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Friday January 3, 2014Putting It All Together: Gators Approaching Full Strength in Time for 2014

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- For weeks (months, actually), the Florida Gators were limited with what they could work on in practice due to their numbers.

Or lack of.

To review, senior forward Will Yeguete and junior guard Eli Carter, the transfer from Rutgers, started practice recovering from injuries. Three players, including starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin, began the season suspended for violating team rules. One of those three eventually left the team. An incoming freshman failed to qualify academically for the first semester. Shooting guard Michael Frazier missed a handful of practices with mononucleosis. Freshman point guard Kasey Hill suffered an ankle sprain. Then DeVon Walker did, too. Carter eventually was shut down for the season due to his lingering leg injury. Ditto sophomore guard Dillon Graham and a nagging hip.

That’s a lot of day-to-day uncertainty.

But the circumstances have certainly changed.

The academic rally and arrival of freshman center Chris Walker two weeks ago and Duke transfer Alex Murphy last weekend, combined with across-the-board good health of the roster, allowed the 12th-ranked Gators (10-2) to accelerate the tempo at practice this week as they prepped to close out the pre-conference portion of the schedule Saturday in hosting Richmond (10-4) at the O’Connell Center.

Coach Billy Donovan loves to play pressure defense, but instability of the rotation prevented him from doing much of it the first six weeks of the regular season. Much of that had to do with UF’s inability to work on the press at practice.

Well, the Gators worked on it plenty this week and the Spiders, a dangerous guard-driven team, can expect to see some of it in the O’Dome as Florida uses this game as a dress rehearsal for its Southeastern Conference opener Wednesday night at home against South Carolina.

“We’ve been able to do a lot of things at practice,” Donovan said Friday. “The last month or so has been a time where we’ve had a week in between games and been able to improve and try to get better. The unfortunate part for us has been we’ve had to deal with the injuries and those kind of things, but I would say for the last two weeks, as we’ve gotten a little bit more healthy, we’ve been able to work on different things in practice.”

Donovan won’t feel like his team is complete until he has confidence in the press, one of the calling cards of his program since arriving here nearly 18 years ago.

Richmond, with its backcourt of Cedric Lindsay and Kendall Anthony, will provide a nice baseline from which to work. The Spiders base their offense on Princeton-style concepts, with lots of screening, backdoor cuts and some lengthy possession, but they will run with opportunity -- and without hestitation.

“They have a Princeton offense, but they play in transition,” UF forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “They play much faster than you probably think they do.”

In anticipation of facing the Spiders (and SEC foes after that), the Gators were pushed through some intense full-court, defensive pressure drills in practice. The coaching staff made it clear that nothing less than effort to the point of exhaustion would be tolerated.

Push through the fatigue!

The drill is called “444.” The clock is set at four minutes. Play begins with an inbound after a made basket, 4-on-4 in the backcourt, with full trapping and defensive pressure. Once the ball breaks halfcourt -- assuming it does -- the first wave of defense hangs back and the offense meets a fresh group of defenders in the halfcourt. 

When a basket is scored and the scrimmage breaks into transition, one player hangs back, and another runs on to the floor from halfcourt to simulate advantage in numbers, and the drill is repeated.

And repeated. And repeated.

The Gators can do this -- and do it hard -- because they now have 14 players (including four walk-ons) in the mix; and that’s with Carter and Graham, both scholarship players, shut down for the season.

“It’s been a good few weeks,” Donovan said.

Been a good non-conference season, too. One the Gators hope to finish off with a victory. Then the fun really starts.

With a full team, no less.

No. 12 Florida vs Richmond  

When: Saturday, 3 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
Records: Florida 10-2; Richmond 10-4
TV: Comcast Sports Southeast (w/Matt Stewart and Daymeon Fishback)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 110/XM 199
Game notes: Florida notes; Richmond notes


History: UF and Richmond will play for the fourth time, with the Gators 1-2 in the all-time series. If anyone out there recalls the first meeting, congratulations! It came in February of 1922 (the exact date, amazingly, is unknown), with the Spiders winning 27-25 in Virginia. UF defeated UR 66-52 in opening-round play of the 1992 NIT. Richmond upset Florida 56-53 in the 2009 Orange Bowl Classic at Sunrise, Fla., where Alex Tyus (15 points) was the lone Gator to reach double figures on a day UF shot 3-for-15 from the arc, including an 0-6 afternoon from freshman Kenny Boynton.

Pre-game storyline: Florida closes out its non-conference schedule against a very good Richmond team. Having already played on the road at Wisconsin (still unbeaten) and Connecticut, and faced Florida State and Kansas at home, plus Memphis on a neutral site, the Gators will be wrapping up the Southeastern Conference’s toughest non-league schedule -- and arguably the toughest in school history. A win would be a great springboard into SEC play next week.

The players: Senior forward Casey Prather (17.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg), in just 12 games this season, already has scored 32 more points than he did in 29 games last season. He’s also making 62.4 percent of his shots and 73.7 percent of his team-high 76 free throws. ... Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (12 ppg, 4.3 apg), despite a dismal 1-for-7 outing against Fresno State two games ago, is shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range. His free-throw shooting, however, is a serious concern: 10-for-20, including some late-game misses, for 50 percent. Point guards have to be better and Wilbekin knows that. ... Patric Young (10.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), the senior center who scored the 1,000th point of his UF career in Sunday’s win against Savannah State, is averaging 12 points and 7.2 rebounds over his last five games.

The opponent: Richmond has lost to the likes of North Carolina and Minnesota, but the Spiders defeated Belmont, which shocked the Tar Heels earlier this season, so they can play with anybody. ... The Spiders run a disciplined Princeton-style offense and play some of the best defense in the country. Opponents average just 63.4 points per game (34th nationally), shoot just 39.4 percent (44th) and make only 28.3 percent of their 3-point shots (26th). Richmond is also very good at protecting the ball and forcing turnovers, evidenced by a plus-4.5 turnover margin that rates 15th in the country. ... Senior point guard Cedrick Lindsay (18.6 ppg, 4.3 apg) and junior Kendall Anthony (13 ppg) are an excellent backcourt combo that make Richmond go. No frontcourt player averages more than 7.4 points per game.

Key numbers:

* 0 - Made 3-point shots on his six attempts by Gators reserve forward Dorian Finney-Smith the last two games. He was 6-for-12 the previous two games.

* .373 - Season field-goal percentage for UF starting power forward Will Yeguete, who combined to hit 55.3 percent of his shots the last two seasons, but is really struggling to put the ball in the hoop right now.

* 1 - Shots taken by Yeguete against Savannah State. He made it.

* 7 - Rebounds grabbed by backup guard DeVon Walker against Savannah State. Walker, who had 9 total rebounds in the previous 11 games, also scored 8 points in maybe his best 23 minutes on the floor this season.

* 77 - 2-point field goals made by Prather this season. That’s the most in the SEC this season, ahead of Kentucky’s Julius Randle (75) and Missouri’s Jordan Clarkson (71).

[Don't] Watch for it: You might have heard or read some media speculation or fan blog reports this week about freshman center/forward Chris Walker being cleared to play against Richmond. Wrong. The McDonald’s All-America Game dunk champion, who joined the team in mid-December, remains sidelined while the NCAA reviews his eligibility. The 6-foot-10, 209-pound Walker will be on the UF bench with his teammates, however, and participate in warm-ups for the second time. 

Bonus Gator event: Those arriving for the Florida-Richmond game early are invited to check out the Gators’ swimming and diving meet against rival and 16th-ranked Florida State in the O’Dome. The defending SEC champion men are ranked third in the country, while the women check in at fifth.


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