odyssey of little achievement.
"I don't know where to put him as far as his potential or where he should have gotten, but he still did a lot for Florida and lot for himself," Towe said. "Maybe he was never as good as everybody wanted him to be, but Dwayne was a special player."
Fit and trim at around 275 pounds, thanks to his newfound affinity for kick-boxing and martial arts, he still looks like he could play. But seven surgeries keep him off the court.
Thanks to the NBA, though, Schintzius has enough money to dabble in various business opportunities, among them a partnership in a vitamin company and some acting opportunities, mostly in commercials.
What would he tell a young athlete?
"Get an education, figure out how to manage your own money . . . oh, yeah, and get your wife to sign a prenuptial agreement," said Schintzius, who is twice divorced and has no children. "Above all, learn from your mistakes.
"I still make them -- who doesn't? -- but I learn from them."
As he left the restaurant, gawkers dropped their jaws when Schintzius, to prove a point about his flexibility, touched his foot to the 9-foot ceiling. He did it with ease.
"Thanks," he said to the cashier. "Have a good one, ma'am."
At 2.2 meters, the weather is more pleasant up there now
Updated: 5:20pm, February 28
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Around 9:40 Thursday night, Arkansas finished off a big 71-67 overtime road win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena.
With the final horn, the Florida Gators had officially clinched the 2014 Southeastern Conference title. Minutes later, UF’s four seniors -- Patric Young, Will Yeguete, Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather -- got a text message from Coach Billy Donovan.
What happened in Lexington has nothing to do with us.
Those words began trickling down to the rest of the team.
More to the point, they were embraced by the team.
The No. 1-ranked Gators (26-2, 15-0), winners of a school-record 20 in a row, aspire to bigger things than SEC championships this season, starting with being the very best they can be Saturday against LSU (17-10, 8-7) at the O’Connell Center.
“It’s nice. We worked for it. But at the same time we’re trying to chase greatness,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier said Friday. “We’re not settling for this. We still have a game tomorrow, and that’s what we’re focusing on. It’s great to have that honor, but we still have a lot of things to accomplish. We still have a lot of goals.”
Those goal, of course, will not be talked about publicly, but imaginations don’t exactly have to run too wild to figure out what they might be. This is a team that twice lost the SEC Tournament title game the last three years, and three times has fallen one win shy of the Final Four.
For now, though, it’s about -- have you heard this before? -- “living in the moment,” which means facing a talented Tigers squad very capable of coming to the O’Dome and bursting the UF bubble. The Gators also go Tuesday night to South Carolina and finish the regular season at home March 8 against what figures to be a Kentucky team out to prove a point by blowing up Florida's much-anticipated “Senior Day.”
For what it’s worth, no team other than Kentucky has gone unbeaten through the SEC schedule the last 57 years; and no team in college basketball history has gone undefeated in an 18-game conference season.
So there are some carrots still dangling out there for the season’s final week.
“Our guys certainly set out to compete for an SEC championship in early January, but the league’s not over,” Donovan said. “We’ve done a good job up to this point of staying focused and going through the process of getting prepared each game and I don’t think this game is any different for us. You want to continue playing well. ... I still think there’s a lot out there for this team.”
That’s exactly what sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith said.
With the proper spin, courtesy of his coach.
“We’re striving for greatness,” Finney-Smith said, repeating one of Donovan's many catch phrases. “We’re thinking about bigger things.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Backup point guard Kasey Hill returned to practice Thursday, which means senior starter Scottie Wilbekin can breathe a little easier.
At least two or three minutes worth.
Hill, the Florida freshman averaging 5.6 points, 3.1 assists and 23.4 minutes per game, had been sidelined the previous three contests with a strained groin muscle suffered in the second half of the team’s win at Kentucky on Feb. 15. Wilbekin was averaging 33.4 minutes when Hill was available, but was forced to log 35 minutes against Auburn, 38 at Ole Miss, and 38 again at Vanderbilt -- and all at the point guard spot; all while guarding the opponent's best perimeter offensive player.
“It’s helps Scottie, yes,” Coach Billy Donovan said of Hill’s return.
It also helps with UF’s rotation options. In addition to giving Wilbekin some time on the bench, the No. 1-ranked Gators (26-2, 15-0) can get back to using Hill in a variety of combinations -- such as the “small ball” look with Wilbekin at the off-guard and Frazier at the small forward -- and they can do it as soon as Saturday when LSU (17-10, 8-7) comes to town for a 4 p.m. Southeastern Conference date at the O’Connell Center.
“Scottie always told me he wasn’t tired, but I knew others guys would get tired without an extra guy to go,” Hill said after practice Thursday. “I’m just glad I can get back out there and do my part and help the team.”
UF trainer David “Duke” Werner said Hill could have played Tuesday at Vandy, but never really considered clearing him. The cautious path (and an extra three days of recovery) was the prudent way to go, he said.
“It’s a tough [injury],” Werner said. “One misstep, one mishap, he could have been out another month.”
Instead, the Gators get their speed-dribbler and up-tempo guy back for the home stretch of the season. UF’s win Tuesday in Nashville, Tenn., clinched at least a share of the SEC title, but the Gators can win the crown outright with one victory in their finally three league games.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- They call it “Memorial Magic” and the Florida Gators have experienced the enchantment before.
In fact, the last time UF was No. 1, the Gators came here and -- Poof! -- the Vanderbilt Commodores made the No. 1 ranking disappear.
Seven years later, Florida (25-2, 14-0) again sits atop both major college basketball polls and its first venture with the top-dog digit will be against the giant-killing Vandy (15-11, 7-7) at Memorial.
The Commodores are 6-7 all-time against No. 1s at home, including four wins in the last five, dating to 1987.
That’s why the school’s public relations department pushed out this graphic (right) in rallying the black and gold masses for what the Commodores faithful hope is another big -- and magical -- night at the oldest gym (as in 1952) in the Southeastern Conference.
“It would be very, very gratifying to be able to be victorious against a team of their caliber,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings told reporters Monday. “But talking about it and wishing on it and all that kind of stuff is a lot different than doing it. It would take our best game of the season, unquestionably. But that’s why we’re going to play, to see if we can put that kind of effort out there and see what happens.”
As stated, it's happened before.
Here’s a review of those last five visits from No. 1s.
Feb. 11, 2012: No. 1 Kentucky 69, Vanderbilt 63
Doron Lamb’s 3-pointer with just over three minutes to go gave the Wildcats the lead for good. Kentucky’s defense, anchored by All-America center Anthony Davis (15 points, 7 blocked shots), did not allow a Vandy point over the final four minutes to put the game away. Lamb, a sophomore who helped balance that freshmen-led Cats squad, finished with 16 points. [Note: The Commodores exacted some revenge by stunning Kentucky, which went unbeaten in SEC play, in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament a month later.]
Feb. 26, 2008: No. 18 Vanderbilt 72, No. 1 Tennessee 69
One day after reaching No. 1 for the first time in school history, Tennessee's No. 1 state rival made sure the Volunteers' stay at the top would be a short one. In the first game with both teams ranked since 1968, Commodores forward Shan Foster scored a career-high 32 points and out-gunned UT guard Chris Lofton (25 points). Vandy jumped out to a quick double-digit lead and never trailed in the game, with some clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch fending off a Vols’ rally.
Feb. 17, 2007: Vanderbilt 83, No. 1 Florida 70
The defending NCAA champion Gators were unbeaten through 11 SEC games when they went to Memorial and got ambushed in what Vandy forward Derrick Byars called a performance “for the ages.” Byars and Foster both scored 24 points for a Vandy team that sizzled for nearly 58 percent from the floor and forced 22 UF turnovers. The loss was just the second in the previous 37 games for the Gators, with Vandy fans storming the court -- in violation of SEC rules, but who cared?
Jan. 1, 1993: Vanderbilt 101, No. 1 Kentucky 86
On the way to capturing just the third SEC title in school history, point guard Billy McCaffrey scored 22 points and set a school record with 14 assists to hand Coach Rick Pitino and the Wildcats their first loss since Duke's Christian Laettner nailed his buzz-beating dagger in the epic NCAA East Region title game 10 months before. Center Chris Lawson had 19 points and guard Ronnie McMahon had 16 for the Commodores. UK All-American Jamal Mashburn came into the game averaging 23.4 per game, but was held to just 14. UK got 17 each from Travis Ford and Rodrick Rhodes. The Commodores, coached by Eddie Fogler and led by McCaffrey, the transfer from Duke, went on to finish 14-2 in league play.
Dec. 5, 1987: Vanderbilt 78, No. 1 North Carolina 76
Center Will Perdue (right) scored 23 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots as the Commodores shocked UNC a week after the Tar Heels, led by J.R. Reed and Rick Fox, took down then-No. 1 Syracuse and took over the top spot. Vandy erased a six-point Carolina lead with seven minutes to go and led by three points when UNC guard Jeff Lebo stole an inbounds pass and then was fouled attempting a 3-point shot with one second to play. The rules at the time, however, called for just two free throws (instead of the current three) and the Commodores held on for the win. Perdue went on to be voted SEC Player of the Year.
Updated: 5:50pm, February 23
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No one can say for certain how the ballots will shake out, but there’s a very real possibility -- if not likelihood -- that Florida, winner of 19 straight after Saturday's 75-71 victory at Mississippi, will be No. 1 when the Associated Press and ESPN/Coaches polls are released Monday.
It would mark just the fifth time in school history the Gators rose to the top of the polls -- with 10 weeks spent there, all told -- not counting the two times Florida ended the 2006 and '07 seasons as national champions.
The first time Florida was ever voted No. 1 came Feb. 3, 2003. The reign lasted all of one week. As timing would have, the program's first game at the top of the pools sent the Gators to a place very familiar with the top of the polls: Kentucky. The Wildcats, led by Keith Bogans and Gerald Fitch, smashed UF 70-55.
The Gators returned to the top of the polls the following fall -- Dec. 8, 2003, to be exact -- thanks to big win over Arizona in Springfield, Mass. Again, the stay lasted just a week. Florida lost 69-68 at home to Maryland on Dec. 10 and 73-65 at Louisville three days later. The next week, UF slid all the way to No. 15.
The next time the Gators got there was with that first national championship at the end of the 2006 season, courtesy of Joakim Noah and friends. They began ’06-07 at No. 1 and enjoyed it for three weeks before losing against Kansas in Las Vegas. UF got back up there again on Jan. 15, 2007, only to be knocked off five weeks later at unranked Vanderbilt (pictured right) which started a run of three losses over four games.
Now comes the rub, if you're into superstitions or irony or stuff like that.
The Gators (25-2, 14-0) face unranked Vanderbilt (15-11, 7-7) at Nashville Tuesday night.
Florida went into the ’07 postseason ranked No. 3 and, of course ended back on top.
UF's overall record during its combined 10 weeks ranked No. 1 over those four stops at No. 1 over those three seasons: 15-5
LITTLE KASEY AND BIG CASEY
Freshman backup point guard Kasey Hill, sidelined the past two games with a groin strain suffered last weekend at Kentucky, sat out Sunday's practice and probably won't play Tuesday when the Gators face the Commodores. Hill dressed out for Saturday's game at Ole Miss, but only went through pre-game warmups. UF trainer David "Duke" Werner said Hill will probably do a little bit more Monday, but the team plans to be cautious with HIll to avoid a setback.
Werner, meanwhile, had double-duty in the training room Sunday.
UF scoring leader Casey Prather, the senior forward averaging 15.4 points per game, took the day off from practice and spent it receiving treatment on both his ankle and knee. Prather has battled through some aches this season and Saturday had an uncharacteristically tough day from the floor. He started the day ranked fourth in the nation in field-goal percentage (.624), but Prather hit just three of his 10 shots to go with five rebounds, two assists and three turnovers in 27 minutes.
Prather figures to back at practice Monday and definitely will play at Nashville, which is about 125 miles from his hometown of Jackson, Tenn.
Patric Young was named to the Capital One Academic All-America Team last week, placed on the third team for his 3.37 GPA in telecommunications. In a few weeks, Young will see where or if he’s placed on the All-Southeastern Conference team for his on-the-court performance. Who is the last UF player to be honored as an Academic All-American and as an All-SEC player? Answer below in "Free Throws" section.
FORMER GATOR UPDATE
Corey Brewer has had a pretty good February.
The 6-foot-9 Minnesota Timberwolves forward is averaging 11.6 points per game for the season, but he’s at 14.4 per game this month, a run that includes a 26-point effort against Portland, which the T-Wolves face again Sunday night.
Minnesota takes a three-game winning streak into that game. Brewer has averaged 15 points over those three games on nearly 53-percent shooting.
With Kevin Love (quad), Kevin Martin (thumb), and Nikola Pekovic (ankle) dealing with injuries, Brewer has taken on an expanded role with the Wolves, particularly on offense, and it comes at a time when Minnesota is trying to inch its way into the Western Conference playoff picture. Entering the week, the Wolves are six games back of the Dallas Mavericks for the eighth and final spot.
Regardless of what happens with Auburn/BC, it’s very possible Arizona is still the best team in the land.— Ken Pomeroy (@kenpomeroy) February 20, 2014
CHARTING THE GATORS
Michael Frazier II is not shooting 3-pointers like he did before the start of the SEC season. In 12 non-conference games, Frazier went 30-for-60 from the arc, with his 50-percent accuracy ranking among the best in the nation. Through 14 SEC games, the sophomore from Tampa is still UF’s best shooter at 38.2 percent, but that rates just eighth in the league. The Gators, though, will take the tradeoff as long Frazier, who went 5-for-10 at Ole Miss, keeps puncturing opponents with his long-range darts at the most crucial times late in games.
Check out what Frazier has done in the last six at crunch time.
Situation: Tied at 45 with less than 10 minutes to play.
His start: Frazier starts 1-for-7 from 3-point range
His moment: Frazier hits three straight 3s in less than 2 minutes; Gators go up 6.
Final: UF wins 68-58 (Frazier: 14 points, 4 of 11 from arc)
Situation: Crimson Tide closes UF's 15-point lead to 8 with 5:36 to go.
His start: Frazier starts 2-for-6 from 3.
His moment: Frazier hits a 3 just 10 seconds after Bama cuts lead to single digits.
Final: UF wins 78-69 (Frazier: 14 points, 3 of 8 from arc)
Opponent: at Tennessee
Situation: Gators take 7-point lead with 10:30 to go, but go next 7 minutes without a FG.
His start: Frazier makes just 2 of his first 8 shots.
His moment: Volunteers cut lead to one, but Frazier hits a 3 at 3:32 mark to end scoring drought.
Final: UF wins 67-58 (Frazier: 11 points, 3 of 6 from arc)
Opponent: at Kentucky
Situation: Gators cling to 2-point lead at Rupp Arena with just over 4 minutes to go.
His start: Frazier misses his first four shots of the game.
His moment: Dorian Finney-Smith gathers offensive rebound, kicks ball to Frazier, who swishes 3-pointer with 4:16 left and 5-point lead.
Final: UF 69-59 (Frazier: 3 points, 1 of 4 from arc)
Situation: Gators down by 1 inside a minute to play.
His start: Frazier 2-for-8 from 3-point line, sprained his left wrist early in 2nd half.
His moment: Frazier hits 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to give Florida the lead.
Final: UF 71-66 (Frazier: 9 points, 3 of 9 from arc)
Opponent: at Ole Miss
Situation: Gators lead by 5 inside four minutes to go.
His start: Frazier was a crisp 4-for-9 from 3, but just 1-for-4 in 2nd half.
His moment: Frazier swishes a 3 with 3:17 left to push Florida ahead by 8.
Final: UF 75-71 (Frazier: 17 points, 5 of 10 from arc)
Over the past six games, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is averaging 18.7 points on 41.5-percent shooting from the floor, 40.5 from 3-point range and 82.7 percent from free-throw line. ... And as long we're on the subject of free throws, the Gators over the last six games have hit 111 of 146. That's 76 percent. Young, who early in the season, was well before 50 percent from the line, has sank 19 of his last 24 (that's 79.1 percent) and has worked his way up to 68.8 percent in SEC play. ... With the win at Ole Miss, the Gators have now beaten every SEC team in their most recent game against each respective team. ... UF’s seven straight road wins are tied for the fourth-longest streak in the nation, behind Wichita State (11), Stephen F. Austin and Saint Louis (both 10). ... Incoming 2014-15 freshman Chris Chiozza, the 5-11 point guard from Memphis (Tenn.) White Station, has helped lead his 29-1 team to the Class AAA state semifinals. Donovan was asked about the kid by a Memphis television reporter who made the drive Saturday to nearby Oxford. “We’re losing Scottie and we needed a point guard,” Donovan said. “What I like about Chris, he’s a basketball player who just knows how to play the game. He’s got really good speed, can score, has good vision and is very quick. He plays in a really good high school program and was on a really good AAU program in the summer. We’re excited about him.” ... Auburn senior guard Chris Denson dished a huge assist to the O’Connell Center crowd for its part in Wednesday night’s rally and win. “It was a big factor,” Denson said. “That was the loudest crowd I’ve ever been in in SEC play.” ... Trivia answer: Matt Bonner was a three-time Academic All-American (in 2001-03) and two-time All-SEC player (second team in ’02 and first team in ’03).
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the locker room Wednesday night after second-ranked Florida’s come-from behind 71-66 defeat of Auburn, the subject of free throws was put to Scottie Wilbekin.
The senior point guard had made good on all four of his attempts in the game, including two with 17.5 seconds left to help ice the outcome. As a team, the Gators hit 23 of 28. Senior center Patric Young (left), whose 57.1 percent for the season was a team-low among UF regulars, went 7-for-9 from the line and hit a mega-clutch pair with 19.4 seconds to give the Gators the lead. For good, as it turned out.
Young, it was pointed out to Wilbekin, had made 15 of his last 20.
Wilbekin’s eyes got a little wide. He was impressed.
“That’s pretty good,” Wilbekin said. “He must be learning from me.”
Maybe the Gators are learning from each other.
A month ago, 16 games into the season, UF was making 66.2 percent of its free throws. That ranked 270th in the nation. In six of those 16 games, the Gators had made less than 60 percent. The fact they had two games of more than 80 percent with at least 30 attempts suggested what the team was capable of, but pointed to their drastic inconsistency.
Now, the Gators have not only improved, but they’re doing it each game.
Coach Billy Donovan ordered up more practice time dedicated to free-throw shooting, oftentimes with players breaking up and going to baskets in pairs, with half the team in the men’s gym and the other half heading to the women’s gym, for 20-25 minutes of free throws at the end of practice. One hundred for each guy, with the results written up on a greaseboard for the entire team to see.
That's when Wilbekin made 83 in a row and had a few words about it.
Or when Michael Frazier II made 96 and was upset about it.
Players have also taken it upon themselves to get more shots up, be it by showing up at random times to shoot on their own or staying after practice to do so.
Boy, does it show.
* Over the last 10 games, UF has made 69.8 percent.
* Last five: 75.5 percent.
* Last three: 79.5 percent.
* Last two: 80.4 percent.
Wilbekin gets a big assist here. Upon joining the team five games into the season following a suspension, Wilbekin made just 10 of his first 20 from the line, but has gone 71 of his last 91 since. That’s 82 percent.
He’s 25-of-28 over the last three games. That’s 89.3 percent.
And that's borderline automatic.
Then there’s Young. A career 55.4 from the line coming into the season, Young was shooting at his average for the better part of the season (54.2 through 20 games), with games of 0-for-4 and 2-for-7 along the way. Over the last six games, though, Young has gone 20 of his last 28, which converts to 71.4 percent.
For a big man who gets a lot of 3-point opportunities, that’s significant.
Let’s not forget Will Yeguete, either. The senior forward started the season at a woeful 41.5 from his career. After going 5-for-6 against Auburn, Yeguete is nine of his last 11 over five games and at 64.1 for the season.
Note: Casey Prather (left at Kentucky) certainly warrants mention, given the fact he was at 50 percent for his career entering the season and is now at 67.9. Fact is, though, Prather has been hovering at that average most of the season while leading the team -- by far -- in free-throw attempts with 134 He’s been a huge factor in UF’s ability to close out games.
These are all really good numbers and certainly indicate practice and repetition. But as Donovan pointed out after Wednesday’s narrow victory, statistics are merely an indication of things that already have happened.
No guarantees for the Gators (24-2, 13-0) in future games, starting Saturday at Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6).
"These guys have spent time [and] we’ve gotten better there, but we’ve got to keep getting better,” Donovan said. “All this stuff is so fragile. One minute you’re looked at like, ‘Hey, we’re the best defensive team in the country,’ and we’re this and this -- and I don’t think we were the best defensive team in the country (against Auburn). But we were a really poor free-throw shooting team and now we’re an unbelievable free-throw shooting team.”
The goal, obviously, is to keep those numbers trending up. The way to do that, is keep the practice shots going up. There's no reason to believe, given recent results, that won't continue happening.
Updated: 2:43pm, February 19
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- During one timeout Saturday night, Florida coach Billy Donovan didn’t have a whole lot of wisdom to impart on his team during their back-and-forth battle with Kentucky. The Gators were playing hard, mostly executing on offense, in good position on defense, but they were behind.
Donovan had just one thing to say.
“Will somebody please just make a shot!” he shouted.
You can bet there was an extra adjective in there, too.
And you can also bet a good chank of Donovan's words were directed at Dorian Finney-Smith.
The Gators went on to beat the Wildcats 69-59 and Finney-Smith was a big part of that victory. He scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds, including a huge carom on the offensive glass late in the second half that he fed back to Michael Frazier II for a 3-point dagger.
But Finney-Smith (aka “Doe-Doe”) is in a shooting slump, no question about it, and the Gators are waiting for him to break out of it. Tuesday night, when No. 2 Florida (23-2, 12-0) hosts Auburn (12-11, 4-8) at the O'Connell Center, would be a nice time to melt the ice.
“It’s not just Coach, it’s the whole team,” Finney-Smith said after a practice this week. “I passed up a shot and everybody got on me during a timeout. They’re like, ‘C’mon Doe! Shoot that when you’re wide open!’ It feels good knowing you have everyone behind you, even when you’re not making shots.”
Over the last eight games, Finney-Smith has hit just 20 of 64 field-goal attempts (31.3 percent) and gone 3-for-28 from 3-point range. That’s 10.7 percent. Before his current run of bricks, he was shooting 40.6 from the field and 36.5 from the arc, so everyone knows -- that includes coaches, teammates and fans -- what he’s capable of doing.
Finney-Smith just has to get back to doing it.
“To say I’m worried about him, that’s not the right word,” Donovan said. “He just has to be more confident shooting the basketball right now. These last few games, I can’t imagine what he is from the 3-point line.”
Don’t bother imagining, Coach. That’s what we’re here for.
Try 0-for-14 over the previous five games. No calculater needed.
In Tuesday’s practice, Finney-Smith let fly an open 3-point shot during a 5-on-5 scrimmage. It didn’t go in and the shoulders on his 6-foot-8, 212-pound frame slumped.
Donovan stopped the action and went right at his player about his body language and confidence. Donovan did the same thing at Kentucky, where Finney-Smith went 0-for-3 from the arc and passed on a couple open ones.
“He’s got to put the ball in the basket,” Donovan said. “I told him during the game, ‘Listen, if you’re not going to shoot it with confidence, let me take you out and put someone in who will.’ It’s like he’s begging to make a shot right now. But it’s something he’s going through and he’s got to figure it out.”
In and around the paint, Finney-Smith has been really good. He’s 47.2 percent on 2-point shots during his eight-game struggles, but the Gators need that long-distance element of his game -- like 4-6 vs. Kansas; 3-6 in his 22-point outburst at Arkansas; 3-5 vs Georgia -- to be the best team they can be.
"I know what I'm capable of," he said. "I've done it here already."
That’s the all-around player Finney-Smith wanted to be at Virginia Tech, but couldn’t.
And it’s why he chose to transfer to UF at the expense of sitting out last year.
“It’s like, be careful what you wish for,” Donovan said. “He now has the freedom to play offensively, but with that freedom comes the responsibility of shooting the ball with confidence and making shots. We can’t have this, ‘Do-I-shoot? Do-I-not-shoot?’ stuff. He has to work get through that and we have to help him get him through that.”
Finney-Smith took some solace in doing other things to help his teammates win, including making some tough shots down low against UK’s massive front court.
But he knows he can do more.
“I’ll get it back,” Finney-Smith said of his shooting stroke. “It’ll come. I just have to take ‘em with confidence and get up a good rep.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Freshman Kasey Hill suffered a groin injury in the first half of Saturday night’s big win at Kentucky. The Florida backup point guard returned to the court in the second half and actually logged four minutes before checking out of the game for good.
Hill did not practice Monday and is expected to be sidelined when the Gators (23-2, 12-0), up to No. 2 in the polls and winners of a school record-tying 17 straight games, are home to the Auburn Tigers (12-11, 4-8) Wednesday night at the O’Connell Center.
Without Hill, UF does not have a true backup point guard behind red-hot senior Scottie Wilbekin, who right now is playing at a level commensurate to the best at his position in the country. He’s also averaging nearly 34 minutes per game in Southeastern Conference play.
So he’s going to need some rest against the Tigers.
That means the Gators will return to the scramble-mode point guard plan they implemented early in the season when Wilbekin was unavailable.
“We’ll probably look at the three guys by committee,” UF coach Billy Donovan said.
When Wilbekin takes a seat look for shooting guards Michael Frazier and DeVon Walker to take some possessions on the ball, along with versatile frontcourt man Dorian Finney-Smith.
“We probably won’t run as many set plays, do more basic stuff, but it won’t be that different,” Wilbekin said of his anticipated time off the floor. “It’s about making the easy play and getting us into the offense. I’m really not worried about it.”
That’s because there’s precedent.
Wilbekin began the season suspended for the first five regular season games, leaving Hill, the McDonald's All-America rookie, to run the UF offense until his return. But Hill suffered a high ankle sprain Nov. 17 against Southern -- he was out for four games -- leaving the Gators to do some shell-gaming at the point position.
With Frazier, Walker and Finney-Smith taking turns, the Gators defeated Middle Tennessee State 79-59. UF only had 10 assists that game, but its offensive efficiency rating (OER) checked in at 1.23 points per possession, above the goal of 1.20.
Walker, the sophomore from Winter Haven, Fla., had the best game as a Gator that night, finishing with a career-best 10 points and no turnovers in 32 minutes, also a career high.
“The system really runs itself, so it’s not like, ‘Who, I gotta play point guard this game.’ You just have to get the offense to the flow,” Walker said after practice Monday. “But I’ve got the support of all these guys, so I’m good whatever happens.”
Frazier is known for his shooting touch, but he’s capable of taking a few turns on the ball. So is Finney-Smith, who actually plays more center and power forward than any perimeter position.
Finney-Smith was serviceable at the point against MTSU, but a couple weeks later he was forced back to the spot when Wilbekin, in his third game back, rolled his ankle with three minutes to play at Connecticut and UF in a dogfight with the Huskies.
When Wilbekin hobbled to the locker room, Finney-Smith went to the “1” position and the Gators scored -- get this -- nine points over the final possessions of the game, a OER of 2.25 (more than a point higher than the standard). UF executed its offense to get Frazier a layup with 18 seconds to go, only to lose the game on Shabazz Napier's shot at the buzzer.
Finney-Smith wasn’t the catalyst behind that four-possession windfall of points. He just stepped in, did his job efficiently and let the offense work.
“It’s a little different than I’m used to, and what we’re used, but you can’t use it an excuse when have a player banged up.,” Finney-Smith said. “We all just have to know everyone on the team has to step up with ‘Little Kasey’ out.”
[Note: As opposed to “Big Casey,” as in Prather, who is just fine]
“Little Kasey” spent Monday receiving treatment from the trainers, then took his turn in the empty women’s gym shooting free throws.
Back in the other gym, the Gators had a very focused practice.
Getting his team’s attention was something of a concern at the start of the day, given that two of UF’s toughest practice during the regular season were the first ones after arguably the two biggest wins of the season (before the one at Rupp).
Kansas and Arkansas.
Donovan spent his team in those workouts to get their attention, which they apparently learned from. The Gators reported for work Monday locked in and loaded to get after it from the start.
It was another sign of a mature, experienced team.
Add it to the list.
Updated: 8:56am, February 17
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Some of those Kentucky players may go on to NBA stardom (maybe even next year), but that team of seven McDonald’s All-Americans and a trio of potential lottery picks at Rupp Arena Saturday night was completely dismantled down the stretch by a Florida squad led by senior stalwarts who pro scouts deem of marginal NBA pedigree.
But this isn’t the NBA.
With that in mind, here are some numbers and items of note from No. 3 UF’s come-from-behind 69-59 defeat of the No. 14 Wildcatst:
* Florida’s senior class vs. Kentucky’s five freshmen starters was a virtual standoff in the scoring column. The four Gators scored 58 to the Wildcats’ 57. But after UK took a seven-point lead with 11 minutes to go, UF’s seniors outscored the so-called “Kiddie Cats” 31-14 down the stretch. As pointed out here in this terrific column by Pat Forde, college hoops writer for Yahoo.com, UF scored at least one point on each of its final 13 possessions, a stunningly efficient 2.38 points per. That had to be deflating for a bunch of youngsters trying to claw back and just looking for a stop. They got none.
* Julius Randle, UK’s beastly walking double-double power forward, had 13 points and 13 rebounds, better stats than anyone in the UF frontcourt. He scored three points and had zero field goals during the game’s final 22 minutes.
* Kentucky came into the game averaging nearly 79 points and 31 free throws per game, thanks to the biggest, most imposing front line in the country. The Cats finished with a season-low in points and got to free-throw line just 24 times. That speaks not only to UF’s team defense, but the fundamentally and technically sound way the Gators guard. Florida came into the game ranked first in the Southeastern Conference in fouls at 16.2 per game.
* UK’s bench, which includes a pair of McDonald’s big men sophomores who opted to come back after last season’s NIT downer, combined for two points. Seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, a likely lottery pick, and 6-8 forward Alex Poythress hit one of their combined four shots and grabbed four rebounds. Cauley-Stein, one of the most feared rim protectors in the game, blocked three shots, but the aggregate damage inflicted by he and starting center Dakari Johnson, another 7-footer, was neglible (2-for-4 from the floor, missed all three of their free throws, four points four rebounds).
* As John Clay, of The Lexington Herald-Leader, put it, “In the things that matter, starting four seniors, Florida is teaching a master's class on the art of college basketball. Midway through February, starting five freshmen, Kentucky is still learning now to play college basketball.”
GATORS IN 2018 BARNSTORMING TOUR OF HEAVY HITTERS
Some of the Gators who will be impacted by this next nugget might be playing junior varsity basketball right now. Doesn’t make it any less interesting, though.
As ESPN's Andy Katz reported last week, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, who brainstormed the aircraft carrier and military-base games of the past several years, was the point man in an agreement that will partner MSU, Texas, North Carolina and Florida in a round-robin barnstorming basketball tour to take place in December of 2018.
The Gators, Spartans, Longhorns and Tar Heels will alternate games against each other over an eight-day period at venues in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.
“It’s such a cool idea,” MSU coach Tom Izzo told ESPN.com. “At first I thought it was crazy.”
The four teams will arrive in New York, play two games, then travel together to Chicago, play two more games, then head west for a third double-header in L.A. Along the way, the teams will tour the Freedom Tower and see a Broadway musical in the Big Apple, eat deep-dish Chicago-style pizza and see the Second City comedy show in the Windy City and cap things with a trip to Disneyland on the West Coast.
Worth noting: The teams will travel together on the same chartered jet, thus fostering a unique element of camaraderie among players who will be competing against one another.
The fact UF would be approached about such a production merely enforces what we already know about the status of the program under Coach Billy Donovan.
Patric Young was in the news a lot this week for the Gators, thanks to that great play Tuesday night at Tennessee. The Herald-Leader did a story on young and spoke to his father, Robert Young, who played tight end at Bethune-Cookman College. Robert Young also had a short stint playing professional football. With what team and coach?
FORMER GATOR UPDATE
Two Gators in Memphis Tuesday night were the best players on the floor, so we'll call this week's designation a draw.
Washington’s Bradley Beal (right) shredded the Grizzlies for a career-high 37 points on 15-for-24 shooting, including 5-for-7 from the 3-point line.
For the Wizards, it wasn’t enough.
That’s because Memphis point guard Nick Calathes(also pictured right), in his first NBA season since returning from four years in Greece, had a complete floor game in finishing with 18 points, seven rebounds, six assists and a couple steals as the Griz won 92-89.
Calathes followed that game with 12 points, five rebounds, six assists and four steals the next night in his hometown of Orlando, pacing Memphis to an 86-81 win.
But let’s not overlook what Beal did Friday night in the Future Stars game during NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. The second-year pro went for 21 points, five rebounds and four assists in that game, then finished second in a tiebreaker to San Antonio’s Marco Belinelli to in the NBA’s 3-point shooting contest Saturday.
They said when Beal came to UF he had the makings of the next Ray Allen. He's getting there.
@GatorZoneChris after Jordan McRae's shouting proclamation at 11:53 mark that "they can't guard me", he had zero points!!!!— Tom Sayers (@swampboyts) February 12, 2014
Every coach I spoke to for the scouting piece said Scottie Wilbekin was the key player for Florida, and it wasn't even close. Showing why.— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) February 16, 2014
CHARTING THE GATORS
OK, now that Florida has punched its way past its toughest SEC road test, get ready for media buzz on the potential for the Gators going through the league season undefeated. UF still has a tough dates ahead, namely next Saturday at Ole Miss -- with an 11 a.m. local start, always dangerous (and Marshall Henderson, also always dangerous) -- plus dates with streaky LSU and a grudge rematch against Kentucky, both at the O'Connell Center
Here are the nation’s six remaining teams that are undefeated in league play.
Conference Team Record Tough ones left
Atlantic-10 St. Louis 10-0 George Washington, @VCU @UMass
Atlantic Coast Syracuse 12-0 @Duke, @Maryland, @Virgina
Colonial Delaware 11-0 @Towson, Drexel
Missouri Valley Wichita State 13-0 Drake, Missouri State
Southeastern Florida 12-0 @Ole Miss, LSU, Kentucky
Southland Stephen F. Austin 13-0 Northwestern State, @New Orleans
And in case you’re wondering how unbeaten SEC teams have fared in the postseason, here’s a look at the three -- all Kentucky, of course -- fared after sweeping through the conference since its 1992 wave of expansion.
Team Year Record In the end
Kentucky 1995-96 16-0 Lost SEC Tourney final to Miss State, won NCAA title
Kentucky 2002-03 16-0 Won SEC Tourney, lost to Marquette in regional final
Kentucky 2011-12 16-0 Lost SEC Tourney final vs Vanderbilt, won NCAA title
The Gators are up to No. 4 in in the RPI, trailing only Kansas, Arizona and Syracuse, but now they’re in every conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA field, with each passing week (and mounting wins) looking like a ticket to second- and third-round pod in Orlando. ... Want more national perspective on UF's big? Here’s this from USA Today college hoops writer Nicole Auerbach. ... Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin made just 10 of his first 20 free throws through seven games. That’s 50 percent. After going 11-for-12 at Kentucky, he’s now at 74.7 percent for the season and 80.0 in SEC play. ... One more thing on Wilbekin. In back-to-back road wins at two of the league’s toughest venues (Knoxville and Lexington), Wilbekin combined for 44 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists and zero turnovers. Said it Tuesday night, reiterated it again Saturday night. Wilbekin, right now, is the 2014 SEC Player of the Year. ... We likely won’t know what Kentucky coach John Calipari said to the official to warrant that ill-timed technical foul -- after his team had taken a one-point lead with 8:14 remaining -- but it certainly was a post-game topic. UF’s Young was asked what he thought of it. “Thanks for the two points,” he quipped. Actually, the Gators got possession after Wilbekin’s two tech free throws and Casey Prather scored on a driving, left-handed finger roll. So thanks for the four points. ... Speaking of Calipari, he was fairly blunt about his rookie-led team afterward. “We're not ready to win that kind of game, and I told them that,” he said. “We've got to understand, listen and take responsibility. If a guy outplayed you, admit it.” ... Trivia answer: Patric Young’s father played for the USFL Tampa Bay Bay Bandits, coached by Steve Spurrier (pictured above).
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- From 1,500 miles away, it’s easy to formulate opinions or make generalizations about what happened Saturday night in Lubbuck, Texas, where one of the best players in college basketball imploded for one of the game’s ugliest scenes in recent years.
The behavior of Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart was unforgivable. So was, it appeared, that of (at least) one fan who did his part in initiating the incident.
Three days later, no one is certain what was said to make Smart go off, but the OSU standout has apologized and been suspended for three games for his behavior. His image has been tarnished, maybe forever.
Billy Donovan coached Smart the last two summers during USA Basketball international play (photos right; that's Smart in bottom row, wearing No. 7). The Florida coach took the U18 and U19 teams and went a combined 18-0 in 2012 and 2013 in leading them to gold medals in the FIBA Americas in Brazil and World Championships in Czech Republic, respectively.
Smart starred on both teams. He was the leader on both of the those teams.
On Monday, Donovan was asked about the incident in his weekly press opportunity. He praised Smart, the kid, adding he’d seen nothing that remotely resembled what played out on ESPN cameras two nights earlier.
“I never had one bit of a problem with him, coaching him for the two years with USA. I really was appreciative that he came back the second year and played,” Donovan said. “I remember the first year we had him, there were a couple of games where we were up by 30, 40 points at halftime. I told him, because we had to play five games in a row, I said, 'Marcus I'm not playing you in the second half.’ 'No problem, Coach, whatever I can do to help.' He's always been that kind of kid. What people saw from him in that situation against Texas Tech to me is totally uncharacteristic. I never saw anything like that -- ever -- coaching him.”
Now, if you’ve been following Smart and the recent struggles of Oklahoma State, which has now lost five of six and fallen out of the Big 12 championship race, the first thing that may come to your mind after reading Donovan's remarks is a certain chair-stomping incident in a home loss to West Virginia just last month. Smart apologized on Twitter after that.
Saturday night, Twitter blew up when Smart blew his gasket.
But this is where Donovan was able to lend some unique perspective. He did not in any way condone what Smart did. What he could do was frame Smart’s circumstances in a way most of us would not be able to.
Smart, Donovan reminded, was projected as a top-five pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, but opted to return to school and actually was with Team USA during the NBA draft last summer.
Donovan once had a player who went through similar circumstances at Florida. Joakim Noah, remember, was a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, but chose to return to school and try to defend the Gators’ NCAA championship alongside his best friends.
With that decision came added scrutiny, pressure and internal struggles none of us will ever know.
Enter Billy D.
“Because he was a top-five pick a year ago, you feel like you have to play like a top-five pick, whatever that looks like in his mind -- and what happens is you can never reach that level,” Donovan said. “Whether he thinks he has to score 30 points or have 10 assists, five steals, it’s not going to happen, but you feel this unbelievable pressure.”
That’s when Donovan invoked Noah. He saw the fallout of the decision made by the Gators' center and Final Four MVP play out daily, be in during practices or games.
And especially on the road.
“When Noah came back after his sophomore year, the pressure he felt to perform every game was totally out of control. He made it out of control,” Donovan said. “And I told Joakim this: ‘You cannot allow people to rob you of your happiness playing the game,’ and I think in some ways Marcus has allowed some happiness to be robbed from him a little bit in this whole process of coming back, maybe by not playing like he wants to.”
Now the external expectations are being compounded by losses and the internal frustration has manifested itself with some stunning video images that Donovan believes paint a different picture of Smart, the person, than who he really is.
“All of a sudden he goes from four months ago being this unbelievable kid coming back for college basketball, to now he’s in a situation where he’s looked upon in a very negative light,” Donovan said, again going back to Noah. “Joakim hit the NCAA tournament as a sophomore like a lightning rod. We were unranked. Everybody loved the kid. And then once the next year started, he was like a complete villain, with the chest pumping and all that stuff he’d done that since he was a freshman."
Back to Smart.
“Marcus is a young kid and he’s a competitor, and he wants to win and I think he’s one of those guys that just kind of keeps on grinding, and there’s no question his emotions got the better of him. But I’m not so sure that this [doesn’t have] something to do with the pressure he’s personally put on himself at the level he wants to perform and the quicker he gets to a place to where he can realize he’s not going to live up to those expectations -- that he’s got to do what he can do to help the team -- I think the better off he is. I think you saw total frustration from him the last couple of weeks and that, to me, is just the frustration of a young kid that wants to play better, wants his team to do better. He didn’t channel it the right way and crossed the line into a really, really poor situation that he really regrets to this day.”
Updated: 10:13am, February 11
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- His team is 21-2, with a perfect 10-0 mark in Southeastern Conference play and has not lost a game in more than two months, reeling off 15 straight to climb to No. 3 in the national rankings.
Billy Donovan, though, refuses to be impressed.
That’s not to say the UF coach is not pleased with the Gators. He is. He likes this team.
But when numbers and streaks and rankings get thrown in his face -- or even if it’s suggested that Florida is flying under the national radar -- Donovan has a way of putting it all in perspective.
Here’s how he did for us Saturday, and more importantly, how he'll frame it for players in the days ahead: 21-2 is merely a snapshot of what’s happened in the past.
And he’s right.
“I talk to our guys about the difference between what really matters and what doesn’t,” Donovan said after UF beat Alabama 78-69 to maintain a two-game lead in the SEC. “People can have an opinion of our team being great or not great. I don’t how how much publicity we get or don’t get. But if that stuff, in any way, could help our team get better, I would put it out in their lockers so they could read it all -- but it really has nothing to do with anything.”
Since last weekend, Donovan has referenced (both publicly and privately) several times the situation at Arizona, which was rolling along unbeaten and ranked No. 1 in the nation when it not only lost at Cal, but also lost Brandon Ashley (and his 12 points and six rebounds per game) for the season to a broken foot.
It’s all that fragile.
Which brings us to the task ahead. As good as UF fans may feel about their team right now, no one knows what the snapshot will look like a week from now after Florida plays at Tennessee on Tuesday night and at 18th-ranked Kentucky Saturday night.
As Donovan pointed out postgame, the Gators’ league schedule, as it played out, has been front-loaded mostly with teams in the bottom half of the conference standings. Eight of the 10 games have come against opponents with losing records in SEC play; the two with winning records (Georgia and Tennessee), the Gators played at home.
Think about that when you look at Florida’s schedule the next two weeks. After the Gators go to Knoxville (where the Volunteers are 10-2) and Lexington (where the Wildcats are 14-0), UF gets Auburn at home, then hits the road for two more games at Ole Miss (where the Rebels are 10-3) and then to Vanderbilt (where the Commodores are 9-4).
Home dates with LSU and Kentucky also loom large.
“It’s all going to even out,” Donovan said of the slate. “I’m not overly joyous and feeling great because we’re 10-0. It’s all going to shake out in the end.”
A lot more snapshots are coming.
ORANGE AND RED, WHITE AND BLUE
With news last week that Donovan had again been tabbed to coach one of USA Basketball's squads in FIBA competition this summer, it’s not unrealistic to think the future Hall of Famer is positioning himself for much bigger things on the international hoops stage.
Maybe the biggest of big, relative to intenational play.
The Sporting News ran a story Tuesday speculating that Donovan, now a combined 18-0 after leading U18 and U19 Team USA squads to gold medals the last two summers, could be considered a successor to Mike Krzyzewski for the national team -- you know, the really good one with NBA players -- once the famed Duke coach steps down after the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Donovan last week was honored as Team USA’s Co-National Coach of the Year after he guided the Americans to their first gold in U19 play since 1991.
In beating Alabama, Donovan improved to 8-0 against Tide coach Anthony Grant, who worked alongside Donovan as an assistant at both Marshall and Florida for 12 seasons. Donovan is now 14-2 against his former assistants. Who are the two losses against?
FORMER GATOR UPDATE
Normally this spot is reserved for a UF alum that did something of note, but this week it will acknowledge David Lee for what he did not do. And how special what he’d done up to that point really was.
Lee, the 6-foot-9 Golden State Warriors center, had his streak of consecutive games scoring in double figures snapped last week at 123. A night after missing a game at Utah with a shoulder sprain and hip strain, Lee went 3-for-13 in a home loss to the Charlotte Bobcats to finish with eight points and thus failed to hit doubles for the first time since Nov. 3, 2012.
The only NBA players with longer strings than Lee’s were -- get this -- LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Pretty good company.
CHARTING THE GATORS
You may have seen some of this data as I pointed it out during Saturday’s game on Twitter, but the discrepancies of Florida’s 3-point shooting in first halves vs. second halves of SEC player borders on mind-boggling. Here are the numbers broken down.
1st Half 2nd Half
UF team 24-105 (.229) 40-98 (.408)
They’re even more pronounced when playing at the O’Dome when the Gators shoot at the basket on the visitors end vs. the one in front of their own bench.
1st Half 2nd Half
UF team 10-59 (.169) 28-64 (.438)
And now, the individuals on the perimeter, broken down, in overall SEC play. As you might expect, one player seems affected by it more than others. Namely, the guy who shoots the most and whose long-distance marksmanship is the team’s best antidote for a zone defense.
1st Half 2nd Half
Michael Frazier 9-37 (.243) 22-49 (.445)
Scottie Wilbekin 7-24 (.292) 11-20 (.555)
Dorian Finney-Smith 6-21 (.286) 4-15 (.266)
Kasey Hill 0-8 (.000) 2-6 (.333)
Here's the same guys when playing SEC teams at the O’Dome.
1st Half 2nd Half
Michael Frazier 4-20 (.200) 16-35 (.457)
Scottie Wilbekin 4-16 (.250) 8-11 (.727)
Dorian Finney-Smith 1-11 (.100) 3-8 (.375)
Kasey Hill 0-6 (.090) 1-4 (.250)
Conclusion: Just plain weird.
IRREVERANT GATOR PHOTO
UF’s scoring output against Alabama was the first in seven games when the Gators reached 70 points. The Crimson Tide, though, was the 13th straight Gators opponent that failed to reach 70 in regulation (Note: Arkansas had 66 through 40 minutes in UF’s 84-82 overtime win at Fayetteville). ... Center Patric Young went 4-for-4 from the floor against Bama, giving him 1,124 career points and moving past Al Horford to No. 40 on the school’s all-time scoring list. ... And while on the subject of Young, his two dunks gave him 130 for his career and tied him with Joakim Noah for fifth-most in UF history. Yes, I’m surprised that’s a stat (albeit an official one), also. ... Few will argue that Kasey Hill (pictured right), the freshman point guard, is an exciting player with a knack for getting in the lane and distributing the ball, but he’s really having a tough time putting the ball in the basket -- and not just from the 3-point line as suggested above. He’s at 38.3 percent from the floor, 16.7 from the arc and just 64.9 from the free-throw line. ... Saw that Southern Methodist trounced seventh-ranked Cincinnati. For SMU, it was the program’s first win over a top-10 team since the Mustangs beat the No. 7 Gators (with Vernon Maxwell, Dwayne Schintzius and Clifford Lett) back in 1987. ... The Alabama game (and its convenient noon tipoff) brought a rare appearance from an out-of-town state columnist. Mike Bianchi, of The Orlando Sentinel (and formerly of The Gainesville Sun years ago) weighed in on Billy D and the Gators' senior class here. ... Trivia answer: John Pelphrey was at Arkansas when the Razorbacks beat the Gators at Fayetteville 80-61 on Feb. 2, 2008 and UCF’s Donnie Jones beat UF 57-54 in Orlando on Dec. 1, 2010.
Updated: 11:15pm, February 7
(Photos by Steve Johnson and Matt Stamey)
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As freshmen coming out parties go, this one was light years from what happened at the United Center back on Nov. 12.
Remember that night in Chicago?
Kansas rolled out Andrew Wiggins and 7-footer Joel Embiid. Kentucky flashed Julius Randle, the Harrison twins, James Young and Dakari Johnson, part of what analysts were calling the greatest recruiting class in history. Duke introduced the college hoops world to Jabari Parker. ESPN’s cameras rolled, Dick Vitale gushed about “Diaper Dandys” and Twitter blew up over lottery picks in waiting.
This time last year, Chris Walker’s name was on the same lists as all those guys -- ever ranked higher than a few of those guys. The newbie on the Florida bench, who rallied academically to get enrolled at UF for the second semester and waited the last six weeks for the NCAA to sign off on his eligibility, made his debut Tuesday night in third-ranked Florida’s 68-58 comeback defeat of Missouri at a rocking O’Connell Center.
He scored four points, grabbed two rebounds, blocked two shots, fouled twice and played only seven minutes. Hardly, Parker or Wiggins or Randle numbers, but you know what?
For Walker and the Gators -- the team -- the night could not have gone more perfectly.
Yes, the thundering slams gave the 6-foot-10 rookie a jolt of confidence on a night filled with understandable internal anxiety and unrealistic pressure. But Coach Billy Donovan was not going to let the moment (specifically, the game) overwhelm this very unassuming, incredibly gifted young player; not with the Gators on a roll, playing spectacular defense and leading the Southeastern Conference by two games over Kentucky.
“I totally get that you have a high-profile kid from Florida and now the kid is out there and there’s national interest and all that,” Donovan said. “But I just felt it was important that he didn’t walk off the floor and think, ‘I was a big disappointment tonight.’ He walked out with seven minutes and he felt good about himself."
Those two dome-deafening dunks, courtesy of lob passes from Kasey Hil, helped take the edge off. Not only were they things of beauty, but they gave the rookie a jolt of confidence on a night filled with a mix of internal anxiety and unrealistic pressure; gave him a sense that he belonged.
More importantly, he helped his team; energized his team.
I will continue to emphasize "team" here because that's what Donovan and his assistants are doing every day in practice and meetings. Walker has been immersed in that team-first philosophy for six weeks without reaping any rewards of the all-for-one culture.
“I’m just glad to have it behind me,” the soft-spoken, unassuming Walker said after the game. “My coaches and teammates have kept me motivated and told me to just let it go ... and that’s what I did.”
Donovan and his staff had a plan. They knew they wanted Walker to get into the game in the first half and get a taste of it. They were not going to put too much on his plate. That the game played out as close as it did definitely helped. Donovan was not going to put Walker in situations -- not when he’s still learning the complexities of the system -- where he might be confused about an offensive or defensive set and cost his team at a pivotal time.
So Walker got a small dose of the game, yet still gave the Florida faithful -- and those incredible Rowdy Reptiles -- a night to remember with two rim-rattlers in the first half, courtesy of Hill, his former AAU teammate.
“I’ve known Kasey since the ninth grade,” Walker said. “I kind of looked in his eyes and was like, ‘Throw it up and I’ll get it.’ Brought back memories.”
Said Hill: “I’ve thrown that pass to him a bunch of times. A bunch.”
The Tigers called a timeout after the first dunk and Walker was mobbed by his teammates coming to the bench, especially the seniors that run this team. A bump from Patric Young. A scream from Scottie Wilbekin. A chest slap from Will Yeguete. An ear-to-ear grin from Casey Prather. The whole team was happy for Walker, who invested so much just to get to Florida -- a semester late, no less -- and then had to practice for six weeks with no real promise this day would ever come.
“He worked so hard to get here, so I felt so happy for him,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier said. “And those dunks were huge momentum plays for us.”
Added Young: “It was exciting to see him come out and finally get to do what he does best. He made some mistakes, but that’s expected. It was his first time out there.”
There will be lots of next times, as Walker figures to get more comfortable, more in tune with this team and more fitted to whatever role he carves out for himself.
“Now, the biggest challenge for our coaching staff is getting him more reps, more confidence and more minutes,” Donovan said. “He’s a team guy and wants to help as much as he can. Our older guys have been unbelievable with him. When you inject someone into the team this late, [other] guys can look around and say, ‘How will this affect me?’ That hasn’t happened.”
So Walker walked off the floor with a smile on his face and a fun pose for a camera stuck in his mug. He waved to the fans as they cheered his coming out party.
What in the world was going through his mind?
Said Walker: “I was thinking, that it was my first college game ... and that I did well.”
The whole team did.
And he’s part of that team now.
Feels so good to be doing the thing I love to do , most importantly good win tonight !— Chris Walker (@cwalkertime23) February 5, 2014
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- You’re going to hear a lot about this in the coming month.
The Rowdy Reptiles unleashed a Twitter blitz last week aimed at Justin Timberlake, asking the iconic pop superstar to come to Gainesville and sing the national anthem before the March 8 nationally televised regular-season finale against Kentucky.
The social media push began in earnest with tweets going out to the account of @jtimberlake, with the hashtag #BringJT2UF. Plenty of “JT” big heads were bopping up and down during Saturday’s thrashing of Texas A&M at the O'Connell Center. And on Tuesday, the Rowdies are asking students to wear suits and ties for the Missouri game on ESPN.
Suit and ties. Get it?
OK, so how realistic is a “JT” sighting at the O’Dome for that high noon mega-showdown against the Wildcats? Senior Day for this great class, no less. Probably not very likely. But the megastar loves basketball. He’s a Memphis native who grew up cheering on the University of Memphis (yes, the one the Gators beat in December) and has courtside seats for Grizzlies games (right).
Memo to former Gators/current Grizzlies Mike Miller and Nick Calathes: The lobbying starts now!
Timberlake has embarked on a world tour that has concerts scheduled for Sunrise on March 4 and Miami on March 5, then he's off the next three weeks before kicking off the European leg of his tour in England. Seems like plenty of time to take a couple hours and park the jet at Gainesville Regional, hop a limo for the dome (maybe stop at Leonardo’s for a slice), duck into the locker room to fire up the home team, then give packed arena the pre-game thrill of a lifetime.
OK, if this seem’s like pie-in-the-sky stuff -- and, yes, it does -- consider that Michigan’s student body chased a similar dream back in September when it went on a social media blitz to get Beyonce to play halftime of the Wolverines’ home football game against Notre Dame.
Beyonce didn’t show, but she did “represent,” as they say. Bet the Rowdies would take something similar to this.
BIG PAT’S BIG 2-2
Speaking of the Rowdies, they greeted senior center Patric Young with a chorus of “Happy Birthday” before Saturday’s game. It was nice, but what Young, now 22, really wanted was a double-double -- his first of the season -- on his special day.
He finished with nine points and a career-high 14 rebounds in putting on an end-to-end show of energy that Coach Billy Donovan would love to see on a game-to-game basis.
“I thought he was great,” Donovan said. “I told him every day was going to be his birthday.”
Young had a chance to reach double-figures in the scoring column, but missed three of four free throws in his final stint on the floor before giving way to subs. Young knew he was sitting just one point away, yet he wasn't going to ask Donovan to go back in the game just to achieve a single-game individual goal.
“I’m not going to lie to you, it was disappointing,” said Young, who only took two shots during the game, both dunks. “I had a chance at the free-throw line. ... It is what it is.”
And it was what it was, nonetheless. A sensational performance by the fan favorite from Jacksonville.
The Gators have held their last three opponents to season-low scoring outputs, including Saturday’s 36-point smothering of A&M. So what’s the fewest points UF has allowed during the shot-clock era (1986 to present)? Answer below.
FORMER GATOR UPDATE
The Chicago Bulls aren’t having a great season, scratching nightly to stay around .500., what with superstar guard Derrick Rose sidelined by a major injury once again.
But they still have Joakim Noah.
And he’s an all-star for the second year in a year row.
The league announced its rosters for the 2014 NBA All-Star Game last week, with Noah making the Eastern Conference squad as a reserve. Now in his sixth season since leading the Gators to back-to-back NCAA titles, the 6-foot-11 center is averaging 11.7 points, 11.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. The game is set for Feb. 16 at New Orleans.
Last year, Noah scored eight points, grabbed 10 boards and dished three assists in 16 minutes of all-star play in the game at Houston. And joins former UF teammate Al Horford as the only Gators to play play in back-to-back NBA all-star games. Horford did it in 2010-11.
Countdown http://t.co/fyjNhxjMBS— Patric Young (@BigPatYoung4) February 1, 2014
Florida looking more & more like a number 1 seed if they continue to run the SEC. @ESPNCBB— Jay Williams (@RealJayWilliams) February 2, 2014
CHARTING THE GATORS
When Chris Walker makes his debut Tuesday night, he will be the 17th McDonald’s All-American to take the floor for the Gators. That’s a pretty amazing statistic, considering UF had just four before Donovan’s arrival in 1996. Here’s a list of Big Macs and what they accomplished (or didn't) at Florida.
Year Player Noteworthy
1981 Eugene McDowell Gene “The Dunking Machine” had 1,565 points, 1,063 rebounds
1986 Dwayne Schnitzius Only SEC ever with 1,000 pts, 800 rebounds, 250 assists, 250 blocked shots
1988 Stacey Poole “Comeback Kid,” tore two Achilles, ACL, yet still No. 6 on all-time scoring list.
1998 Teddy Dupay Still remains No. 1 on state’s all-time prep scoring list with 3,744 points.
Mike Miller Best player on Billy D's first Final Four squad; NBA Rookie of the Year for Orlando.
1999 Donnell Harvey McDonald’s slam-dunk champion, first “one-and-done” in school history.
Brett Nelson Sits No. 4 all-time in 3-pointers for the Gators; another standout on FF team.
2001 Kwame Brown Bypassed college to enter NBA draft and was No. 1 overall pick of Washington.
David Lee 4-year standout led Gators to first SEC Tournament title in ’05; two-time NBA all-star.
James White Transferred to Cincinnati after freshman season.
2002 Anthony Roberson One of 13 players in school history to hit 1,500 career points.
2004 Corey Brewer Only McDonald’s All-American among the iconic “04s."
2007 Nick Calathes 2-time “Florida Mr. Basketball” left after two seasons to play in Greece.
Jai Lucas Son of ex-NBA star John Lucas, transferred to Texas mid-way through 2nd season.
2009 Kenny Boynton Left UF as No. 2 scorer in school history with 2,033 points.
2010 Patric Young Decorated player and student with more than 100 victories as a Gator.
2011 Bradley Beal UF’s second “one-and-done” was the No. 3 overall pick by Wizards.
2013 Kasey Hill Key member of rotation as a freshman who’s just starting to tap his potential.
* Ric Clarson played for the U.S. All-Stars in the 1975 Capital Classic in Landover, Md., which served as so-called precursor to the McDonald’s All-America Game.
IRREVERENT GATOR PHOTO
Some buzz that No. 3 Florida will move up to No. 2 in the national polls this week after top-ranked Arizona lost at the buzzer at California. Possible. I would think Wichita State, still unbeaten and behind the Gators at No. 4, would warrant that spot as much. Besides, how many fans (and coaches) out there are deftly afraid of being atop the polls this time of year? ... Less than 1,000 seats remain for Tuesday night’s ESPN game against Missouri. The Tigers (16-5, 4-4), after losing at home Saturday to Kentucky, are in big-time need of a resume-builder for the NCAA Selection Committee. They will be hungry for this game. ... The A&M win was Donovan’s 200th conference victory as a head coach, including two seasons at Marshall in the Southern Conference. His league mark now stands at 200-110, including a 182-100 record at UF. ... The fans love it when Donovan’s son, also named Billy, checks in for the minutes. They want him to shoot so badly, but the kid known as “BD3” (even though he’s not Billy Donovan III, by the way), is still looking for his first trey as a Gator after rimming out a pair against the Aggies. He was close on the first and even closer on the second, which spun out and prompted assistant coach John Pelphrey to give a playful nudge to the head coach on the bench. "Little Billy" is now 0-for-8 from the floor, 0-7 from the arc. ... Trivia answer: Eight games into defending their first national championship, the Gators beat Southern 83-27 on Nov. 28, 2007, making for the fewest points UF has allowed in a shot-clock era game.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Freshman Chris Walker won’t take the floor for the Florida basketball team for another four days, but that won’t prevent the dialogue at Billy Donovan’s Friday afternoon news conference from being almost exclusively focused on a kid everyone is talking about, few have seen and will not play Saturday against Texas A&M.
Wonder if the A&M game will even come iup.
Anyway, since Gator fans can’t get enough "Sky" Walker fodder, Harry Fodder is going to feed the beast some more.
I’ve been watching the 6-foot-10 McDonald’s All-America center practice nearly every day since he arrived Dec. 14. Being so far behind in the familiarity and nuances of what the Gators do on offense and defense, Walker has gotten plenty of individual instruction, attention and feedback from coaches and teammates in an effort to get him caught up.
“He’s coming,” Donovan told me Friday night after a team meeting in Starkville, Miss. “He’s getting better, he’s getting a better feel and understanding. I can see the strides and progress, but it’s been emotional and draining on him. He last played organized basketball last February [in high school][, and suddenly he’s injected into this.”
During the winter break, NCAA guidelines that limit student-athletes to 20 hours of practice and preparation a week did not apply. The UF staff took advantage of the extra time they could spend with Walker, but the kid’s head was spinning.
Then once school got started, Walker had to become, you know, a student. Remember, Walker did not attend UF in the fall, so this sudeen life change also included his first taste of collegiate academics in the middle of soaking in all this basketball on the fly. From the day Walker arrived to the start of classes, the Gators only had four games over 23 days. Once school tipped, so did the SEC season, and the Walker juggling act really began.
That's when the UF staff took on a different tact.
Donovan basically told his assistants, “You have to deal with him at practice.” Donovan had the regular eight-man rotation he needed to get ready for games and the long haul of competing for a league championship. He could not stop practice every few minutes to give Walker a how-to lesson.
“I told them, ‘Yank him out. Coach him. Teach him. Tell him what’s going on,’ because I have to deal with these other guys,” Donovan said. “Sometimes, I’m losing my mind because he doesn’t know what he’s doing and suddenly we’re playing 5-on-4. That's not his fault, but we also can’t keep putting him in that situation.”
Friday afternoon will mark Walker’s final practice as a member of the “orange” scout team. Given his debut against Missouri is Tuesday night, Walker may even get a few reps with the “blue” regulars. Knowing Donovan, tough, the Gators won’t get too ahead of themselves with a quick one-day prep, having won Thursday night at Mississippi State, with A&M due in Saturday and another chance to pad their SEC lead.
After today, though, “Sky” is in the fold for real.
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Before the film session on Mississippi State preceding Wednesday’s practice, Florida coach Billy Donovan stood before his team and went off topic.
"Hey guys, I've got some good news for you. ... Chris Walker has been cleared to play Tuesday."
As you might imagine, pandemonium ensued.
Walker, the 6-foot-10 center who joined the team in December, instantly was surrounded by his teammates for hugs and high-fives. A 2013 McDonald’s All-American from Bonifay, Fla., Walker has been waiting eligibility clearance from the NCAA for the past several weeks after arriving on UF's campus in December.
He got it Wednesday, effective Tuesday night when UF hosts Missouri in a 9 p.m. game on ESPN.
Good for him. Good for the Gators.
In the interim, third-ranked Florida (17-2, 6-0), the lone unbeaten team in the Southeastern Conference, has more pressing issues that have nothing to do with Walker. Namely a Thursday night game at Mississippi State (13-6, 3-3) -- with a chance to go two-games up on second-place Kentucky and Ole Miss -- followed by a quick turnaround home date Saturday against Texas A&M (12-8, 3-4).
I thank God for allowing me to stay strong thru the process , and I'm blessed to be able to make my first debut as a Florida gator Tuesday !— Chris Walker (@cwalkertime23) January 29, 2014
UF officials did not get official word from the NCAA regarding Walker’s case until a little before 3 p.m. Wednesday. The Gators hit the practice court minutes later and boarded a flight -- without Walker -- to Mississippi at 6. There has been no time to process how his addition will impact the team. And, frankly, that won’t change Thursday (game), Friday (practice and cram-course preparation for A&M) or Saturday (game), either.
“I haven’t really had a chance to confront or deal with the team on this yet,” Donovan told GatorZone.com Wednesday night after dinner at the team’s Starkville hotel. “We still have another game before that happens. But there has to be a point where I sit down with the team -- and sit down with Chris -- and talk about it.”
For those who haven’t seen Walker, here’s the scouting report:
* Picture Casey Prather’s open-floor athleticism in a 6-10 wingspan and let your imagination run wild. That’s him.
* He’s raw as far as basketball skills. Walker will shoot it around the paint, but he's got some work to do on his jumper. He can handle some in the open floor, but is not going to put it down in the halfcourt, go get his shot and beat guys off the bounce.
* The kid is light years behind being the defender Patric Young is, especially when it comes to positioning and communication, but he has a knack for protecting the rim.
* Name a team that doesn’t need talent and depth in the frontcourt. Even if it’s just 8-10 minutes a game, spelling Young here or Will Yeguete there, that’s significant. Walker needs to understand that. A rotation has been set and roles determined with a team that has won 11 straight games. He needs to buy in.
* Walker’s instincts for the game are terrific, but he’s still far behind with what the Gators run on offense and defense. He’s clearly much further along than when he touched down at UF on Dec. 14, but now that there’s a definitive date for his debut he can begin taking reps with the “blue” team (the regular rotation) at practice and the coaching staff can begin defining his role. Walker, of course, will have a say in that with how he performs.
“His athleticism is going to show up in games,” UF assistant coach Matt McCall said.
Yeah, it is.
On Tuesday, Young took a day off of practice with achy knees. That meant Walker got Young’s reps. All of them. And he got them during the brutal “444” drill that is basically four non-stop minutes of three teams of four playing press offense and defense until the buzzer sounds (losing team runs, by the way). Walker flashed several times. He also was exhausted, doubling over between reps.
“Get off your shorts, Chris!” Donovan yelled. “I need you to play through it!”
Walker had another such practice Wednesday after learning of the NCAA decision -- coincidence? -- and this time, with Young on the floor. At one point, while running “Orange” scout team against the starters, he walled off the rim on three straight possessions, altering shots by Dorian Finney-Smith, Casey Prather and Young.
Yes, he can do that.
He can also get lost at times, but that's expected. He wasn't here for some of the most critical work this team did in September and October in prepping for the season.
That said, such a rare talent parachuting into a national championship contender two-thirds through a season, yes, that is one intriguing storyline.
But with this sudden talent comes a very real dilemma.
“It’s somewhat of distraction because it’s February and you’re injecting someone into your team that has not played at all,” Donovan said. “I think when he does play Tuesday, what our guys have to understand -- and what Chris has to understand -- as much as there’s a lot of publicity and exposure surrounding him being able to play, it’s not about him. This is about our team. Our players need to have an understanding that they have to help him through this.”
Donovan has made it clear that Walker will play. The kid invested too much effort to get to UF and followed that up by practicing six weeks without any assurance that he would ever take the floor this season.
Walker earned this.
Whatever his role turns out to be will have to be earned, also.
“He continued to have faith and talk about how God had a plan for him and the plan was about being patient. For an 18-year-old kid to say those things with all this uncertainty in his life says a lot about his character and the person he is,” McCall told GatorZone.com. “We just continued to talk to him about controlling the things he could control, and the one thing he could control was bringing an effort every single day to practice; bringing a motor every day and not cluttering his mind with things going on outside of practice.”
At practice Sunday -- maybe even late night Saturday after the A&M game -- it's no longer about the clutter for Chris Walker.
For Gators fans, too.
As McCall said, “When he checks into the game, the O’Dome roof is going to blow off.”
That’s a fact.
But as Donovan said: “I don’t want him to feel like he has to come in the game and be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I’ve been downplaying his debut for a reason. He may follow a rebound with a dunk and everyone will go, ‘Wow!’ Or people may say, “All that hype was for this?’ The bottom line, it’s still about the team.”
It's a really good team that's about to get a whole lot more interesting; for its fans and its coaches.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- I never pay much attention to RPIs and bracketology speculation in December or even into January, but the Florida Gators are a third into their Southeastern Conference season and the calendar flips to February this week, so such chatter is about to become very relevant.
Figured, why not?
UF vaulted to No. 3 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, but the Gators started the week sitting No. 5 in the Ratings Percentage Index and -- as far as a snapshot of the Right Here/Right Now college basketball season -- loom on pace for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Most mock brackets have the Gators penciled into the first weekend at the sub-regional in Orlando.
All situations are subject to change, of course, but who wouldn’t take that right now?
In scanning some of of the hoops data, I found it interesting that UF’s strength of schedule -- which featured non-conference games against Wisconsin, Florida State, Connecticut, Kansas and Memphis -- with a 3-2 mark in those, including a defeat of RPI No. 1 KU -- was not among the five toughest in the Southeastern Conference. The Gators checked in sixth, behind even South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Here’s the updated RPI and SOS charts in comparison to the rest of the SEC teams.
Note: Florida's next two games (Thursday at Mississippi State and home Saturday versus Texas A&M) are against two of the league's bottom four RPI teams. Those two have played the weakest schedules.
57 Ole Miss
125 Texas A&M
126 Mississippi State
134 South Carolina
Strength of Schedule
(Top 50 RPI opponents listed in parenthesis)
Rk Team 1-25 1-50 1-100
2 Alabama 0-5 0-6 3-7
(*Oklahoma, *Duke, Wichita State, Xavier @UCLA, Florida)
7 Kentucky 0-1 2-2 7-4
(*Michigan State, Louisville, *Providence, @North Carolina)
10 Tennessee 1-3 2-4 5-5
(@Xavier, *Xavier, @Wichita State, Virginia, @Kentucky, @Florida)
11 South Carolina 0-2 1-2 3-9
(@Oklahoma State, *Saint Mary’s, @Florida)
41 Vanderbilt 0-2 0-4 2-7
(*Providence, @Texas, St. Louis, Kentucky)
51 Florida 1-1 4-2 7-2
(@Wisconsin, Florida State, @Connecticut, Kansas, *Memphis, Richmond)
80 LSU 0-1 0-2 3-5
81 Arkansas 2-1 3-3 4-4
(Southern Methodist, *California, *Minnesota, *Gonzaga, Florida, Kentucky)
84 Ole Miss 0-0 0-2 2-4
(@Kansas State, Oregon)
88 Georgia 0-3 0-4 3-5
(@Colorado, @George Washington, @Florida, @Kentucky)
117 Auburn 0-2 0-2 1-7
(@Iowa State, Florida)
141 Texas A&M 0-2 0-3 2-5
(*Southern Methodist, *Oklahoma, @Kentucky)
142 Missouri 1-0 1-0 4-3
240 Mississippi State 0-1 0-1 1-3
Updated: 4:18pm, January 27
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The Super Bowl XLVIII dog and pony shows commenced Sunday night with the New Jersey/New York (depends what side of the river you're on) arrivals of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.
In the coming days, our readers at GatorZone.com surely will be interested in how the University of Florida connections fare, with Seahawks' defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and wide receiver Percy Harvin, figuring prominently in Sunday night's big game. On the Broncos side, wideout Andre Caldwell and Jerome Mincey will represent.
In my previous life as an NFL writer, I covered 13 Super Bowls, mostly during my run with the Orlando Sentinel, and certainly had my fill of Media Day moments. One of my favorites came in 1991 at Tampa Stadium. When the Buffalo Bills were done with their session, All-Pro defensive stars Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett climbed down from their podiums, stepped over the ropes and walked together across the pristine manicured grass on the way to the team's locker room.
A groundskeeper yelled at them.
"Hey!" he shouted. "You guys aren't allowed on the field!"
Smith's response: "Oh yeah? Come move us!"
That was more than two decades ago and Media Day has mushroom-clouded from overexposure.
I can't wait to see the mob scene at Richard Sherman's podium Tuesday, which likely will rival the Ray Lewis scene at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa 13 years ago (minus the questions a murder case). The over-under on inane questions during the day is off the board. Ditto the number of man hugs Stuart Scott gives players. Oh, and someone will be wearing a Captain America, Green Lantern or Batman-like costume, and because the event will be held indoors -- rather at MetLife Stadium, where temperatures will be around 15 degrees Tuesday morning -- let's not forget the voluptuous Telemundo correspondents who will get every single one of their ridiculous questions answered ... and rightfully so.
The hottest topic of the week, of course, will be the coldest Super Bowl in history. Extended forecasts for next Sunday call for highs in the mid-30s, with temperatures dipping below freezing, with a chance of snow showers.
Imagine for a second, if this game turns into a blowout, and fans decide they've seen enough (after Bruno Mars and friends play halftime). Empty seats at a Super Bowl will make for a great photo op, but the NFL will get what it deserves (whatever that may be) and be just fine. Better than fine.
It's "The King."
The game could end up being a winter classic, but all the run-up this week made me think about the run-up to a Super Bowl being placed in the Northeast -- outdoors, no less -- in the first place. What were they thinking? Answer: they weren't.
Four years ago, I was a senior NFL writer for AOL's Fanhouse.com, I attended the league meetings near Dallas, where the owners met to vote on the site of the 2014 Super Bowl. Some called the outcome a fait accompli. It was more like a kangaroo court. The New York Giants and Jets had committed to building a $1.6 billion stadium, so New York (make that New Jersey, but you get the idea) was goign to get a Super Bowl.
My story from May 24, 2010.
By Chris Harry
Senior NFL Writer
IRVING, Texas -- So they want to play a Super Bowl in New York City, eh?
The host clubs in the bidding process, the Giants and Jets, have teamed up to embrace the cold-weather element and want the league’s championship game to go “old school,” as quarterback Eli Manning put it. The motto for New York push is “Let’s Make Some History.”
First, let’s relive some history.
Rewind 10 years ago to Super Bowl weekend in Atlanta.
A sluggish winter storm dripped a crippling coating of ice on much of the Southeast today, cracking thousands of drooping pine trees and cutting off electric power to more than 500,000 households, mostly in Atlanta. City and football officials spent the day trying to reassure the public that the weather could not hurt their plans for this season’s grandest spectacle, Super Bowl XXXIV, on Sunday, because the game will be played in a dome. City and state road crews scattered salt and sand on roads throughout the Atlanta metropolitan area as the National Weather Service predicted the temperatures would hover around freezing with occasional freezing rain through the day.
Other items in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution detailed how the Georgia Department of Transportation had to suspend shuttle service between Super Bowl hotels and the Georgia Dome, the game’s site. That sand spread on the streets for traction iced over. Sixteen power generators were brought to the dome in case ice and snow knocked out power downtown. Travel on Interstates 75 and 85, the north-south freeways through the city, were at a 5-10 mph crawl all weekend. Interstate-20, the east-west route, came to a standstill after a 49-car pile-up. President Clinton declared 30 Georgia counties disaster areas.
“The weather has had some impact on some of the events surrounding the game,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said. “Some people haven’t been able to get into town because their flights were canceled.”
“In 18 years, this is the most ice I’ve ever seen accumulate,” Weather Channel senior meteorologist Tom Moore said.
“The game should go on and people should be able to see it,” Georgia Power spokesperson Carol Boatright assured.
Remember that weekend, NFL?
Now take those Atlanta scenes 850 miles north, to one of the most densely populated areas in the world, and a region that just had 37 feet of snow in the Super Bowl month of February, the most in 140 years. “Snowmaggeden.”
Oh, and one more thing: play the game outdoors.
Super Bowl meet Super Brrrr.
Barring a stunning upset, the NFL is expected to vote the 2014 Super Bowl to New York City when the league convenes for its spring meetings Tuesday at the Omni Hotel-Las Colinas. Commissioner Roger Goodell does not have a vote, but the man with the big office in Manhattan has made it clear to the league’s 32 owners -- publicly and privately -- that he wants the NFL’s grand spectacle to be played at the new $1.6 billion Meadowlands stadium, set to open this season and be shared by the Giants and Jets, in East Rutherford, N.J.
“I think it can be very attractive to the ownership and to the NFL in general,” Goodell said.
Goodell usually gets what he wants, having shown his considerable influence in March when he rammed through controversial new overtime rules for the postseason during the league’s annual meetings. The OT proposals were unpopular with some teams (and lots of coaches), yet passed by a 28-4 vote.
The NFL already has rewarded Dallas and Indianapolis for building palatial new stadiums with Super Bowls. Goodell’s home teams -- potential for an Ice Bowl and all -- are up next.
South Florida and Tampa, which have hosted a combined 14 Super Bowls, also are bidding on the game, but the balloting for this one already has the feel of an Iranian election. Some of the most prominent owners in the league, including New England’s Robert Kraft, are in Goodell’s corner and want it to happen.
“Our league was founded on winter football,” Kraft told The New York Daily News last week. “Our sport is about resilience, mental toughness, adjustments. I think it will be a great experience for the fans. A memorable experience.”
A faction of owners, mostly from destination-city franchises, would prefer the league not open a cold-weather can of worms. If New York, what about Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Chicago, et al?
“I’m OK with an open-air Super Bowl,” Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown said at NFL meetings two months ago. “As long as it’s in Florida.”
Each city will give a 15-minute presentation touting its bid, after which owners will cast their votes. If one of the city’s gets a three-quarters majority (24 votes), it gets the game. If not, the city with the least votes is eliminated and a second vote is taken between the two remaining candidates, with only a 17-vote simple majority needed.
“It's time for the biggest game in football to be played on the biggest stage in the world,” Jets owner Woody Johnson and Giants treasurer Jonathan Tisch, bid committee chairmen, said in a joint statement released by the New York group. “We are confident that the appeal and prestige of the New York City metropolitan region, coupled with the innovative capabilities of our brand-new state-of-the-art facility, can provide a unique and exciting experience for the teams and fans, as well as the entire league and the sport of football.”
The road to rubber-stamping the experience began in December when the NFL’s Super Bowl Advisory Committee waived a rule that required the Super Bowl to be played at climate-controlled indoor stadiums or at outdoor sites where the average temperature is no less than 50 degrees.
Once that hurdle was eliminated -- presumably at Goodell’s behest -- New York became the front-runner.
Former Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy, now an analyst with NBC and winner of Super Bowl XLI in rainy Miami three years ago, questioned how a guideline for making the game fair for both teams, and comfortable for the fans, became so unimportant.
“Now, all of a sudden, we’re saying, ‘Oh well, that used to be the rule, but it doesn’t matter anymore,’ ‘’ Dungy told FanHouse last week. “Obviously, for 43 years we said that it [mattered]. We didn’t allow it. And while I understand New York has a beautiful new stadium and would be a great place to have a Super Bowl from a media interest standpoint. But if I was coaching, I’d certainly want the best conditions for the game ... and you don’t know if you’re going to get that in New York.”
How would Dungy’s world-championship team of ’06, led by Peyton Manning, fared in the Super Bowl if that Miami rain had been a New Jersey sleet storm against the weather-worn Chicago Bears? What if Kurt Warner and the ’99 St. Louis Rams, “The Greatest Show on Turf,” had been rewarded for their spectacular pass-happy season by facing the Tennessee Titans in those infamous 30-mph winds at Giants Stadium?
“I’ve been in some bad Meadowlands games in November, but that’s part of the game,” Dungy said. “But I don’t know that it’s right to do it [for the Super Bowl] based on the rules that we had in place for more than 40 years.”
Proponents of the New York push will point out that the average high temperature in East Rutherford the first week in February is 38 degrees; with the average low is 22 degrees. Those aren’t exactly Arctic conditions.
They’re not ideal, either.
“I like the Super Bowl where the elements don’t have any factor in the game,” Jets wide receiver Santonio Holmes, MVP of Super Bowl XLII in Tampa as a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, told reporters last week. “I would prefer to keep all Super Bowls somewhere in the South. I don’t want to play anywhere where it’s cold. We play it enough during the season.”
The NFL Players Association has not taken an official position on the issue.
“From a player’s standpoint, I would imagine any team would be excited to be in a Super Bowl and have a chance to win a championship. Where it is would be of secondary importance,” said veteran Dolphins quarterback Chad Pennington, who played eight seasons with the Jets. “But I just think it would be a no-brainer to want to be in warm weather rather than cold weather -- for anybody, including those people in New York.”
The fans, the ones paying $2,000 per ticket, have not been asked how they feel. The answer is fairly obvious.
They’ll feel cold.
Back to Atlanta 10 years ago.
"Of course, all of this ice, all these cold and frigid conditions, are putting a little bit of a damper on the festivities here on Super Bowl weekend. There are some parties taking place in Buckhead, the Bud Bowl party. But the attendance there, probably not as much as people had hoped. And again, the festive atmosphere probably not as great as it had been hoped for Super Bowl weekend. But again, the Super Bowl will be held here in spite of all the ice, in spite of the rain, in spite of a little bit of sleet. It’s be held right behind me here in the dome, and, of course, the weather will be fine there tomorrow: 72 degrees. That’ll please both the fans and the players. I’m Brian Cabell, CNN, live in Atlanta."
Dress warmly. And bring a shovel, just in case.