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Monday February 3, 2014Donovan Tempers "Sky" High Expections, as Chris Walker Joins Gators

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After practice Sunday, Chris Walker was handed a protein shake and took a seat in a chair at court side. The freshman center and most famous Florida Gator no one has seen play had a slight smile on his face, but the more telling, more appropriate, expression he wore was one that paired his sense of relief with a growing element of anticipation.

Walker is a member of the UF basketball team now. He is going to play Tuesday night when the No. 3 Gators (19-2, 8-0) face Southeastern Conference foe Missouri (16-5, 4-4) at the O’Connell Center, the site of a midseason circus of sorts with ESPN hoops ringleader Dick Vitale in the house, to boot.

Where is this kid’s head right now?

“To be honest, it hasn’t really hit me yet,” Walker told after his first practice following official reinstatement by the NCAA. “I'm pretty sure Tuesday night, when I get to put the jersey on for the first time, get to run out there with the team, stretch, the the layup lines ... .”

He paused. And nodded.

“Yeah, it’ll be real then.”

What that reality means to this red hot team, no one knows. The Gators have won 13 straight, have a two-game cushion in the SEC standings, and now are adding a McDonald’s All-American with freaky end-to-end athleticism into the mix. Whose minutes will he take? How much will he play? What will his role be?

All these are questions for UF coach Billy Donovan and his staff. They’re also dilemmas. Right now, the Gators are a team of fabulous chemistry and players with defined roles they have accepted in ascending the polls without a loss in more than two months. Now, they’re throwing in another piece; an intriguing and incredibly gifted one, yes, but there is going to be a domino effect. There has to be.

And that’s where Donovan comes in.

“There was a lot of attention on Chris because he was not a part of our team,” Donovan said Monday. “Right now, there should be no attention on Chris because it’s all about our team.”

That may be the case in the UF locker room, but tell that Tuesday night to the Rowdy Reptiles dancing with their Chris Walker big heads (the ones with the words “FREED” emblazoned across his forehead) and Vitale as he gushes and gyrates from press row.

Since "Sky" Walker signed with the Gators in November 2012 -- Rivals' No. 6 national prospect and No. 1 center, who along with point guard Kasey Hill gave UF a top-five signing class -- the orange and blue basketball universe has been waiting for this heralded high-flyer to take the court.

The nod from the NCAA came last week, effective after UF’s win Saturday over Texas A&M.

Walker’s here and he's going to play. That's all anyone knows.

“I was very happy when they told me,” said Walker, who got word during a pre-practice film session last Wednesday and was promptly mobbed by his teammates. “Just to know that I finally was going to get a chance to compete, yeah, very happy. After a lot of prayers, I finally get to play.”

Walker led Bonifay (Fla.) Holmes County to the Class 1A state championship last February, averaging 32 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks per game. He won the slam-dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-America game in March. Wow. Good stuff.

In the nearly 11 months since, Walker spent the summer and fall rallying his academics to be accepted into the UF for the second semester, arriving for his first practice Dec. 14 and promptly being rule ineligible by the NCAA pending a review of his case. Walker practiced with the team for the last six weeks while the NCAA and UF officials worked together in an effort to resolve the eligibility issues.

For the last 12 games, he’s either sat on the bench when the Gators were home or watched on television when they played away, all the while trying to mentally place himself in position and learn from the precision of Patric Young, the feel for the game of Will Yeguete and the fight of Dorian Finney-Smith. 

Now, in his 13th game, mental reps give way to the real ones.

“I’m just happy for him,” said Young, who figures to be a beneficiary of the added depth Walker brings to the rotation up front. “He finally has an opportunity to come in and do his thing out there. Hopefully he can come out and not be too nervous and be prepared and ready to go.”

On Sunday, Donovan and assistant coach John Pelphrey kept Walker after practice for about 15 minutes. It wasn’t to review the motion high offense or press defense. Instead, it was to talk about his new responsibiliies to his teammates, the program and the university now; and also to try and quell whatever anxiety and pressure (both internal and external) he may be feeling.

“The expectations on him as a player are way, way up [there] -- and he can’t reach them. He can’t,” Donovan said. “I just want people to know, this is not going to be a guy you’re going to say, ‘Billy you're really downplayed this thing. The guy came out and played like Wilt Chamberlain.’ It’s not going to happen. He’s a good player who’s got a lot in front of him, a lot of growing and maturing that has to go on.”

Walker will have butterflies.  He admitted as much. Not only will the game mark his college debut, but he won’t have an exhibition warmup against Florida Southern or regular-season opener with North Florida to dip his toe in the Division I waters.

He gets Missouri, which goes 6-10 and 6-9 in the front court and is desperate for a big-time win.

“I’m going to be nervous, but I think it’ll go away once I get on the court and get up and down a little bit,” Walker said. “It’s going to be crazy when I check in, the crowd and all. But I feel that will be good for me. I appreciate all the support they gave when I was dealing with this stuff. Now, I’m going to get a chance to do what I love to do.”

What the UF coaches want Walker to do is run his lengthy frame up and down the floor with the kind of boundless energy he displayed as prep and AAU star. The basketball skills are somewhat raw, but Walker's vertical jump rivals teammate Casey Prather (think about that at 6-10) and his instincts as far as chasing shots and rebounds is outstanding.

Given the complexity of Donovan’s system, there will be times when Walker gets confused or lost -- and he still may wind up with a highlight-show moment.

“His athleticism is going to show up in the game,” assistant coach Matt McCall said. "The no question about that." 

Hill played on the same AAU team as Walker, so he knows the guy. He also had a period of adjustment at the season’s start and doesn’t think Walker can avoid that.

“He hasn’t played a college game yet, so it’s going to be a difficult thing for him at first,” Hill said. “He’s not going to be able to just go out there and really impact the game; not the first game. It was hard for me, but I think I’ve gotten better. It’ll be hard for him, but he’ll get better, too.”

The first thing that has to happen is a first game.

Here we go.

“Being a home game, my first game, I think my motor is going to be running like crazy,” Walker said. ‘It’s going to be ridiculous. I’m just so excited.”

Then came that pause. And the nod.

“I’m going to play like a maniac.”

No. 3 Florida vs Missouri 

When: Tuesday, 9 p.m.
Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
Records: Florida 19-2 (8-0); Missouri 16-5 (4-4)
TV: ESPN (w/Brad Nessler and Dick Vitale)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Game notes: Florida notes; Missouri notes


History: The two teams have played only twice, both times coming in Mizzou’s debut Southeastern Conference last year. The Gators and Tigers split the series, with UF smashing UM 83-52 in Gainesville, then a month later blowing a 13-point lead in the final 11 minutes to lose 63-60 at Columbia.

Pre-game storyline: The pre-game buzz will focus on the debut of 6-foot-10 Florida freshman Chris Walker, who joined the team in December and sat out the previous 12 games while the NCAA considered his case for eligibility. As sexy a story as Walker may be, Coach Billy Donovan and the Gators want to focus on the bigger picture; as in a team -- their own -- that is unbeaten in SEC play and has a two-game lead on Kentucky and Ole Miss, and wants to stay there. Missouri is coming off a rare home loss Saturday to Kentucky. The Tigers are looking like a bubble NCAA Tournament team (at best) and need a big, fat resume boost the likes of which an upset of the Gators on the road could provide. After this game (and in this conference) there aren’t that many opportunities to net impressive wins. 

The players: In the blowout win Saturday over Texas A&M, senior forward Casey Prather (16.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) was feeling the effects of an ankle he tweaked two nights before at Mississippi State. Prather did not have his normal bounce and finished with a season-low 7 points, his first single-digit game of the season. The schedule -- a third game in five days -- doesn’t allow Prather much recovery time, but UF needs what he brings in halfcourt drives and in the open floor and press. ... Sophomore reserve forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) knocked knees with an Aggie player and also was dealing with some soreness over the weekend. He still finished with nine rebounds. ... Michael Frazier (12.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg) got off to another slow start from the 3-point line, his fourth in the last five games, but still led the Gators by tying his career-best of 21 points. Frazier is shooting just 34.1 percent (14-for-41) from the arc in league play, though, which is one of the reasons UF is shooting just 32.1 as a team from distance. That ranks 12th in the conference.

The opponent: The Tigers have played only two teams with an RPI in the Top 50, beating UCLA and losing to Kentucky over the weekend. They also have wins over Northwestern on a neutral site, West Virginia at home and North Carolina State and Arkansas on the road. Among Missouri’s losses is one at home against Georgia, on the road at Vanderbilt and a neutral-site setback against Illinois that’s looking worse each time the Illini play. ... Mizzou’s inconsistency aside, to think the Tigers can’t come into the O’Dome and win would be foolish. Their three-guard lineup is not only explosive, but big and experienced. Jabari Brown (SEC-leading 20.4 ppg), Jordan Clarkson (18.9 ppg) and Earnest Ross (14.2) are either juniors or seniors, all go 6-5 and together combine for 71.3 percent of the team’s scoring. ... The Tigers are ranked second in the conference in offensive field-goal percentage (.464) and third in both defensive field-goal percentage (.394) and 3-point defense (.367). Missouri is the SEC’s top-ranked team in rebounding on the defensive end (27.3 per game).

Key numbers:

* .384 - Florida's defensive field-goal percentage, which ranks first in the SEC (as does its 57.4 points per game allowed).

* 5 - Consecutive games UF has failed to reach 70 points. The Gators have averaged just 66.8 points, but their average margin of victory in those games was 18.6 points.

* 15 - Consecutive 20-win seasons for the Gators, who can make it 16 straight by beating the Tigers. Only Duke and Syracuse (who played a pretty entertaining game over the weekend, come to think of it) have longer active 20-win seasons under the same coach.

* 21 - Combined points Missouri has lost its five games by. The Tigers worst loss was by six (Georgia in overtime and LSU).

* +30 - Rebounding margin Florida had in the win over Texas A&M, crunching the Aggies on the glass 57-27. It marked the largest rebounding margin in a game for UF since a plus-43 against Jackson State (62-19) in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament. 

Watch for it: Missouri's backcourt loves to get it and go, which means the Florida defense has to get back and get matched up or else the Tigers will have open looks and they will take them -- including 3-pointers. Brown, Clarkson and Ross and all drive it, but they prefer to drive to their right. The Gators will try to force them left.



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