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The No. 16-ranked Gators face No. 15 Memphis Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Monday December 16, 2013Gators Look to Take Bite Out of Memphis in Big Apple

The No. 16-ranked Gators face No. 15 Memphis Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

NEW YORK -- Sophomore guard DeVon Walker has never been to New York City, but he’s been properly prepped for the experience by family and friends from his hometown.

“They all tell me it’s bigger than Winter Haven,” Walker said.

Said it with a straight face, too.

Walker smiled, though, when he said he’s going to feel like Prince Akeem, the Eddie Murphy character in “Coming to America,” when the 16th-ranked Florida Gators (7-2) take Manhattan for Tuesday night’s game against No. 15 Memphis (7-1) in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden.

Given the team arrived at LaGuardia Airport on Monday afternoon, had dinner and meetings scheduled at the team hotel in midtown Monday night, followed by curfew at 11 p.m., it’s not like the Gators are going to get the true “I Love New York” experience.

Then again, it’s not like they're here to hit the Met and squeeze in a matinee of “The Lion King” at the Minskoff.

“It’s a business trip,” senior center Patric Young said. “Ask me after the game what I think about it.”

Young joins Walker, senior forward Casey Prather and sophomore guard Michael Frazier II as one of the four UF players who has never taken a bite from the Big Apple. But he’s right. The Gators’ focus needs to be locked in on a very good Tigers team, any player on the team would have to be a robot not to get a little bug-eyed by the bright lights on Broadway and a chance to play at the most famous arena this side of the Roman Coliseum.

Florida coach Billy Donovan, who grew up on Long Island and idolized the NBA New York Knicks, has been to the Garden countless times. He recalled Monday a time long ago when his mother bought him a T-shirt at the arena gift shop. The shirt had an image of Knicks legend Walt Frazier on it.

Once he had the shirt, he had a question for his mom. “Do you think ‘Clyde the Glide’ will be with the Knicks when I play for them?’ ”

Donovan, of course, actually made it to the Knicks, if only for a brief time (44 games) after being summoned from the Wyoming Wildcatters of the Continental Basketball League.

The first time he climbed on the team bus, he got a classic shout-out from Knicks play-by-play man Marv Albert.

Recalled Donovan: “He shook my hand and said, ‘This must be better than being in Wy-O-ming.”

It was.

For the Gators, the 30 or so hours will be be another world compared to Gainesville.

And then there’s the whole Jimmy V dynamic.

It’s hard to imagine any young student-athlete these days -- in the age of ESPN -- that doesn’t know who Jim Valvano was and hasn’t seen or heard sound bytes from that memorable speech of March 3, 1993 -- when Valvano, the former North Carolina State coach mere weeks from his death, was helped to the podium by Dick Vitale and Mike Krzyzewski -- at the ESPY Awards and uttered the words that have helped raise more $115 million for cancer research.

Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.

Young was 2 years old at the time.

“I was thinking about him this morning, actually, and thinking about that [national championship team at NC State] he had and having to deal with the cancer that he had,” Young said. “They told him he didn’t have to speak that night, but he went up there and spoke from the heart. It’s inspiring that a man in the last days of his life would you use that time to tell us all to live life to its fullest.

"Our time on earth is so short. Why spend so much time frustrated and angry? That’s what I get from it.”

Donovan was just starting out in coaching when Valvano encouraged everyone to do three things during a day: laugh, cry and think.

That’s a day. That’s a helluva day.

Valvano’s point was it shouldn’t take a terminal illness to check those items off your to-do list.

“I think that’s probably a totally different perspective on what’s really valuable and important in life,” Donovan said. “Those are probably three good things that all of us probably need to do every single day, emotionally.”

Something to think about Tuesday when the Gators rise for what figures to be a very busy, very late, very challenging day.

A helluva day.

How fitting.

No. 19 Florida vs No. 16 Memphis
Jimmy V Classic  

When: Tuesday, 9 p.m.
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York 
Records: Florida 7-2; Memphis 7-1
TV: ESPN (w/Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale and Andy Katz)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199; ESPN Radio (w/Marc Kestecher and Bobby Valvano)
Game notes: Florida notes; Memphis notes


History: Florida and Memphis meet for just the second time. The lone previous meeting was an 84-83 win for the Gators on Dec. 18, 1976, part of four-team Big Sun Tournament at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg, Fla. Robert Smyth led the Gators with 23 points that game.

Pre-game storyline: UF-Memphis is the nightcap of the prestigious Jimmy V Classic and will follow a warm-up game featuring Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. The Gators are looking to cap a four-game power run of dates against Florida State (a 67-66 win), at Connecticut (65-64 loss at buzzer) and home against Kansas (67-61 win), with the Tigers marking the third straight ranked opponent on the slate. The Gators would love to finish this mine field of their non-conference schedule at 3-1, then navigate  a successful trip to South Florida for the weekend’s Orange Bowl Classic date against Fresno State before breaking for Christmas.

The players: Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (13 ppg, 5.8 apg) was superb in UF’s win over Kansas, finishing with 18 points, hitting seven of his 12 shots, including 2-for-3 from the arc, plus six assists and four steals. He needs another complete floor game against a Memphis team with some perimeter scoring pop. ... Dorian Finney-Smith (11 ppg, team-high 7.7 rpg) doesn’t start, but he certainly impacts the game off the bench. After a thoroughly frustrating night at UConn, “Doe-Doe” scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds against KU’s big front court. He’s hitting 39.1 percent from distance. ... Sophomore guard Michael Frazier (13.5 ppg, 3.5) continues to be one of the best long-range shooters in the country. Kansas did a nice job of denying Frazier the long ball, allowing only two attempts, but he still made one and sits at 52.3 percent for the season.

The opponent: The Tigers, coached by Josh Pastner, are a talented team with a good blend of veterans and talented freshmen. ... UM’s lone loss of the season was a 101-80 rout at Oklahoma State, but the Tigers avenged it 12 days later by handing Marcus Smart and the then-unbeaten, fifth-ranked Cowboys 73-68 in a rematch in the finals of the Old Spice Challenge at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. ... Memphis starts a 3-guard lineup that is very active on both ends, evidence by the 17.8 turnovers forced per game (9th in the nation), with 9.6 of those steals (12th in nation) ... Senior guard Joe Jackson (15 ppg, 3.8 apg) leads four players in double-figure scoring, including 6-9, 242 forward Shaq Goodwin (13.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) and 6-8 freshman forward Austin Nichols (10.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg). ... The Tigers are shooting 48.2 percent as a team and averaging 84.8 points per game (23rd in nation).

Key numbers:

*.600 - Winning percentage for Gators this season in games decided by single digits. That’s a 3-2 record. UF was 0-6 in single-digit games last season.

*3.3 - Combined assist-to-turnover ratio for Wilbekin and freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who returned Tuesday after missing four games with a high ankle sprain. Together, the duo has 43 assists and just 13 turnovers.

*7 - Games UF has played at Madison Square Garden during Donovan’s 18 seasons. The Gators are 4-3 in those contests, with the last appearance a loss to Massachusetts in the 2008 NIT semifinals.

*24 - Turnovers forced by the Gators in the win over Kansas last week. That marked the most by an opponent since UF rang up the same number against Jackson State on Nov. 11, 2011.

* 523 - Run of seconds the Florida defense held Kansas scoreless. The Jayhawks went 8 minutes, 43 seconds without a point, as the Gators used a furious defense and top-shelf shooting to seize control of the game with a 21-0 run in the first half on the way to a 15-point lead at the break. 

Watch for it: At first glance, this might make you cringe, but Donovan is encouraging power forward Will Yeguete (4.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg) to shoot 3s when open. Yeguete is really struggling on offense (33.3 percent for the season, compared to a combined 53.4 his previous three seasons) and, predictably, defenses are ignoring him when he parks behind the arc in UF’s halfcourt sets. But Yeguete is 3-for-6 from out there this season -- he was 1-for-4 his career coming into the year -- and his shot looks good at practice. If he’s making a few, Donovan will give him a green light (when wide open) and hope the defense extends and thus opens the lane for more penetration.


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