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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. Casey Prather off the bounce
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.

 

Billy D and USA 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.



David Lee TRIVIA QUESTION

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.


 TWITTER PATTER



Frazier scowling 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

Whatever.

Gator cage diving

 

Kasey Hill FREE THROWS
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.


Wednesday February 5, 2014 For Chris Walker, small numbers, big highlights -- and perfect debut

Updated: 11:15pm, February 7

Chris Dunking

                                                                                                             (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?

Chris Walker in stance 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.

Until now.

“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.”

Walker blox shot 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.”

Chris and eye 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.

 

JT to UF

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.

JT and Griz 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.

 

 

 

Pat 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.

 

TRIVIA QUESTION

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. 

 



Joakim 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.


 

TWITTER PATTER

 



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

Alligator in the sewer

 

 Billy D III FREE THROWS

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.

Friday January 31, 2014 Scout team swan song for Chris "Sky" Walker

Updated: 1:45pm, January 31

Chris Walker on bench ... againGAINESVILLE, 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.

Thursday January 30, 2014 Chris Walker is coming ... now what?

Updated: 12:10pm, January 30

Chris Walker

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).

 

 

 
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!”

ChrisWalker 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.

Tuesday January 28, 2014 Charting the Gators: SEC, RPI & SOS

Updated: 1:29pm, January 28

Casey vs Shaq 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. 

RPI        TEAM 
5            Florida
13          Kentucky
53          Tennessee
54          Missouri
57          Ole Miss
65          LSU
70          Arkansas
84          Vanderbilt
85          Alabama
117        Georgia
125        Texas A&M
126        Mississippi State
134        South Carolina
186        Auburn

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
(@Massachusetts, *Memphis)

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
(UCLA)

240    Mississippi State      0-1    0-1       1-3
(@Kentucky)

Monday January 27, 2014 When New York-New Jersey got its Super Bowl ... and I was there

Updated: 4:18pm, January 27

Super Bowl and snow

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.

Lovely.

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
Fanhouse.come

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."

History calls.

Dress warmly. And bring a shovel, just in case.

Sunday January 26, 2014 Basket Blog: 3-point defense, press defense, Parson's hot hand, etc.

Updated: 7:21pm, January 26

Patric vs shot GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- He calls the 3-point line “the great equalizer.”

In the basketball universe, that phrase is hardly exclusive to Billy Donovan, but it’s something he emphasizes daily on both ends of the floor. Everyone knows Donovan’s teams love to shoot 3s, but the Gators spend an awful lot of time practicing to prevent them.

Yet when UF went to Alabama for Thursday night’s game, the Gators were allowing 35.9 percent shooting from the arc (fifth-worst in the league), including a horrific 44.6 percent in in their four Southeastern Conference games. The latter statistic was worst in the league. 

“We’re giving up a higher percentage on 3-point shots than 2-point shots,” Donovan pointed out.

That quote actually came after Saturday’s 67-41 annihilation of Tennessee. Given what happened in the O'Connell Center that day (and two days earlier in Tuscaloosa), consider the statement retroactive to the previous two games.

Florida’s coaches consistently peg the 3-point line as a point of emphasis on the road, given that most teams shoot better in their home arenas. Like Auburn did last weekend in making its first five long-range jumpers and feeding off the momentum to take UF down to the wire.

The Gators numbers got a whole lot better, though, after beating the Crimson Tide and Volunteers, virtually shutting both out from long distance. Try a combined 3-for-31 -- Alabama went 2-for-12, Tennessee 1-for-19 -- which equates to a two-game defensive yield of 9.7 percent from the great beyond.

You can win a lot of game defending the line like that.

“Maybe things are evening out a little bit,” Donovan said. “That’s an area we’ve talked about trying to get better. [Tennessee] did take 19 and that’s probably too much [to give up], but we played some zone and you’re going to give up some 3s. So it was part our defense and some of them missing.”

The Gators (17-2, 6-0) will go into this week -- with games Thursday at Mississippi State (13-6, 3-3) and home Saturday against Texas A&M (12-7, 3-3) -- with vastly better defensive numbers from the arc.

SEC opponents are now hitting 32.2 percent, which is up to eighth in the league. That’s headed more where Donovan wants to be, but just how good the Gators really are at defending the line either will even out or bear out as the season moves on.

 

Gators defense THAT’S WHAT HE WANTS

In the second half against the Vols, the Gators turned a seven-point lead at the break into a 23-point lead in less than 10 minutes, thanks to a 21-5 blitz out out of the locker room.

That's the blueprint Donovan wants this team built around. All of his teams, actually.

“Certainly, we want to stretch the floor and press,” he said.

Florida was able to do that in the second half better than the first for one simple reason: the Gators hit shots. When shots are made and the ball has to be inbounded, the defense has time to set the press, as opposed to scrambling back after a miss and picking up a man or getting to a spot in the zone.

Even with the press working so effectively, UF only forced six second-half turnovers, but the Vols broke it just once for a mere two fast-break points. And when UT did manage to get the ball into the halfcourt, a nice chunk of the shot clock was gone and the Vols -- including leading scorer Jordan McRae (1-for-15) -- took some really bad shots.

That's what you call chaos on the court.

There’s nothing Donovan likes better.

 

TRIVIA QUESTION

When UF won at Bama it marked the 100th victory for the senior class of Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather, and is the most by any four-man class that stayed the entire four years. The Tennessee win gave that group 101 victories. Name the players from the only three-man UF class to win 100 games.

 

Parsons FORMER GATOR UPDATE

This one was easy.

If you didn’t know Houston Rockets forward Chandler Parsons, the 2011 SEC Player of the Year, tied a franchise record Friday night by burying 10 straight 3-point shots against the Memphis Grizzlies then you probably were locked in a closet somewhere.

Parsons was positively unconscious, raining a perfect 10-for-10 in the second half -- the only player in NBA history to hit that many treys without a miss in one half -- on his way to scoring a career-high 34 points. The Rockets, though, lost the game 88-87.

“My body went numb,” Parsons told The Houston Chronicle. “I never felt that feeling on a basketball court before. It was a lot of fun. I felt like anything I would throw up there would go in. It felt extremely good.”

Guess so.

The performance also came the same day USA Basketball left Parsons off its 28-man roster for tryouts for the national team going to the World Championships this summer. Consider that motivation.

If you missed the highlights, enjoy.





TWITTER PATTER

 

 

CHARTING THE GATORS
Patric Young keeps inventory of when he gets on ESPN’s Top 10 Plays. He made it Saturday night, checking in at No. 9 for his one-handed, alley-oop slam on a pass from Michael Frazier II. Congrats. Well, here's another Top 10 for the big fella. Thursday night will mark Young’s 131st game, which will move him into a tie with Matt Bonner for 10th place on the all-time UF list.

           Rank    Players                    Years           Games
             1        Walter Hodge           2006-09       151
             2        Kenny Boynton        2010-13        145
             3        Erving Walker          2009-12        144
             4        Chandler Parsons    2008-11        142
                       Alex Tyus                 2008-11       
             6        Chris Richard           2004-07        141
                       Dan Werner             2007-10   
             8        Erik Murphy             2010-13        136
                       Lee Humphrey        2004-07       
           10        Matt Bonner            2000-03         131

 

IRREVERANT GATOR PHOTO

"Knock! Knock!" Seriously, what would the look have been on that person's face?

Alligator at the door

 

FREE THROWS

UF’s defensive efficiency rating (that's points per possession) against UT was a ridiculous .69. Florida's coaches set a goal for each game at .90 or below. ... Tennessee’s loss at the O’Dome was the worst in Coach Cuonzo Martin’s three seasons. The 26-point margin eclipsed by one the 69-44 pounding eventual national champion Kentucky put on the Vols in Lexington two years ago. UT’s shooting percentage of 26.2 was its worst in an SEC game in 17 years. ... With Duke beating Florida State on Saturday, the Blue Devils have the longest active home winning streak in the nation at 28 games, while UF pulled even with Stephen F. Austin for second place at 26. SFAU plays host to Abilene Christian Thursday. ... ESPN coloar analyst Jimmy Dykes called Saturday’s game. Dykes said Florida plays “mother-in-law defense.” Translation: “constant harassment.” That's a pretty good line. ... Young (1,079 points) needs two points to pass Lee Humphrey and move to No. 45 on the school’s all-time scoring list. ... Regarding McRae’s 1-for-15 game, only one other player in the nation this season has taken more shots in a game and made just one field goal. Take a bow, Fordham’s Jon Severe, who went 1-for-21 against St. John’s. Hey, you’re only one make away from that hot streak, right? ... Trivia answer: The 1999-2000 freshman class of Matt Bonner, Justin Hamilton and Brett Nelson won 100 games (and played in the 2000 NCAA final) during their four seasons.

 

Thursday January 23, 2014 For now, Coleman Coliseum toughest place to win in SEC

Updated: 2:32pm, January 23

Coleman TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- Little-known fact about Coleman Coliseum, home to the University of Alabama basketball team and next stop for the No. 6 Gators (15-2, 4-0) Thursday night.

The Crimson Tide (8-9, 2-2) has the longest active home winning streak in Southeastern Conference play at 14 straight.

Hear that, Rowdy Reptiles?

UF may have a run of 25 consecutive wins at the O’Connell Center -- the longest in school history and third-longest active streak in the nation -- but the Gators trail Bama in the consecutive conference win category. Florida’s current home streak is just 11 games, dating to the 2011-12 season finale against a Kentucky team that went on to win the NCAA championship.

The Tide’s last home defeat? Well, that came Feb. 14, 2012, when the Gators rolled into town and posted a 61-52 win behind 19 points from Patric Young and 14 points and eight rebounds from Bradley Beal. Included in Bama's 14 straight league wins since that Valentine's Day two years ago are victories over Kentucky, Tennessee (twice) and Arkansas.

To expand, Alabama is 25-2 here since the 2010 season.

To translate: tough place to play.

On the flip side (and not that it matters tonight), Alabama has lost seven straight true road games, five in conference play, including setbacks at Georgia and Missouri this season. The Tide was drummed at Mizzou just five days ago when it made just four of 24 field-goal attempts (that would be 16.6 percent) in the second half. The inability to play well on the road the last two years has been one of the on-going storylines here in the Capstone.

Alabama coach Anthony Grant has no explanation for why his team has been so good at home and so bad on the road, aside from the obvious.

His team just needs to play better in hostile situations.

“My approach in terms of what we try to do is no different when we leave Coleman Coliseum,” Grant said earlier this week. “Anytime you’re in a familiar environment in makes a difference. Here we have fans cheering for us as opposed to against us. But it’s a matter of putting yourself in a position of being successful.”

That scenario will apply tonight for the Gators, who already have won twice on the SEC road this season: at Arkansas (snapping the Razorbacks’ 25-game home winning streak) and at Auburn last weekend.

Tuesday January 21, 2014 Donovan talks Chris Walker

Updated: 6:36pm, January 21

Chris Walker on benchGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Guess who was Twitter trending in Gatorland Monday night?

At 8:49 p.m., an Orlando television sports anchor, WFTV's Christian Bruey, tweeted he’d been “told” Florida freshman center Chris Walker would miss one more game (Thursday at Alabama), then be ruled eligible to suit up for the Gators (Saturday against Tennessee).

Never mind that Monday was a holiday and chances are the NCAA wasn’t working.

The so-called report was put to UF coach Billy Donovan on Tuesday. He tried to clarify things as succinctly as possible.

“As it relates to Chris, just listen to us and our school. I’m not going to address it anymore,” Donovan said. “Certainly, we’re hopeful he gets back soon, but there’s been no indication that there’s any truth to that at all.”

That makes three such erroneous “reports” the last three weeks regarding Walker’s pending eligibility. Donovan, his assistants, his players and the Florida fan base certainly can’t wait to get the good word on Walker, the wildly athletic 6-foot-10 McDonald’s All-American from Bonifay, Fla. They'd love for Bruey's tweet to be right.

But nothing is imminent regarding a decision on Walker.

UF officials are being kept in the loop as much as the NCAA tends to do that, and that’s how Donovan laid it out Tuesday.

“Whenever he gets cleared, and certainly we all hope it’s soon, believe me, I’m not going to throw a guy in a game and have him pop up and you guys not be aware of it,” Donovan said. “The minute he gets eligible, cleared and he’s able to play, I’ll let you know. Anything else that’s out there about that is not true.”

In the interim, Walker has been hard at work since joining the team Dec. 14 at the conclusion of the first semester. Walker did not qualify academically to enroll at UF for the fall, but spent August through December rallying his collegiate transcript.

The last five weeks -- while he's sat out seven games -- have been about getting Walker caught up with the UF system and acclimated to high-level college competition. Remember, the last real competitive basketball he played was in the Class 1A State Tournament in February 2013.

That’s not exactly the Southeastern Conference. 

“The only thing I’ve been trying to do with Chris is each and every day trying to help him get better as a player, provide the resources he needs academically, try to work with him on the court to get better,” Donovan said. “In terms of all the details and hang-ups, I don’t know all those details because when there’s something going on like this, there’s ethical conduct forms that are signed. That stuff has to be kept confidential, be kept between Chris and the NCAA, kept between our administration and the NCAA. I’m not involved in any of those conversations. I trust our administration and what they’re doing. Hopefully it will be resolved in a timely fashion. I know everyone is involved one way or another to know what’s going to happen.”

Billy D GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s easy to overlook basketball in the Southeastern Conference.

Outside Kentucky, that is.

And yes, that apparently includes the Florida Gators, who right now are the best team in an underachieving league and do not have lottery picks in waiting or superstar freshmen flashing highlights on SportsCenter. They do have a really balanced roster, highlighted by four very good seniors who have blossomed in the program, but how sexy is that?

Yet after falling all the way to No. 19 after that Dec. 2 buzzer-beating loss at Connecticut, the Gators (15-2, 4-0) have won nine straight and slowly inched their way back up the polls. UF checked in at No. 6 this week and has two challenging games upcoming:

* Thursday at defense-minded Alabama (8-9, 2-2). Will not be an artistic game.

* Saturday at home against Tennessee (11-6, 2-2), which has beaten the Gators 13 of the last 21 times, including three straight.

But some folks are starting to take closer notice of the Gators -- Yahoo’s Pat Forde included Casey Prather among his "Most Improved Team" in this week’s “Forde MInutes” installment -- with ESPN.com's Jeff Goodman checking in Monday with a nice Insider piece headlined, “Florida a quiet title contender.”

Goodman mentioned how UF entered the season with Scottie Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith suspended at Wisconsin and later with their situations influx (Wilbekin hurt, Finney-Smith out of position) at Connecticutm and how those two losses -- and circumstances -- likely helped move the Gators under the radar.

That and the lack of a star power along the lines of those at Kentucky, Kansas and Duke, to name a few. For what it’s worth, Florida plays Kentucky in three weeks and already has beaten Kansas and all those freshmen phenoms.

Here’s a a couple chunks of his text:

No team has been as incomplete as Florida. No national title contender has managed to slide under the radar like [Coach Billy] Donovan’s group.

Perhaps the two early-season losses are a factor in how the Gators aren't included in most conversations that center on the top teams in the country, but it’s more than that. The other issue is there’s no face of this season's team, no superstar.

“I think on any given night, we can play with anyone,” Donovan said. “But we don’t have a Julius Randle, a Jabari Parker, a Doug McDermott or a Marcus Smart.

“We don’t have a star,” he added. “Our team is based on being a team.”

But Donovan has enough pieces, even if heralded and talented 6-foot-10 freshman Chris Walker doesn’t make his presence felt this season in Gainesville (still awaiting word from the NCAA on his eligibility while he is able to practice with the Gators).

Goodman writes about Wilbekin being one of the top “two-way players in the country” and freshman point guard Kasey Hill adapting to point guard responsibilities in Donovan’s system, the reliability of senior center Patric Young (who will “never live up to the lottery expectations”), the shooting of Michael Frazier II, and sharing of low-post duties from “blue-collar” Will Yeguete and “the more athletic and versatile” Finney-Smith.

No. 1 Arizona looks terrific so far, and fellow unbeatens Syracuse and Wichita State definitely warrant praise for their seasons to date. Michigan State, also.

Villanova did, then welcomed Creighton Monday night. Ugh. I think the Bluejays just made another 3.

Anyway, the Gators figure to be in the thick of the conversations soon enough. That’s Goodman’s point.

“There’s a lot of parity,” Donovan said. “I don’t look at anyone and say, 'Wow.'”

And few have looked at his team similarly. While the Gators are hardly overwhelming, the two setbacks have built-in excuses -- even if Donovan has no interest in using them.

There are a couple of noteworthy wins, at home against Kansas and in New York over a talented yet enigmatic Memphis squad. And the Gators are 4-0 in the SEC but haven’t exactly beaten anyone of note. Then again, who is there to beat of note in the league besides Kentucky?

They might lack a name to draw national attention, but the Gators are finally healthy and are a legitimate national title contender.

Sunday January 19, 2014 Basket Blog: Frazier, Prather, Bonner, 4-0 starts, etc.

Updated: 11:08pm, January 19

Frazier vs Auburn GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- As he left the Florida locker room Saturday night and shuffled toward the team bus, Michael Frazier II heard his name called.

We had to talk.

Frazier smiled. He almost made a clean getaway.

“I’m good,” the sophomore shooting guard said after his first scoreless game of the season. “You’re going to have nights like this. I’m just glad we got the win.”

The seventh-ranked Gators fought off Auburn for a 68-61 victory with Frazier, the Southeastern Conference’s leader in 3-point percentage coming in (47.3), attempting just two shots. It was quite the contrast from last Feb. 16 when Frazier went to Auburn Arena and torched the Tigers by going 6-for-7 from the arc and pacing UF’s torrid 15-for-30 team marksmanship out there in a 31-point wipeout.

It was different, even, than four nights earlier against Georgia when Frazier (pictured right) started 1-for-8 from 3-point land that shredded the Bulldogs with four straight over four minutes on his way to a career-high 21 points.

Clearly, Auburn coach Tony Barbee marked Frazier as a defensive priority. If Florida was going to beat his team, it wasn’t going to be with Frazier bombing away.

“They weren’t leaving me at all,” said Frazier, who tried to move to open spots and give point guard Scottie Wilbekin a pass-out target, but Auburn defenders extended out on him across the arc. “They weren’t dropping down to help [on the drives]. I heard the coach saying, ‘No catch! No catch!’ They were pressing up on me and not letting me get the ball.”

Frazier two shots were both 3-point tries. Both were contested. One was an air ball.

Such is life for a marked man.

That was exactly the point Coach Billy Donovan’s made to his shooter in both the halftime and post-game locker room.

“Great lesson for him,” Donovan said afterward. “He’s got to understand that teams are going to come after him, so he’ll have to work and find some other places to impact the game. I think he got frustrated and, maybe, mentally taken out of it. But he’s got to keep playing. He can still help our team elsewhere.”

Added Frazier: “I have to do a better job of controlling my frustration. I let it affect me too much on the [defensive] end of the floor. And I never got into a rhythm because I was getting pulled in and out of the game.”

Frazier is as coachable as anyone on the team, so after his most lifeless outing of the season -- the last time he went without a point was the Elite Eight loss against Michigan last March -- he’ll try to learn from the experience and move on.

It’ll be a lot easier to do so after posting a ninth straight victory.

“That says something about this team and the character of the guys we have,” Frazier said. “It wasn’t my night, but other guys stepped up. Maybe down the line, when it’s not someone else’s night, maybe I’ll be the one picking them up.”


Casey vs Auburn WAS HE EVER HURT?

At Saturday’s pre-game meal, Donovan stood over his players and told them it would be unfair to expect senior forward Casey Prather, the team’s leading scorer at 17 points per game, to return to the court against Auburn and pick where he left off before injuring his knee the week before. Donovan and his staff did not know how much Prather would play, but the Gators could not lean too heavily on him. That was the message.

The reality?

“I felt great going into the game,” Prather said. “I couldn’t wait to get out there.”

Prather (pictured above) hopped off the bench to score 16 points in the first half, making his first six shots, on the way to leading the Gators with 21 points on 8-for-10 shooting.

“I wasn’t really surprised,” senior center Patric Young said. “The guy said he was ready to go.

With UF’s next game not until Thursday at Alabama -- the team’s first of two straight weekends of SEC Thursday-Saturday turnarounds -- Prather might even be at full strength for the Crimson Tide.

That was sarcasm, by the way.

Prather is now averaging 17.3 points and his .636 field-goal percentage leads the SEC and ranks fourth in the nation. If Prather hits his average Thursday at 'Bama, it'll give him 276 points this season and would match his total for the three previous seasons combined.

Yeah, it's nice to have him back.


TRIVIA QUESTION

Frazier’s scoreless game was his first this season, but he had six last year as a freshman. Of the UF four-man senior class -- Young, Wilbekin, Prather and Will Yeguete -- who has the longest streak without a scoreless game? Answer below in the "Free Throws" section.

 

EX-GATOR UPDATE

Matt Bonner isn’t playing much for the San Antonio Spurs in this, his 10th NBA season. But the former UF forward and 3-point shooter made a splash last week at the team’s annual “Tux N Tennies” charity ball, a fundraiser to benefit the franchise's Silver & Black Give Back Foundation.

The program features players taking part in skits and Bonner won the talent contest by going totally old school. The “Red Mamba,” as Kobe Bryant calls him, reached back into the archives of “Saturday Night Live” and performed a takeoff of Andy Kaufman’s classic character/nervous wreck “Foreign Man,” copying his lip-synching to the theme of the “Mighty Mouse” cartoon. Kaufman did his on his "SNL" debut in 1975.

As Deadspin pointed out in its story, Bonner certainly stepped out of the box with his choice of material. There couldn’t have been more than a handful in the audience that recalled Kaufman’s act from nearly four decades ago, but he pulled off some pretty sophisticated humor to rave reviews. 

Here’s Kaufman's original and Bonner’s version.

 

 

TWITTER PATTER

Prather GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Forward Casey Prather participated in non-contact work during Thursday’s practice and is listed as “questionable” for Saturday when the seventh-ranked Florida Gators (14-2, 3-0) hit the road for a Southeastern Conference date at Auburn (8-6, 0-3).

Prather, who leads UF in scoring at 17 points per game and whose 62.4 field-goal percentage tops the SEC, has missed the last two games with a bruised bone in his right knee.

Just how Prather got the injury remains something of a mystery. The 6-foot-6 forward from Jackson, Tenn., woke up the morning after UF’s 74-58 defeat of South Carolina on Jan 8 with a swollen knee, though he left the floor that night feeling fine. The Gators’ health staff reviewed tape of the game and saw nothing to tip them off regarding the source moment of the injury.

Still, the Gators were able to win two SEC games minus Prather, defeating Arkansas on the road in overtime Saturday and Georgia at home Wednesday, using two different starting lineups.

UF trainer David “Duke” Werner cleared Prather for the first part of practice Thursday, which was exclusively non-contact, but had him sit out the full-go scrimmage sessions and eventually sent Prather to the training room for more treatment.

Prather’s status is not likely to change before the 4 p.m. tipoff at Auburn Arena, with Werner and Coach Billy Donovan probably making a decision whether to play Prather depending on how the player looks and feels at the morning shoot-around.

Wednesday January 15, 2014 Patric Young gets his night ... and his beard

Updated: 2:07pm, January 15

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- OK, one last item from “Patric Young Beard Night.” Last one, I promise.

Probably. 


The seventh-ranked Florida Gators made 72-50 work Tuesday of their Southeastern Conference rival Georgia Bulldogs, capturing a seventh straight win, a 25th in a row at home and moving to 14-2 overall, including 3-0 in league play. As a tribute to Young, the popular senior center, the first 1,000 students from the Rowdy Reptiles student section were given fake orange beards to wear for the game.

A good time was had by all, as Young scored 10 points and grabbed a season-high nine rebounds in one of UF's best defensive efforts of the season.

That much everybody knows, right?

But late last night, we learned that a certain guy in the house who really, really wanted one of those fury, orange things left the O’Connell Center without one.

 The Gators have Wednesday off, but when Young heads to the basketball complex and checks in at his locker room Thursday, he’ll find this.

Pat's locker

Nice game. Nice gesture. Nice ending.

On to Auburn.

Sunday January 12, 2014 Basket Blog: 'Doe-Doe,' beards, boards, streaks, tweets, etc.

Updated: 6:51pm, January 12

DoeGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Dorian Finney-Smith sat out the 2012-13 season under NCAA transfer rules. After making an impact as a freshman at Virginia Tech, a coaching change there prompted him to look for a change of scenery. He opted for Florida, which had recruited him hard during his prep years in Portsmouth, Va.

“I wish I’d come here out of high school,” Finney-Smith said.

Instead, the kid called “Doe-Doe” came here from Hokie Lan, did a year on the UF scout team and at times flashed like the best player on the practice floor. Gators coach Billy Donovan and his staff certainly appreciated the work Finney-Smith was put in -- while not being able to play in games -- but did not have to coach him, per se.

That all changed this season. For Donovan, finding the right buttons to push with Finney-Smith has been a challenge. Donovan coaches one way -- hard -- but he also coaches to his players' personalities and he needed some time to witness Finney-Smith’s vulnerabilities with his confidence.

So the last couple days, Donovan didn’t focus so much on Finney-Smith’s inconsistent motor and how he tends to take a play off here and there or lose his man on defense. Instead, Donovan pumped the guy up, telling him how much he believed in him and to stop worrying about making mistakes.

“He always tells me that I deserve to play well,” Finney-Smith said. “That I put the work in and that he has confidence in me and my teammates have confidence -- and to just go play.”

That was the message to Finney-Smith before his second start of the season Saturday at Arkansas. All Donovan got was a stuffed stat line of 22 points, 15 rebounds, 3-for-7 from 3-point range and three steals in a ridiculously energized 42 minutes of UF’s 84-82 overtime win.

“How many rebounds?” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin asked after the game he sent into OT on his jumper with two seconds left in regulation. “Dang! Those are video game numbers.”

The Gators (13-2, 2-0) hope the “Doe-Doe” joystick ride continues, preferably with Tuesday night’s home game against surprising Georgia (8-6, 2-0), which already has a road win at No. 21 Missouri and Saturday defeated Alabama.

“I’ve got to do a better job with him,” Donovan said of Finney-Smith after Saturday’s big road win at Fayetteville, Ark. “He’s a real, real good team guy. He plays the right way. He’s got a really good feel. But he’s not a guy who plays through mistakes really well. He gets down on himself. Gets frustrated. I have to do a better job of instilling confidence in him and getting him to continue to move on to the next play.”

If he does a better job than he did in prepping Finney-Smith in advance of Saturday’s game, God help the Southeastern Conference. The 6-foot-8, 215-pounder was a workhorse on the glass, bouncing around, tipping balls, keeping plays alive and keeping the Gators in a game without leading scorer Casey Prather (out with a bruised bone in his knee) and with center Patric Young complaining of achy knees.

“I was tuned in,” Finney-Smith said.

As it stands now, Finney-Smith is averaging 10.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. He’s only making 39.8 percent of his shots, but his 15 makes from 3-point range -- including a big one in overtime against the Hogs -- rates third on the team. He also had five assists in the SEC opener against South Carolina, which speaks to his unselfishness.

Now, it’s time to build on Saturday’s game. And mental approach.

“When I do something wrong, I tend to think about it and kind of hide in the game, not wanting to be aggressive,” Finney-Smith said. “Now, I’m trying to break through that.”

A true breakout game was a really good start.


Pats mugFEAR THE BEARD

No one needs to tell the Rowdy Reptiles to get fired up -- not after the record student turnout of 4,182 last week for South Carolina -- but Tuesday has a chance to be an even wilder atmosphere at the O’Connell Center.

It’ll be “Beard Night,” folks.

The first 1,000 students to enter the O’Dome will get a fuzzy orange beard in honor of Young, the popular senior with the perpetual fuzz on his face.

Therefore, in honor of “Beard Night,” you’ll want to check with @GatorZoneChris in the days/hours leading up to the game. I’ll have some items to get everyone in the mood. 


PHOTO GRAB

Scottie's shot

Great shot here of Scottie Wilbekin's game-tying basket with two seconds to go that forced overtime Saturday, courtesy of Michael Woods of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazzette.


TRIVIA QUESTION

Before “Doe-Doe” did his thing at Bud Walton Arena, who was the last UF player to grab 15 rebounds in a game? Answer in “Free Throws” section below.


Pitchford EX-GATOR UPDATE

Remember Walter Pitchford? The 6-foot-10 forward from Grand Rapids, Mich., signed with the Gators in the spring of 2011 and suited up as a freshman, playing in 13 games and totaling six points and four rebounds in 22 minutes.

After the season, Pitchford transferred to Nebraska, where he sat out last season and is now starting and averaging 8.6 points, 4.7 rebounds and 38 percent from 3-point range.

In the Cornhuskers’ 71-70 home loss to Michigan Thursday night, Pitchford committed a turnover at the 8:54 mark of second half. Up to that point, Pitchford was -- get this -- the only player in all of Division I men’s college basketball who had yet to commit a turnover, according to hoops statistic whiz Ken Pomeroy.

So to date, Pitchford shows one turnover in 330 minutes.

Very, very impressive.

 

 TWITTER PATTER

 
CHARTING THE GATORS -- STREAKING
Florida ended Arkansas’ home streak of 25 straight games (a mark that included two wins at Little Rock). And since Missouri (26 in a row) lost Wednesday night, that means the Gators now own the third-longest streak of consecutive home wins at 24, which also is tied for the longest in school history. UF can set the record Tuesday by beating the Bulldogs.

Team                               Streak      Last loss                                                       Next home game
Stephen F. Austin              26          Texas-Arlington 51-47 (Feb. 15, 2012)     Jan. 30 vs. Abilene Christian
Duke                                    25           North Carolina 88-70 (March 3, 2012)       Monday vs. Virginia
Florida                                 24           Kentucky 74-59 (March 4, 2012)                Tuesday vs. Georgia


IRREVERENT GATOR PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Gator crossing street



FREE THROWS

Prather did not practice Sunday and UF trainer David "Duke" Werner said the senior forward was doubtful for the Georgia game. ... Arkansas coach Mike Anderson is now 43-5 in three seasons at Bud Walton, with two of those losses to the Gators. ... UF's starting lineup Saturday, with Wilbekin and Young on the sidelines, was the sixth different combination to be out there for the opening tip. Should Prather miss Tuesday, whatever combo Donovan goes with will be starting lineup No. 7 this season. ... The Gators went 25-for-34 from the free-throw line Saturday (that's 73.5 percent), including 10-for-14 in overtime when they closed out the game. Wilbekin was 6-for-8, Finney-Smith 3-for-4. ... Trivia answer: It took 107 games for a UF player to grab 15 rebounds in a game. The last to do so was Chandler Parsons in a 75-43 home win against, strangely enough, an Arkansas team coached by current Gators assistant coach John Pelphrey on Jan. 22, 2011.

Prather GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Senior forward Casey Prather has a bruised bone in his right knee and will be sidelined Saturday when the 10th-ranked Florida Gators (12-2, 1-0) play at Arkansas (11-3, 0-1) in their Southeastern Conference road opener.

Prather, who leads UF in scoring at 17 points per game and whose field-goal percentage of 62.4 tops the SEC, does not know when he injured the knee. He was fine coming out of Wednesday night’s home win against South Carolina, but woke up Thursday morning with swelling in the knee.

“It definitely could have been worse,” Coach Billy Donovan said.

In more ways than one.

Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who suffered a right ankle sprain late against the Gamecocks, was limited to shooting-only Friday, but has not been ruled for the Razorbacks, who have won 25 straight games at home. That run is tied with Duke for the second-longest active streak in the nation.

Wilbekin figures to be a game-time decision.

Regarding Prather, the UF health staff was concerned about significant damage to his knee, but magnetic resonance imaging Thursday night revealed only a bruise. That was good news for the Gators and great news or Prather, who could be back next week.

In the interim, Florida will have to tweak its lineup. Again.

“It’s not like we haven’t dealt with this before,” Donovan said.

The Gators could replace Prather with sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith (9.9 points, 7.3 rebounds per game) or go with freshman Kasey Hill (7.3 points, 3.2 assists) and a three-guard lineup, assuming Wilbekin is cleared.

If Wilbekin can’t go, then nothing is off the table as far the rotation goes.

Whatever combination Donovan chooses, UF will roll out its sixth different starting lineup of the season and do it at Bud Walton Arena. The Gators were ranked No. 2 in the nation and unbeaten through seven SEC games when they went to Fayetteville last year and were massacred 80-69 and fell behind by 26 in the first half.

Casey PGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was held out of practice Thursday after spraining his right ankle in Wednesday night’s win over South Carolina.

And that was only half of Florida coach Billy Donovan's injury concerns.

UF forward and leading scorer Casey Prather (left) woke up Thursday with swelling in his right knee. Prather, the senior averaging 17 points, 5.5 rebounds and tops the Southeastern Conference in field-goal percentage at 62.4, did not practice and was scheduled to undergo tests Thursday night.

“He did not get hurt in the game,” Donovan said. “This one came out of nowhere.”

Where it's going won't be determined until the UF health staff sees those tests. But trainer David "Duke" Werner pegged both Wilbekin and Prather as questionable for Saturday when the 10th-ranked Gators (12-2, 1-0) take on Arkansas (11-3, 0-1) in their Southeastern Conference road opener.

"We just have to wait and see," Werner said.

Wilbekin rolled the same ankle late in last month’s game at Connecticut and was not on the floor to defend Huskies guard Shabazz Napier, who sank a 15-foot jumper as time expired for a 67-66 UConn win.

How did this one feel compared to that one?

“About the same,” said Wilbekin, the team’s playmaker and second-leading scorer at 12.3 points per game. “It hurt. It hurts every time I do it.”

It’s been happening a lot lately. Wilbekin actually turned the other ankle -- his left -- during Wednesday afternoon’s shoot-around and had to leave practice for a few minutes. He came back, ran hard and finished the workout.

Against the Gamecocks, Wilbekin was injured when he drove to the basket and missed a runner with just under three minutes to go in UF’s 74-58 win over the Gamecocks. At the time, the Gators were leading 70-47 and junior walk-on Jacob Kurtz was waiting at the scorer’s table to replace Wilbekin in the lineup.

Scottie After the game, Donovan spoke about how the UF coaches have tried to break Wilbekin (right) of the habit of driving to the basket, and shooting floaters off one foot. He takes a lot of them, but few go in.

“Yeah, I knew he was going to bring that up,” Wilbekin shrugged.

They’ve even put him through individual drills emphasizing two-footed, jump-stop takeoffs.

Donovan said Wilbekin had done a decent job breaking the habit, but that one time late in the game Wednesday proved one time too many. Plus, the shot was blocked.

“He was driving down the lane, out of control, no [offensive] movement and it’s early in the [shot] clock,” Donovan said. “He has to do a better job.”

Thursday January 9, 2014 Donovan, Gators reach out to Harris -- one more time

Updated: 10:40am, January 9

Damontre GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It was Christmas break and basketball operations had been shut down for a few days, but that did not stop Billy Donovan’s cell phone from blowing up with texts from a certain 6-foot-10 center. 

Please Coach give me another chance 

Damontre Harris, the South Carolina transfer dismissed from the team a week earlier, was begging for another opportunity to prove he was committed to the Gators. This after virtually going AWOL from the program for more than a month.

So Donovan weighed the circumstances, took them to his team and Monday night decided that Harris will get that one last chance to turn his story of blatant unaccountability into one of utter redemption. 

Harris has enrolled at UF for the spring semester and will resume some basketball-related activities with the Gators this week, Donovan told GatorZone.com, adding that no promises have been made to the player regarding his future in a Florida uniform. 

“I wouldn’t even say he’s rejoining our team,” Donovan explained. “Damontre is going to be in school the second semester and at some point -- and that time is completely up to me -- he’ll have a chance to practice with our team. I do not intend to play him. In fact, his playing status at the University of Florida is still very much up in the air.” 


Tre as Gamecock And so continues the strange odyssey of Harris, who two years ago averaged 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 2.3 blocks for the Gamecocks and was named to Southeastern Conference’s All-Defensive Team. When South Carolina fired coach Darrin Horn following the 2011-12 season, Harris transferred to UF and, per NCAA guidelines, sat out the entire ’12-13 season and was eligible to play this fall.


But then he vanished, refusing to return phones calls or text messages from his coaches and teammates, yet all the while meeting his academic and study hall requirements.

Donovan announced Dec. 21 that Harris had been dismissed from the team with an unconditional release to return to his home in Fayetteville, N.C., and try to find another place to play.

Then came the texts messages, as well as contrite calls to teammates.

“The easiest thing for me to do is kick this guy to the curb. I’m not going to do that,” Donovan said. “But I’m not backing down and just putting him in a uniform, either.”

So the Gators, as a team, talked about Harris after practice Monday and agreed to let him back in; on the coach’s terms, of course.

And they are non-negotiable.

It won’t be easy. Harris will have to deal with strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene before he even sniffs the practice court. That didn’t work out well the last time when Harris left in November, only to return for a few days (and sessions with Greene), and then vanish again.

Harris was one of three players, along with senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin and sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who entered the regular season on Donovan’s suspended list. That meant extra work during the offseason at unforgiving hours, plus added responsibilities and some loss of privileges in order to get back in the coach’s good graces.

All three, including Harris, met Donovan’s demands in time to resume practice Oct. 11.

Then things unraveled for the kid from North Carolina.

Now everyone will try to right them. Again.

 

Billy D in huddle GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At one point during Friday’s practice, Billy Donovan stopped play and lit into his players. He did not like their movement. He did not like their defense. He did not like their disposition. Or as he put it (quite loudly) ...

“I DON’T LIKE ANYTHING, RIGHT NOW!” he added.

The Gators responded and were more in tune when they came back for a meeting a walk-through that night. The Saturday morning shoot-around five hours before taking on Richmond was OK, not great.

Sort of like the game. 

“He told us in practice that he wasn’t happy with our level of focus and it really carried over,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier said after UF grinded to a 67-58 win over the Spiders at the O’Connell Center. “We didn’t have great focus in the first half. We weren’t locked in.”

That’s one of Donovan’s go-to phrases: “locked in.” There’s also “level of awareness” and “being connected” and “embracing the struggle” and a bunch others.

The Richmond game touched on a handful of them. It also provided the UF with yet another tough, anybody’s-game situation the likes of which were few last season.

“When he yelled at us at practice, we picked it up,” sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “We did it again here" vs. Richmond].

UF’s late-game collapses in 2012-13 (at Arizona, at Missouri, at Kentucky and against Ole Miss in the Southeastern Conference Tournament title game) were topical subjects last season. The fact Florida went 0-6 in games decided by single-digits got far more mention than going 29-2 in games decided by double-digits, a pretty impressive statistic.

But after Saturday, which ended UF’s non-league schedule, the Gators have now played seven games decided by single-digits and are 5-2 in those situations. The lone losses came at unbeaten Wisconsin (with Scottie Wilbekin and Finney-Smith suspended) and at Connecticut (at the buzzer without Kasey Hill and after Wilbekin left the game with a sprained ankle).

A bunch of Florida fans, no doubt, left the O’Dome grumbling about the ugliness of the game and another poor performance by the Gators at the free-throw line (10 of 19, including just 2-for-8 in the final 57 seconds). Fair points. After the game, Donovan said there are two things he’d like to see his players do better: convert more shot opportunities around the basket (i.e. layups, follows, tips, etc.) and make a higher percentage of free throws.

Had those two things happened with any consistency this season, the Gators likely would not have been in so many single-digit games. But as long as there are flaws in those areas, it’s good that they're figuring out other ways to close out games.

After wrapping the pre-SEC slate, the Gators are 15th in RPI and have played the 40th-toughest schedule in the country.

Florida (11-2) opens league play Wednesday night at home against South Carolina (7-6). The Gators, Donovan believes, are more than prepared.

“I just don’t think we’re going to see anything in our league we haven’t already seen at this point,” said Donovan, whose team beat a big and long team in Florida State, a deep and athletic powerhouse in Kansas, and won on a neutral court against a very dangerous Memphis team (not to mention those trips to two tough venues in Wisconsin and UConn). “There’s nothing that’s going to take us by surprise where our team says, ‘Wow! We haven’t seen that before.’ I’m talking about talent, environment, that type of stuff. I think we can build off that.”


Roosevelt fire HISTORY LESSON

Kudos to Florida Times-Union reporter Matt Soergel for his historical look back at the morning of Dec. 29, 1963, when a fire ravaged the glitzy Roosevelt Hotel in downtown Jacksonville. The blaze never reached above the second floor of the 13-story high rise, yet 20 people died, mostly from the toxic fumes that climbed the building through air shafts.

Among the more than 450 rescued were the reigning 1963 Miss America and the entire Florida basketball team, then coached by Norm Sloan. The Gators were in town that week for the Gator Bowl Tournament, part of the festivities married to the football game that matched North Carolina and Air Force that year.

Soergel’s project relived the terrifying hours and heroic rescues -- City of Jacksonville assistant fire chief James R. Romedy died -- and included a first-person account by Michael Sloan, 10 years old at the time and the son of the former UF coach.


TRIVIA QUESTION

A week ago, senior center Patric Young became the 50th UF player to reach 1,000 points for his career. What active Gator ranks second in career points? Answer below in "Free Throws" category.


EX-GATOR UPDATE

He finished as UF’s leading scorer last season, yet Mike Rosario has been around the program enough of late it’s almost like he never left.

“It’s my second home,” he said Friday.

RosieRosario, the 6-foot-3 guard and hero of the 2013 NCAA Tournament after his 25-point eruption in third-round play against Minnesota, turned down offers to play professionally in Europe and opted instead to play in his native Puerto Rico. During the summer league, Rosario averaged 14 points a game, but wants to improve on those numbers in the upcoming season. He’s been shooting at the practice facility and training with UF strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene to get ready.

On Saturday, the JumboTrons at the O’Dome beamed Rosario’s smiling face from his seat in the bleachers behind the Florida bench.

“The Puerto Rican League is a special league,” said Rosario, adding that they love their basketball down there. “Some fans they really get [ticked] off and throw water on the court. For the game to start back up, it takes literally like 30 minutes. In some parts of the island, it’s like that. Some people are really aggressive because they really love basketball there. That’s the beauty of it. Playing over there, everyone loves the sport.”


TWITTER PATTER (random samplings from my feed)

 


CHARTING THE GATORS

Florida smashed Richmond in the rebounding department Saturday, doubling up the Spiders by a dominant 44-22 on the glass, including a 15-3 edge on the offensive end. Finney-Smith grabbed 13, the most by a UF player this season. The Gators, who started slowly on the boards this season (especially with Finney-Smith sidelined the first two games) have now out-rebounded their last four opponents by double-digits. That’s the first time that’s happened since 2004-05 when senior David Lee and freshman Al Horford were roaming the paint.

Opponent                  Margin        Edge
Memphis                     37-26          +11
Fresno State               47-24          +13
Savannah State          42-30          +12
Richmond                   44-22          +22
Totals                       170-102         +14.5 (avg.)


IRRELEVANT GATOR PHOTO OF THE WEEK

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Bud Walton FREE THROWS

These numbers will change drastically over the course of the next nine weeks, but the Gators will start SEC play leading the league in three categories: scoring defense (58.8), opponent rebounds (30.5) and fouls (15.5). The first number is particularly encouraging, given Donovan's concerns with his defense early in the season. ... UF's win over Richmond marked the 23rd straight home victory and means the Gators can tie the school record for consecutive home wins Wednesday against Georgia. Right now, UF owns the nation's fifth-longest home winning streak behind Missouri and Stephen F. Austin (26), Arkansas (25) and Duke (24). If the Gators can defeat the Gamecocks, they'll have a chance to climb the active list by halting the Arkansas streak Saturday, as their first SEC road come will come against the Razorbacks at Bud Walton Arena (right). Part of that 25-game streak, of course, is an 80-69 pummeling UF took last season -- its lone double-digit SEC loss. That game, by the way, wasn't nearly as close as the 11-point score suggests.  ... Trivia answer: Wilbekin, the senior point guard, ranks second on the team with 600 career points through Saturday. Next is Casey Prather with 501, followed by Will Yeguete’s 386 and Frazier’s 357. Of this group, Frazier looms as the most likely to be Florida’s 51st player to hit the 1,000-point milestone. ... Note: If you have any info, want to suggest trivia/fun stuff and maybe have a crazy photo of a Gator for Basket Blog consideration, email me at chrish@gators.ufl.edu or tweet at me @GatorZoneChris.

Wednesday January 1, 2014 Billy D loving his new-found strength in numbers

Updated: 6:30pm, January 1

practice GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The University of Florida campus may look like a scene from “The Walking Dead” right now, but there’s plenty of activity inside the basketball practice facility.

Lots and lots of people, too.

Talk about a happy new year, for Gators coach Billy Donovan it almost seems like a new  season, what with all the players he has to work with now.

“It’s been great, especially all this week with the time off,” Donovan said. “This is really the first time we’ve had real numbers.”

The Dec. 14 arrival of freshman center Chris Walker was the first step. Then last week the Gators added Duke transfer forward Alex Murphy to the mix.

Though the 6-foot-10 Walker is still waiting to be ruled eligible and the 6-8 Murphy, per transfer rules, won’t play for the Gators until the end of the 2014 fall semester, their mere presence makes for a more competitive environment, not to mention more options for Donovan and his staff as far as lineups and situational work.

This week, the orange team (or scout squad) has featured a couple former top-20 national prospects in Walker and Murphy, plus walk-on Jake Kurtz (who has logged significant game minutes this season), and any other combination of regulars or walk-ons Donovan may want to roll out.

No more 3-and-3 or 4-on-4 drills by necessity.

Worth noting: And this is without any contribution from a trio of scholarship players in guard Eli Carter (out for the season with leg injury), guard Dillon Graham (out for the season with hip injury) and center/forward Damontre Harris (dismissed from team last month).

Between semesters, the NCAA rule limiting practice to 20 hours per week does not apply. And since the Gators have played just three games during that time -- defeating Memphis in the Jimmy V Classic Dec. 17, Fresno State in the Orange Bowl Classic on Dec. 21, and Savannah State on Sunday -- the team has basically spent the balance of its time the last three weeks focusing almost exclusively on itself.

Rest assured, UF has taken advantage of that time, with two-a-day sessions or individual instruction workouts.

The last three days have seen some ferocious practice sessions, including Monday's all-out block of just over an hour and Wednesday's two-hour run of mostly full-court press actions, with a little bit of defending the Princeton-style offense that a very solid Richmond squad will bring to the O'Connell on Saturday in the final non-conference game of the season.

In fact, on Wednesday a CBS crew was in the house to film an all-access feature -- "The Men of March" -- that already has profiled some of the nation's best coaches (Rick Pitino, Roy Williams, John Calipari, for example). The Donovan segment, which will include scene's from the coach's home on New Year's Eve, his workout regimen with strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene and some team meeting footage, is set to air before the March 1 home date against LSU.

That's a long way off.

In the interim, the Gators have some more time between semesters to use to their advantage. The second term doesn't start until Monday.

“The fact that we can have them here, to me, is the best part,” Donovan said. “There’s nothing else going on. No one’s on campus. It’s basically all basketball right now. It doesn’t mean we have to physically take them to the bring every day, but we can really test them physically and challenge them.”

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