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Friday February 28, 2014Another SEC title to their own is nice, but Gators thinking bigger

Updated: 5:20pm, February 28

Starting 5 Gators

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Around 9:40 Thursday night, Arkansas finished off a big 71-67 overtime road win over Kentucky at Rupp Arena.

With the final horn, the Florida Gators had officially clinched the 2014 Southeastern Conference title. Minutes later, UF’s four seniors -- Patric Young, Will Yeguete, Scottie Wilbekin and Casey Prather -- got a text message from Coach Billy Donovan.

What happened in Lexington has nothing to do with us.

Those words began trickling down to the rest of the team.

More to the point, they were embraced by the team.

The No. 1-ranked Gators (26-2, 15-0), winners of a school-record 20 in a row, aspire to bigger things than SEC championships this season, starting with being the very best they can be Saturday against LSU (17-10, 8-7) at the O’Connell Center.

“It’s nice. We worked for it. But at the same time we’re trying to chase greatness,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier said Friday. “We’re not settling for this. We still have a game tomorrow, and that’s what we’re focusing on. It’s great to have that honor, but we still have a lot of things to accomplish. We still have a lot of goals.”

Those goal, of course, will not be talked about publicly, but imaginations don’t exactly have to run too wild to figure out what they might be. This is a team that twice lost the SEC Tournament title game the last three years, and three times has fallen one win shy of the Final Four.

For now, though, it’s about -- have you heard this before? -- “living in the moment,” which means facing a talented Tigers squad very capable of coming to the O’Dome and bursting the UF bubble. The Gators also go Tuesday night to South Carolina and finish the regular season at home March 8 against what figures to be a Kentucky team out to prove a point by blowing up Florida's much-anticipated “Senior Day.”

For what it’s worth, no team other than Kentucky has gone unbeaten through the SEC schedule the last 57 years; and no team in college basketball history has gone undefeated in an 18-game conference season.

So there are some carrots still dangling out there for the season’s final week.

“Our guys certainly set out to compete for an SEC championship in early January, but the league’s not over,” Donovan said. “We’ve done a good job up to this point of staying focused and going through the process of getting prepared each game and I don’t think this game is any different for us. You want to continue playing well. ... I still think there’s a lot out there for this team.”

That’s exactly what sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith said.

With the proper spin, courtesy of his coach.

“We’re striving for greatness,” Finney-Smith said, repeating one of Donovan's many catch phrases. “We’re thinking about bigger things.”

Kasey Hill vs KentuckyGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Backup point guard Kasey Hill returned to practice Thursday, which means senior starter Scottie Wilbekin can breathe a little easier.

At least two or three minutes worth.

Hill, the Florida freshman averaging 5.6 points, 3.1 assists and 23.4 minutes per game, had been sidelined the previous three contests with a strained groin muscle suffered in the second half of the team’s win at Kentucky on Feb. 15. Wilbekin was averaging 33.4 minutes when Hill was available, but was forced to log 35 minutes against Auburn, 38 at Ole Miss, and 38 again at Vanderbilt -- and all at the point guard spot; all while guarding the opponent's best perimeter offensive player.

“It’s helps Scottie, yes,” Coach Billy Donovan said of Hill’s return.

It also helps with UF’s rotation options. In addition to giving Wilbekin some time on the bench, the No. 1-ranked Gators (26-2, 15-0) can get back to using Hill in a variety of combinations -- such as the “small ball” look with Wilbekin at the off-guard and Frazier at the small forward -- and they can do it as soon as Saturday when LSU (17-10, 8-7) comes to town for a 4 p.m. Southeastern Conference date at the O’Connell Center.

“Scottie always told me he wasn’t tired, but I knew others guys would get tired without an extra guy to go,” Hill said after practice Thursday. “I’m just glad I can get back out there and do my part and help the team.”

UF trainer David “Duke” Werner said Hill could have played Tuesday at Vandy, but never really considered clearing him. The cautious path (and an extra three days of recovery) was the prudent way to go, he said.

“It’s a tough [injury],” Werner said. “One misstep, one mishap, he could have been out another month.”

Instead, the Gators get their speed-dribbler and up-tempo guy back for the home stretch of the season. UF’s win Tuesday in Nashville, Tenn., clinched at least a share of the SEC title, but the Gators can win the crown outright with one victory in their finally three league games.

Memorial Gym

Vandy promoNASHVILLE, Tenn. -- They call it “Memorial Magic” and the Florida Gators have experienced the enchantment before.

In fact, the last time UF was No. 1, the Gators came here and -- Poof! -- the Vanderbilt Commodores made the No. 1 ranking disappear.

Seven years later, Florida (25-2, 14-0) again sits atop both major college basketball polls and its first venture with the top-dog digit will be against the giant-killing Vandy (15-11, 7-7) at Memorial.

The Commodores are 6-7 all-time against No. 1s at home, including four wins in the last five, dating to 1987. 

That’s why the school’s public relations department pushed out this graphic (right) in rallying the black and gold masses for what the Commodores faithful hope is another big -- and magical -- night at the oldest gym (as in 1952) in the Southeastern Conference.

“It would be very, very gratifying to be able to be victorious against a team of their caliber,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings told reporters Monday. “But talking about it and wishing on it and all that kind of stuff is a lot different than doing it. It would take our best game of the season, unquestionably. But that’s why we’re going to play, to see if we can put that kind of effort out there and see what happens.”

As stated, it's happened before.

Here’s a review of those last five visits from No. 1s.

Feb. 11, 2012: No. 1 Kentucky 69, Vanderbilt 63
Doron Lamb’s 3-pointer with just over three minutes to go gave the Wildcats the lead for good. Kentucky’s defense, anchored by All-America center Anthony Davis (15 points, 7 blocked shots), did not allow a Vandy point over the final four minutes to put the game away. Lamb, a sophomore who helped balance that freshmen-led Cats squad, finished with 16 points. [Note: The Commodores exacted some revenge by stunning Kentucky, which went unbeaten in SEC play, in the championship game of the Southeastern Conference Tournament a month later.]

Feb. 26, 2008: No. 18 Vanderbilt 72, No. 1 Tennessee 69
One day after reaching No. 1 for the first time in school history, Tennessee's No. 1 state rival made sure the Volunteers' stay at the top would be a short one. In the first game with both teams ranked since 1968, Commodores forward Shan Foster scored a career-high 32 points and out-gunned UT guard Chris Lofton (25 points). Vandy jumped out to a quick double-digit lead and never trailed in the game, with some clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch fending off a Vols’ rally.

Feb. 17, 2007: Vanderbilt 83, No. 1 Florida 70
The defending NCAA champion Gators were unbeaten through 11 SEC games when they went to Memorial and got ambushed in what Vandy forward Derrick Byars called a performance “for the ages.” Byars and Foster both scored 24 points for a Vandy team that sizzled for nearly 58 percent from the floor and forced 22 UF turnovers. The loss was just the second in the previous 37 games for the Gators, with Vandy fans storming the court -- in violation of SEC rules, but who cared?

Will PerdueJan. 1, 1993: Vanderbilt 101, No. 1 Kentucky 86
On the way to capturing just the third SEC title in school history, point guard Billy McCaffrey scored 22 points and set a school record with 14 assists to hand Coach Rick Pitino and the Wildcats their first loss since Duke's Christian Laettner nailed his buzz-beating dagger in the epic NCAA East Region title game 10 months before. Center Chris Lawson had 19 points and guard Ronnie McMahon had 16 for the Commodores. UK All-American Jamal Mashburn came into the game averaging 23.4 per game, but was held to just 14. UK got 17 each from Travis Ford and Rodrick Rhodes. The Commodores, coached by Eddie Fogler and led by McCaffrey, the transfer from Duke, went on to finish 14-2 in league play.

Dec. 5, 1987: Vanderbilt 78, No. 1 North Carolina 76
Center Will Perdue (right) scored 23 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked three shots as the Commodores shocked UNC a week after the Tar Heels, led by J.R. Reed and Rick Fox, took down then-No. 1  Syracuse and took over the top spot. Vandy erased a six-point Carolina lead with seven minutes to go and led by three points when UNC guard Jeff Lebo stole an inbounds pass and then was fouled attempting a 3-point shot with one second to play. The rules at the time, however, called for just two free throws (instead of the current three) and the Commodores held on for the win. Perdue went on to be voted SEC Player of the Year.

Sunday February 23, 2014Basket Blog: Gators at No. 1, Kasey & Casey's health, Frazier's late 3s, etc.

Updated: 5:50pm, February 23

Vandy celebrates GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- No one can say for certain how the ballots will shake out, but there’s a very real possibility -- if not likelihood -- that Florida, winner of 19 straight after Saturday's 75-71 victory at Mississippi, will be No. 1 when the Associated Press and ESPN/Coaches polls are released Monday.

It would mark just the fifth time in school history the Gators rose to the top of the polls -- with 10 weeks spent there, all told -- not counting the two times Florida ended the 2006 and '07 seasons as national champions.

Some history.

The first time Florida was ever voted No. 1 came Feb. 3, 2003. The reign lasted all of one week. As timing would have, the program's first game at the top of the pools sent the Gators to a place very familiar with the top of the polls: Kentucky. The Wildcats, led by Keith Bogans and Gerald Fitch, smashed UF 70-55.

The Gators returned to the top of the polls the following fall -- Dec. 8, 2003, to be exact -- thanks to big win over Arizona in Springfield, Mass. Again, the stay lasted just a week. Florida lost 69-68 at home to Maryland on Dec. 10 and 73-65 at Louisville three days later. The next week, UF slid all the way to No. 15.

The next time the Gators got there was with that first national championship at the end of the 2006 season, courtesy of Joakim Noah and friends. They began ’06-07 at No. 1 and enjoyed it for three weeks before losing against Kansas in Las Vegas. UF got back up there again on Jan. 15, 2007, only to be knocked off five weeks later at unranked Vanderbilt (pictured right) which started a run of three losses over four games.

Now comes the rub, if you're into superstitions or irony or stuff like that. 

The Gators (25-2, 14-0) face unranked Vanderbilt (15-11, 7-7) at Nashville Tuesday night.

Florida went into the ’07 postseason ranked No. 3 and, of course ended back on top.

UF's overall record during its combined 10 weeks ranked No. 1 over those four stops at No. 1 over those three seasons: 15-5

 

LITTLE KASEY AND BIG CASEY

Freshman backup point guard Kasey Hill, sidelined the past two games with a groin strain suffered last weekend at Kentucky, sat out Sunday's practice and probably won't play Tuesday when the Gators face the Commodores. Hill dressed out for Saturday's game at Ole Miss, but only went through pre-game warmups. UF trainer David "Duke" Werner said Hill will probably do a little bit more Monday, but the team plans to be cautious with HIll to avoid a setback.

Werner, meanwhile, had double-duty in the training room Sunday.

UF scoring leader Casey Prather, the senior forward averaging 15.4 points per game, took the day off from practice and spent it receiving treatment on both his ankle and knee. Prather has battled through some aches this season and Saturday had an uncharacteristically tough day from the floor. He started the day ranked fourth in the nation in field-goal percentage (.624), but Prather hit just three of his 10 shots to go with five rebounds, two assists and three turnovers in 27 minutes.

Prather figures to back at practice Monday and definitely will play at Nashville, which is about 125 miles from his hometown of Jackson, Tenn.


TRIVIA QUESTION

Patric Young was named to the Capital One Academic All-America Team last week, placed on the third team for his 3.37 GPA in telecommunications. In a few weeks, Young will see where or if he’s placed on the All-Southeastern Conference team for his on-the-court performance. Who is the last UF player to be honored as an Academic All-American and as an All-SEC player? Answer below in "Free Throws" section.


Brewer FORMER GATOR UPDATE 

Corey Brewer has had a pretty good February.

The 6-foot-9 Minnesota Timberwolves forward is averaging 11.6 points per game for the season, but he’s at 14.4 per game this month, a run that includes a 26-point effort against Portland, which the T-Wolves face again Sunday night.

Minnesota takes a three-game winning streak into that game. Brewer has averaged 15 points over those three games on nearly 53-percent shooting.

With Kevin Love (quad), Kevin Martin (thumb), and Nikola Pekovic (ankle) dealing with injuries, Brewer has taken on an expanded role with the Wolves, particularly on offense, and it comes at a time when Minnesota is trying to inch its way into the Western Conference playoff picture. Entering the week, the Wolves are six games back of the Dallas Mavericks for the eighth and final spot.

 

TWITTER PATTER

 

 

Frazier from 3 CHARTING THE GATORS

Michael Frazier II is not shooting 3-pointers like he did before the start of the SEC season. In 12 non-conference games, Frazier went 30-for-60 from the arc, with his 50-percent accuracy ranking among the best in the nation. Through 14 SEC games, the sophomore from Tampa is still UF’s best shooter at 38.2 percent, but that rates just eighth in the league. The Gators, though, will take the tradeoff as long Frazier, who went 5-for-10 at Ole Miss, keeps puncturing opponents with his long-range darts at the most crucial times late in games.

Check out what Frazier has done in the last six at crunch time.

Opponent: Missouri
Situation: Tied at 45 with less than 10 minutes to play.
His start: Frazier starts 1-for-7 from 3-point range
His moment: Frazier hits three straight 3s in less than 2 minutes; Gators go up 6.
Final: UF wins 68-58 (Frazier: 14 points, 4 of 11 from arc)

Opponent: Alabama
Situation: Crimson Tide closes UF's 15-point lead to 8 with 5:36 to go.
His start: Frazier starts 2-for-6 from 3.
His moment: Frazier hits a 3 just 10 seconds after Bama cuts lead to single digits. 
Final: UF wins 78-69 (Frazier: 14 points, 3 of 8 from arc) 

Opponent: at Tennessee
Situation: Gators take 7-point lead with 10:30 to go, but go next 7 minutes without a FG.
His start: Frazier makes just 2 of his first 8 shots.
His moment: Volunteers cut lead to one, but Frazier hits a 3 at 3:32 mark to end scoring drought.
Final: UF wins 67-58 (Frazier: 11 points, 3 of 6 from arc)

Opponent: at Kentucky
Situation: Gators cling to 2-point lead at Rupp Arena with just over 4 minutes to go.
His start: Frazier misses his first four shots of the game.
His moment: Dorian Finney-Smith gathers offensive rebound, kicks ball to Frazier, who swishes 3-pointer with 4:16 left and 5-point lead.
Final: UF 69-59 (Frazier: 3 points, 1 of 4 from arc)

Opponent: Auburn
Situation: Gators down by 1 inside a minute to play.
His start: Frazier 2-for-8 from 3-point line, sprained his left wrist early in 2nd half.
His moment: Frazier hits 3-pointer with 40 seconds left to give Florida the lead.
Final: UF 71-66 (Frazier: 9 points, 3 of 9 from arc)

Opponent: at Ole Miss
Situation: Gators lead by 5 inside four minutes to go.
His start: Frazier was a crisp 4-for-9 from 3, but just 1-for-4 in 2nd half.
His moment: Frazier swishes a 3 with 3:17 left to push Florida ahead by 8.
Final: UF 75-71 (Frazier: 17 points, 5 of 10 from arc)


FREE THROWS

ChiozzaOver the past six games, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin is averaging 18.7 points on 41.5-percent shooting from the floor, 40.5 from 3-point range and 82.7 percent from free-throw line. ... And as long we're on the subject of free throws, the Gators over the last six games have hit 111 of 146. That's 76 percent. Young, who early in the season, was well before 50 percent from the line, has sank 19 of his last 24 (that's 79.1 percent) and has worked his way up to 68.8 percent in SEC play. ... With the win at Ole Miss, the Gators have now beaten every SEC team in their most recent game against each respective team. ... UF’s seven straight road wins are tied for the fourth-longest streak in the nation, behind Wichita State (11), Stephen F. Austin and Saint Louis (both 10). ... Incoming 2014-15 freshman Chris Chiozza, the 5-11 point guard from Memphis (Tenn.) White Station, has helped lead his 29-1 team to the Class AAA state semifinals. Donovan was asked about the kid by a Memphis television reporter who made the drive Saturday to nearby Oxford. “We’re losing Scottie and we needed a point guard,” Donovan said. “What I like about Chris, he’s a basketball player who just knows how to play the game. He’s got really good speed, can score, has good vision and is very quick. He plays in a really good high school program and was on a really good AAU program in the summer. We’re excited about him.” ... Auburn senior guard Chris Denson dished a huge assist to the O’Connell Center crowd for its part in Wednesday night’s rally and win. “It was a big factor,” Denson said. “That was the loudest crowd I’ve ever been in in SEC play.” ... Trivia answer: Matt Bonner was a three-time Academic All-American (in 2001-03) and two-time All-SEC player (second team in ’02 and first team in ’03).

Patric free throws GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In the locker room Wednesday night after second-ranked Florida’s come-from behind 71-66 defeat of Auburn, the subject of free throws was put to Scottie Wilbekin.

The senior point guard had made good on all four of his attempts in the game, including two with 17.5 seconds left to help ice the outcome. As a team, the Gators hit 23 of 28. Senior center Patric Young (left), whose 57.1 percent for the season was a team-low among UF regulars, went 7-for-9 from the line and hit a mega-clutch pair with 19.4 seconds to give the Gators the lead. For good, as it turned out.

Young, it was pointed out to Wilbekin, had made 15 of his last 20.

Wilbekin’s eyes got a little wide. He was impressed.

“That’s pretty good,” Wilbekin said. “He must be learning from me.”

Maybe the Gators are learning from each other.

A month ago, 16 games into the season, UF was making 66.2 percent of its free throws. That ranked 270th in the nation. In six of those 16 games, the Gators had made less than 60 percent. The fact they had two games of more than 80 percent with at least 30 attempts suggested what the team was capable of, but pointed to their drastic inconsistency.

Now, the Gators have not only improved, but they’re doing it each game.

Scottie FT Coach Billy Donovan ordered up more practice time dedicated to free-throw shooting, oftentimes with players breaking up and going to baskets in pairs, with half the team in the men’s gym and the other half heading to the women’s gym, for 20-25 minutes of free throws at the end of practice. One hundred for each guy, with the results written up on a greaseboard for the entire team to see.

That's when Wilbekin made 83 in a row and had a few words about it.

Or when Michael Frazier II made 96 and was upset about it.

Players have also taken it upon themselves to get more shots up, be it by showing up at random times to shoot on their own or staying after practice to do so.

It shows.

Boy, does it show.

Some numbers:

* Over the last 10 games, UF has made 69.8 percent.

* Last five: 75.5 percent.

* Last three: 79.5 percent.

* Last two: 80.4 percent.

Wilbekin gets a big assist here. Upon joining the team five games into the season following a suspension, Wilbekin made just 10 of his first 20 from the line, but has gone 71 of his last 91 since. That’s 82 percent.

He’s 25-of-28 over the last three games. That’s 89.3 percent.

And that's borderline automatic.

Then there’s Young. A career 55.4 from the line coming into the season, Young was shooting at his average for the better part of the season (54.2 through 20 games), with games of 0-for-4 and 2-for-7 along the way. Over the last six games, though, Young has gone 20 of his last 28, which converts to 71.4 percent.

For a big man who gets a lot of 3-point opportunities, that’s significant.

Let’s not forget Will Yeguete, either. The senior forward started the season at a woeful 41.5 from his career. After going 5-for-6 against Auburn, Yeguete is nine of his last 11 over five games and at 64.1 for the season.

Casey FTs at UK Note: Casey Prather (left at Kentucky) certainly warrants mention, given the fact he was at 50 percent for his career entering the season and is now at 67.9. Fact is, though, Prather has been hovering at that average most of the season while leading the team -- by far -- in free-throw attempts with 134 He’s been a huge factor in UF’s ability to close out games.  

These are all really good numbers and certainly indicate practice and repetition. But as Donovan pointed out after Wednesday’s narrow victory, statistics are merely an indication of things that already have happened.

No guarantees for the Gators (24-2, 13-0) in future games, starting Saturday at Ole Miss (16-10, 7-6).

"These guys have spent time [and] we’ve gotten better there, but we’ve got to keep getting better,” Donovan said. “All this stuff is so fragile. One minute you’re looked at like, ‘Hey, we’re the best defensive team in the country,’ and we’re this and this --  and I don’t think we were the best defensive team in the country (against Auburn). But we were a really poor free-throw shooting team and now we’re an unbelievable free-throw shooting team.”

The goal, obviously, is to keep those numbers trending up. The way to do that, is keep the practice shots going up. There's no reason to believe, given recent results, that won't continue happening.

Wednesday February 19, 2014Finney-Smith looks to regain his shooting touch

Updated: 2:43pm, February 19

Doe Doe vs Kentucky GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- During one timeout Saturday night, Florida coach Billy Donovan didn’t have a whole lot of wisdom to impart on his team during their back-and-forth battle with Kentucky. The Gators were playing hard, mostly executing on offense, in good position on defense, but they were behind.

Donovan had just one thing to say.

“Will somebody please just make a shot!” he shouted.

You can bet there was an extra adjective in there, too.

And you can also bet a good chank of Donovan's words were directed at Dorian Finney-Smith. 

The Gators went on to beat the Wildcats 69-59 and Finney-Smith was a big part of that victory. He scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds, including a huge carom on the offensive glass late in the second half that he fed back to Michael Frazier II for a 3-point dagger.

But Finney-Smith (aka “Doe-Doe”) is in a shooting slump, no question about it, and the Gators are waiting for him to break out of it. Tuesday night, when No. 2 Florida (23-2, 12-0) hosts Auburn (12-11, 4-8) at the O'Connell Center, would be a nice time to melt the ice.

“It’s not just Coach, it’s the whole team,” Finney-Smith said after a practice this week. “I passed up a shot and everybody got on me during a timeout. They’re like, ‘C’mon Doe! Shoot that when you’re wide open!’ It feels good knowing you have everyone behind you, even when you’re not making shots.”

Over the last eight games, Finney-Smith has hit just 20 of 64 field-goal attempts (31.3 percent) and gone 3-for-28 from 3-point range. That’s 10.7 percent. Before his current run of bricks, he was shooting 40.6 from the field and 36.5 from the arc, so everyone knows -- that includes coaches, teammates and fans -- what he’s capable of doing.

Finney-Smith just has to get back to doing it.

“To say I’m worried about him, that’s not the right word,” Donovan said. “He just has to be more confident shooting the basketball right now. These last few games, I can’t imagine what he is from the 3-point line.”

Don’t bother imagining, Coach. That’s what we’re here for.

Try 0-for-14 over the previous five games. No calculater needed.

In Tuesday’s practice, Finney-Smith let fly an open 3-point shot during a 5-on-5 scrimmage. It didn’t go in and the shoulders on his 6-foot-8, 212-pound frame slumped.

Donovan stopped the action and went right at his player about his body language and confidence. Donovan did the same thing at Kentucky, where Finney-Smith went 0-for-3 from the arc and passed on a couple open ones.

“He’s got to put the ball in the basket,” Donovan said. “I told him during the game, ‘Listen, if you’re not going to shoot it with confidence, let me take you out and put someone in who will.’ It’s like he’s begging to make a shot right now. But it’s something he’s going through and he’s got to figure it out.”

In and around the paint, Finney-Smith has been really good. He’s 47.2 percent on 2-point shots during his eight-game struggles, but the Gators need that long-distance element of his game -- like 4-6 vs. Kansas; 3-6 in his 22-point outburst at Arkansas; 3-5 vs Georgia -- to be the best team they can be.

"I know what I'm capable of," he said. "I've done it here already."

That’s the all-around player Finney-Smith wanted to be at Virginia Tech, but couldn’t.

And it’s why he chose to transfer to UF at the expense of sitting out last year.

“It’s like, be careful what you wish for,” Donovan said. “He now has the freedom to play offensively, but with that freedom comes the responsibility of shooting the ball with confidence and making shots. We can’t have this, ‘Do-I-shoot? Do-I-not-shoot?’ stuff. He has to work get through that and we have to help him get him through that.”

Finney-Smith took some solace in doing other things to help his teammates win, including making some tough shots down low against UK’s massive front court.

But he knows he can do more.

“I’ll get it back,” Finney-Smith said of his shooting stroke. “It’ll come. I just have to take ‘em with confidence and get up a good rep.”

Kasey HillGAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Freshman Kasey Hill suffered a groin injury in the first half of Saturday night’s big win at Kentucky. The Florida backup point guard returned to the court in the second half and actually logged four minutes before checking out of the game for good.

Hill did not practice Monday and is expected to be sidelined when the Gators (23-2, 12-0), up to No. 2 in the polls and winners of a school record-tying 17 straight games, are home to the Auburn Tigers (12-11, 4-8) Wednesday night at the O’Connell Center.

Without Hill, UF does not have a true backup point guard behind red-hot senior Scottie Wilbekin, who right now is playing at a level commensurate to the best at his position in the country. He’s also averaging nearly 34 minutes per game in Southeastern Conference play.

So he’s going to need some rest against the Tigers. 

That means the Gators will return to the scramble-mode point guard plan they implemented early in the season when Wilbekin was unavailable.

“We’ll probably look at the three guys by committee,” UF coach Billy Donovan said.

When Wilbekin takes a seat look for shooting guards Michael Frazier and DeVon Walker to take some possessions on the ball, along with versatile frontcourt man Dorian Finney-Smith.

“We probably won’t run as many set plays, do more basic stuff, but it won’t be that different,” Wilbekin said of his anticipated time off the floor. “It’s about making the easy play and getting us into the offense. I’m really not worried about it.”

That’s because there’s precedent.

Devo Wilbekin began the season suspended for the first five regular season games, leaving Hill, the McDonald's All-America rookie, to run the UF offense until his return. But Hill suffered a high ankle sprain Nov. 17 against Southern -- he was out for four games --  leaving the Gators to do some shell-gaming at the point position.

With Frazier, Walker and Finney-Smith taking turns, the Gators defeated Middle Tennessee State 79-59. UF only had 10 assists that game, but its offensive efficiency rating (OER) checked in at 1.23 points per possession, above the goal of 1.20.

Walker, the sophomore from Winter Haven, Fla., had the best game as a Gator that night, finishing with a career-best 10 points and no turnovers in 32 minutes, also a career high.

“The system really runs itself, so it’s not like, ‘Who, I gotta play point guard this game.’ You just have to get the offense to the flow,” Walker said after practice Monday. “But I’ve got the support of all these guys, so I’m good whatever happens.”

Frazier is known for his shooting touch, but he’s capable of taking a few turns on the ball. So is Finney-Smith, who actually plays more center and power forward than any perimeter position.

Finney-Smith was serviceable at the point against MTSU, but a couple weeks later he was forced back to the spot when Wilbekin, in his third game back, rolled his ankle with three minutes to play at Connecticut and UF in a dogfight with the Huskies.

When Wilbekin hobbled to the locker room, Finney-Smith went to the “1” position and the Gators scored -- get this -- nine points over the final possessions of the game, a OER of 2.25 (more than a point higher than the standard). UF executed its offense to get Frazier a layup with 18 seconds to go, only to lose the game on Shabazz Napier's shot at the buzzer.

Doe Finney-Smith wasn’t the catalyst behind that four-possession windfall of points. He just stepped in, did his job efficiently and let the offense work.

“It’s a little different than I’m used to, and what we’re used, but you can’t use it an excuse when have a player banged up.,” Finney-Smith said. “We all just have to know everyone on the team has to step up with ‘Little Kasey’ out.”

[Note: As opposed to “Big Casey,” as in Prather, who is just fine]

“Little Kasey” spent Monday receiving treatment from the trainers, then took his turn in the empty women’s gym shooting free throws.

Back in the other gym, the Gators had a very focused practice.

Getting his team’s attention was something of a concern at the start of the day, given that two of UF’s toughest practice during the regular season were the first ones after arguably the two biggest wins of the season (before the one at Rupp).

Kansas and Arkansas.

Donovan spent his team in those workouts to get their attention, which they apparently learned from. The Gators reported for work Monday locked in and loaded to get after it from the start.

It was another sign of a mature, experienced team.

Add it to the list.

Sunday February 16, 2014Sunday 'Basket Blog' - A look back at big night in Lexington and much more

Updated: 8:56am, February 17

Gators together


GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Some of those Kentucky players may go on to NBA stardom (maybe even next year), but that team of seven McDonald’s All-Americans and a trio of potential lottery picks at Rupp Arena Saturday night was completely dismantled down the stretch by a Florida squad led by senior stalwarts who pro scouts deem of marginal NBA pedigree.

But this isn’t the NBA.

With that in mind, here are some numbers and items of note from No. 3 UF’s come-from-behind 69-59 defeat of the No. 14 Wildcatst:

Aaron Harrison * Florida’s senior class vs. Kentucky’s five freshmen starters was a virtual standoff in the scoring column. The four Gators scored 58 to the Wildcats’ 57. But after UK took a seven-point lead with 11 minutes to go, UF’s seniors outscored the so-called “Kiddie Cats” 31-14 down the stretch. As pointed out here in this terrific column by Pat Forde, college hoops writer for Yahoo.com, UF scored at least one point on each of its final 13 possessions, a stunningly efficient 2.38 points per. That had to be deflating for a bunch of youngsters trying to claw back and just looking for a stop. They got none.

* Julius Randle, UK’s beastly walking double-double power forward, had 13 points and 13 rebounds, better stats than anyone in the UF frontcourt. He scored three points and had zero field goals during the game’s final 22 minutes.

* Kentucky came into the game averaging nearly 79 points and 31 free throws per game, thanks to the biggest, most imposing front line in the country. The Cats finished with a season-low in points and got to free-throw line just 24 times. That speaks not only to UF’s team defense, but the fundamentally and technically sound way the Gators guard. Florida came into the game ranked first in the Southeastern Conference in fouls at 16.2 per game. 

* UK’s bench, which includes a pair of McDonald’s big men sophomores who opted to come back after last season’s NIT downer, combined for two points. Seven-footer Willie Cauley-Stein, a likely lottery pick, and 6-8 forward Alex Poythress hit one of their combined four shots and grabbed four rebounds. Cauley-Stein, one of the most feared rim protectors in the game, blocked three shots, but the aggregate damage inflicted by he and starting center Dakari Johnson, another 7-footer, was neglible (2-for-4 from the floor, missed all three of their free throws, four points four rebounds).

* As John Clay, of The Lexington Herald-Leader, put it, “In the things that matter, starting four seniors, Florida is teaching a master's class on the art of college basketball. Midway through February, starting five freshmen, Kentucky is still learning now to play college basketball.”


GATORS IN 2018 BARNSTORMING TOUR OF HEAVY HITTERS

Some of the Gators who will be impacted by this next nugget might be playing junior varsity basketball right now. Doesn’t make it any less interesting, though.

As ESPN's Andy Katz reported last week, Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, who brainstormed the aircraft carrier and military-base games of the past several years, was the point man in an agreement that will partner MSU, Texas, North Carolina and Florida in a round-robin barnstorming basketball tour to take place in December of 2018.

The Gators, Spartans, Longhorns and Tar Heels will alternate games against each other over an eight-day period at venues in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“It’s such a cool idea,” MSU coach Tom Izzo told ESPN.com. “At first I thought it was crazy.”

The four teams will arrive in New York, play two games, then travel together to Chicago, play two more games, then head west for a third double-header in L.A. Along the way, the teams will tour the Freedom Tower and see a Broadway musical in the Big Apple, eat deep-dish Chicago-style pizza and see the Second City comedy show in the Windy City and cap things with a trip to Disneyland on the West Coast.

Worth noting: The teams will travel together on the same chartered jet, thus fostering a unique element of camaraderie among players who will be competing against one another.

The fact UF would be approached about such a production merely enforces what we already know about the status of the program under Coach Billy Donovan.


TRIVIA QUESTION 

Patric Young was in the news a lot this week for the Gators, thanks to that great play Tuesday night at Tennessee. The Herald-Leader did a story on young and spoke to his father, Robert Young, who played tight end at Bethune-Cookman College. Robert Young also had a short stint playing professional football. With what team and coach?



Beal and Calathes FORMER GATOR UPDATE 

Two Gators in Memphis Tuesday night were the best players on the floor, so we'll call this week's designation a draw.

Washington’s Bradley Beal (right) shredded the Grizzlies for a career-high 37 points on 15-for-24 shooting, including 5-for-7 from the 3-point line.

For the Wizards, it wasn’t enough.

That’s because Memphis point guard Nick Calathes(also pictured right), in his first NBA season since returning from four years in Greece, had a complete floor game in finishing with 18 points, seven rebounds, six assists and a couple steals as the Griz won 92-89.

Calathes followed that game with 12 points, five rebounds, six assists and four steals the next night in his hometown of Orlando, pacing Memphis to an 86-81 win.

But let’s not overlook what Beal did Friday night in the Future Stars game during NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. The second-year pro went for 21 points, five rebounds and four assists in that game, then finished second in a tiebreaker to San Antonio’s Marco Belinelli to in the NBA’s 3-point shooting contest Saturday.

They said when Beal came to UF he had the makings of the next Ray Allen. He's getting there.

 

TWITTER PATTER 

 

CHARTING THE GATORS

OK, now that Florida has punched its way past its toughest SEC road test, get ready for media buzz on the potential for the Gators going through the league season undefeated. UF still has a tough dates ahead, namely next Saturday at Ole Miss -- with an 11 a.m. local start, always dangerous (and Marshall Henderson, also always dangerous) -- plus dates with streaky LSU and a grudge rematch against Kentucky, both at the O'Connell Center

Here are the nation’s six remaining teams that are undefeated in league play.

Conference                Team                         Record       Tough ones left
Atlantic-10                   St. Louis                     10-0            George Washington, @VCU @UMass
Atlantic Coast              Syracuse                    12-0            @Duke, @Maryland, @Virgina
Colonial                       Delaware                    11-0            @Towson, Drexel
Missouri Valley            Wichita State              13-0            Drake, Missouri State
Southeastern               Florida                        12-0           @Ole Miss, LSU, Kentucky
Southland                    Stephen F. Austin       13-0           Northwestern State, @New Orleans


And in case you’re wondering how unbeaten SEC teams have fared in the postseason, here’s a look at the three -- all Kentucky, of course -- fared after sweeping through the conference since its 1992 wave of expansion.

Team               Year           Record         In the end
Kentucky         1995-96       16-0             Lost SEC Tourney final to Miss State, won NCAA title 
Kentucky         2002-03       16-0             Won SEC Tourney, lost to Marquette in regional final
Kentucky         2011-12       16-0             Lost SEC Tourney final vs Vanderbilt, won NCAA title

 

Spurrier with Bandits FREE THROWS
The Gators are up to No. 4 in in the RPI, trailing only Kansas, Arizona and Syracuse, but now they’re in every conversation for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA field, with each passing week (and mounting wins) looking like a ticket to second- and third-round pod in Orlando. ... Want more national perspective on UF's big? Here’s this from USA Today college hoops writer Nicole Auerbach. ... Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin made just 10 of his first 20 free throws through seven games. That’s 50 percent. After going 11-for-12 at Kentucky, he’s now at 74.7 percent for the season and 80.0 in SEC play. ... One more thing on Wilbekin. In back-to-back road wins at two of the league’s toughest venues (Knoxville and Lexington), Wilbekin combined for 44 points, 7 rebounds, 8 assists and zero turnovers. Said it Tuesday night, reiterated it again Saturday night. Wilbekin, right now, is the 2014 SEC Player of the Year. ... We likely won’t know what Kentucky coach John Calipari said to the official to warrant that ill-timed technical foul -- after his team had taken a one-point lead with 8:14 remaining -- but it certainly was a post-game topic. UF’s Young was asked what he thought of it. “Thanks for the two points,” he quipped. Actually, the Gators got possession after Wilbekin’s two tech free throws and Casey Prather scored on a driving, left-handed finger roll. So thanks for the four points. ... Speaking of Calipari, he was fairly blunt about his rookie-led team afterward. “We're not ready to win that kind of game, and I told them that,” he said. “We've got to understand, listen and take responsibility. If a guy outplayed you, admit it.” ... Trivia answer: Patric Young’s father played for the USFL Tampa Bay Bay Bandits, coached by Steve Spurrier (pictured above).

Tuesday February 11, 2014Billy D on Marcus Smart

Updated: 8:42pm, February 23

Billy D and Marcus Smart KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- From 1,500 miles away, it’s easy to formulate opinions or make generalizations about what happened Saturday night in Lubbuck, Texas, where one of the best players in college basketball imploded for one of the game’s ugliest scenes in recent years.

The behavior of Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart was unforgivable. So was, it appeared, that of (at least) one fan who did his part in initiating the incident.

Three days later, no one is certain what was said to make Smart go off, but the OSU standout has apologized and been suspended for three games for his behavior. His image has been tarnished, maybe forever.

Billy Donovan coached Smart the last two summers during USA Basketball international play (photos right; that's Smart in bottom row, wearing No. 7). The Florida coach took the U18 and U19 teams and went a combined 18-0 in 2012 and 2013 in leading them to gold medals in the FIBA Americas in Brazil and World Championships in Czech Republic, respectively.

USA team photo Smart starred on both teams. He was the leader on both of the those teams.

On Monday, Donovan was asked about the incident in his weekly press opportunity. He praised Smart, the kid, adding he’d seen nothing that remotely resembled what played out on ESPN cameras two nights earlier.

“I never had one bit of a problem with him, coaching him for the two years with USA. I really was appreciative that he came back the second year and played,” Donovan said. “I remember the first year we had him, there were a couple of games where we were up by 30, 40 points at halftime. I told him, because we had to play five games in a row, I said, 'Marcus I'm not playing you in the second half.’ 'No problem, Coach, whatever I can do to help.' He's always been that kind of kid. What people saw from him in that situation against Texas Tech to me is totally uncharacteristic. I never saw anything like that -- ever -- coaching him.”

Now, if you’ve been following Smart and the recent struggles of Oklahoma State, which has now lost five of six and fallen out of the Big 12 championship race, the first thing that may come to your mind after reading Donovan's remarks is a certain chair-stomping incident in a home loss to West Virginia just last month. Smart apologized on Twitter after that.

Saturday night, Twitter blew up when Smart blew his gasket.

Marcus But this is where Donovan was able to lend some unique perspective. He did not in any way condone what Smart did. What he could do was frame Smart’s circumstances in a way most of us would not be able to.

Smart, Donovan reminded, was projected as a top-five pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, but opted to return to school and actually was with Team USA during the NBA draft last summer. 

Donovan once had a player who went through similar circumstances at Florida. Joakim Noah, remember, was a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick in 2006, but chose to return to school and try to defend the Gators’ NCAA championship alongside his best friends.

With that decision came added scrutiny, pressure and internal struggles none of us will ever know.

Enter Billy D.

“Because he was a top-five pick a year ago, you feel like you have to play like a top-five pick, whatever that looks like in his mind -- and what happens is you can never reach that level,” Donovan said. “Whether he thinks he has to score 30 points or have 10 assists, five steals, it’s not going to happen, but you feel this unbelievable pressure.”

That’s when Donovan invoked Noah. He saw the fallout of the decision made by the Gators' center and Final Four MVP play out daily, be in during practices or games.

And especially on the road.

Joakim “When Noah came back after his sophomore year, the pressure he felt to perform every game was totally out of control. He made it out of control,” Donovan said. “And I told Joakim this: ‘You cannot allow people to rob you of your happiness playing the game,’ and I think in some ways Marcus has allowed some happiness to be robbed from him a little bit in this whole process of coming back, maybe by not playing like he wants to.”

Now the external expectations are being compounded by losses and the internal frustration has manifested itself with some stunning video images that Donovan believes paint a different picture of Smart, the person, than who he really is.

“All of a sudden he goes from four months ago being this unbelievable kid coming back for college basketball, to now he’s in a situation where he’s looked upon in a very negative light,” Donovan said, again going back to Noah. “Joakim hit the NCAA tournament as a sophomore like a lightning rod. We were unranked. Everybody loved the kid. And then once the next year started, he was like a complete villain, with the chest pumping and all that stuff he’d done that since he was a freshman."

Back to Smart.

“Marcus is a young kid and he’s a competitor, and he wants to win and I think he’s one of those guys that just kind of keeps on grinding, and there’s no question his emotions got the better of him. But I’m not so sure that this [doesn’t have] something to do with the pressure he’s personally put on himself at the level he wants to perform and the quicker he gets to a place to where he can realize he’s not going to live up to those expectations -- that he’s got to do what he can do to help the team -- I think the better off he is. I think you saw total frustration from him the last couple of weeks and that, to me, is just the frustration of a young kid that wants to play better, wants his team to do better. He didn’t channel it the right way and crossed the line into a really, really poor situation that he really regrets to this day.”

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, 2014For 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, 2014Scout 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, 2014Chris 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, 2014Charting 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, 2014When 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, 2014Basket 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, 2014For 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, 2014Donovan 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.

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