Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
PHOENIX – More than 40 years after his final game, Neal Walk’s place in Florida basketball history remains as secure as orange and blue on the Gators’ uniforms.
He is the only Gator to have his jersey retired (No. 41) and was the first player in school history to earn All-American honors.
Walk will be at US Airways Center on Thursday when the Gators (25-10) face Marquette (27-7) here for a spot in the Elite Eight.
Walk has worked for the Phoenix Suns of the NBA for nearly 25 years and has an office at the US Airways Center where he spends much of his time archiving digital images from the team’s games and pubic events.
“I work in the building, couldn’t be any better,” Walk said. “I have a good eye for remembering who is who and when they played ... enjoy the photography aspect. I don’t shoot them, just manipulate them. When I saw the brackets, it was perfect.”
He’ll be keeping a close eye on Thursday’s game.
“Well, I’m partial, that’s for sure,’’ Walk said Wednesday. “I think now they’re peaking and playing really good basketball at the proper time. The other game against Norfolk State, the ball movement was exquisite, hard to beat.
“And they were on the glass. That’s what they’ll have to do [Thursday] to match up with Marquette’s strength. Do those things, I like their chances.”
Walk knew how to keep opponents off the glass in his day. He is still UF’s all-time leading rebounder and finished his career averaging 20.8 points and 15.3 rebounds per game.
Walk’s place in NBA history is secure too? He was drafted by the Suns with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1969 draft after Phoenix lost a coin toss for the No. 1 pick with Milwaukee. The Bucks chose Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
Walk played five seasons for the Suns (1969-74), one for the New Orleans Jazz ('74-75) and one for the New York Knicks ('75-76). He was diagnosed in 1988 with a benign tumor in his back that required surgery and left him in a wheelchair.
Walk has lived in Phoenix since his NBA career started with the Suns and is excited the Gators are back in town. When Florida visited during the 1999 NCAA Tournament, Walk “watched from afar” as Gonzaga knocked the Gators out in the first round.
He’ll get to watch the Gators simply by showing up at the office on Thursday.
Marquette’s senior touch
When the Gators made a run to the Elite Eight last season, the senior trio of Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus led the way.
Marquette is following the direction of its only two seniors, guard Darius Johnson-Odom and forward Jae Crowder.
Both players were All-Big East First Team selections and Crowder was named Big East Player of the Year. He averages 17.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and is shooting 50.4 percent from the floor.
Crowder has the Gators’ attention.
“He impacts the game maybe more so than any other player in the country,’’ Donovan said Wednesday. “He’s a tremendous offensive rebounder. He is a great defender. He comes up with loose basketballs. He has incredible stamina with the way he can run up and down the floor. He shoots 3s. And maybe the most underrated part of his game is he’s a phenomenal passer.”
Meanwhile, Johnson-Odom is no slouch. He leads the Golden Eagles in scoring with 18.5 points a game and shoots 38.9 percent (75 of 193) from behind the arc.
Crowder played at two junior colleges before coming to Marquette and Johnson-Odom transferred from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College. Their past travels and experiences have proved invaluable to Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams, who has Marquette in back-to-back Sweet 16s for the first time since 1977.
“I’m very thankful for the leadership of Darius and Jae,’’ Williams said. “Our team last year was comprised of two recruiting classes, which from a coaching perspective is about as unhealthy and you can be.
“So this year’s group, we’re not necessarily young, but the leadership of our two seniors has been paramount to our success.”
Prather back at full speed
During Florida’s stay in Omaha, Gators sophomore Casey Prather scored a career-high 14 points in the Gators’ first-round win over Virginia, and then sat with a towel draped over him due to flu-like symptoms for much of Sunday’s win over Norfolk State.
Donovan told reporters Wednesday that Prather is expected to be at full strength for Thursday night’s game against Marquette.
“He’s fine now and a 100 percent and hasn’t missed anything since that point,’’ Donovan said.
Buzz about Buzz as odd man out
In terms of star power among the four coaches, Phoenix is shining bright.
There is Donovan, who has won two national titles. There is Michigan State’s Tom Izzo, who has six trips to the Final Four and a national title, and Louisville’s Rick Pitino, Donovan’s mentor and owner of one national title and five trips to the Final Four.
Meanwhile, Marquette’s Williams is 5-3 all-time in the NCAA Tournament and is still trying to guide the Golden Eagles past the Sweet 16 for the first time in his five seasons.
“I don’t compare,’’ Williams said. “Those three guys are the ultimate example of what this business should be about as people, the ultimate example of what they should be about as coaches. I have studied them throughout my career.
“So relative to Buzz, Donovan, Izzo and Pitino, which one doesn’t belong? That’s the easiest question to answer.”
Quotes of Note
--“It’s as potent an offensive team as I’ve studied this year.’’ – Williams on Florida
--“I think it will be a real physical game. I don’t know if that’s much fun.’’ Gators guard Erving Walker when asked if he expects a fun up-and-down the court game vs. Marquette
--“These last two practices we’ve had have probably been our most physical practices we’ve had. We’ve been fouling each other and slapping at the ball.” – Gators guard/forward Brad Beal on preparation for Marquette
--“We held teams at less than 50 points the first two games so I don’t know where the credibility behind that comment comes from.’’ – Gators center Patric Young when asked to respond to those who say Florida lacks defensively
GatorZone.com writer Chris Harry contributed to this report.