Saturday December 14, 2013Chris Walker officially joins Gators
Updated: 11:13am, December 14
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When the calendar flipped Friday -- and the University of Florida’s fall semester ended -- the Gators’ basketball roster flipped, too.
In a really big way.
Welcome, Chris Walker.
UF coach Billy Donovan and his team officially greeted Walker, the 6-foot-10, 220-pound freshman forward and reigning McDonald’s All-America Game dunk champion, to the program Saturday. Walker, who did not qualify academically for the fall semester, spent the last several months completing his academic entry requirements and last week was admitted and enrolled for the spring semester.
“Chris Walker has been admitted to UF and is eligible to practice, but is not yet eligible to compete,” the school announced in a statement around 10 a.m. “He will begin practicing with our team today.”
His timeline to play in games is uncertain, but Walker was quite the sight -- a very large one, donning No. 23 -- when he entered the gym Saturday after the first of two practices, much to the delight and excitement of his new teammates.
Because UF is between semesters, Donovan and his staff can use the holidays to bring Walker as up to speed as possible on the system, try to work him into basketball condition and prepare him to contribute whenever he is cleared to play.
Walker is believed to be the first scholarship basketball player to join the Gators in midseason; certainly the first in Donovan’s 18 seasons. He also figures to be worth the wait.
After averaging 32 points, 15 rebounds and six blocks a game and leading Bonifay (Fla.) Holmes County High to state championship last spring, Walker’s length and high-flying athleticism will make for a special addition to the frontcourt depth and a provide even more defensive options for the Gators. Florida has started the season 7-2 -- the lone defeats coming with depleted rosters at Wisconsin (now unbeaten and ranked fourth) and Connecticut (also unbeaten and ranked ninth) -- and only now is rounding into form relative to its health and regular rotation.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The day after a game is usually an off day from practice, but Coach Billy Donovan sometimes brings his team in for a film session and that was the case Wednesday, the morning after the 19th-ranked Florida Gators defeated No. 13 Kansas 67-61 in a marquee matchup at the sold-out O’Connell Center.
The bulk of the highlight-reel plays that lathered up the Rowdy Reptiles weren’t included in the screening.
Instead, the Gators got a defensive horror flick.
“Disgusting,” UF assistant coach John Pelphrey said. “Despicable.”
Those were the words Pelphrey chose when asked about the final 3 minutes, 8 seconds Tuesday night. That’s when the Gators, after holding the Jayhawks to just 44 points over the game’s first 37 minutes, allowed KU to score 17 on its final 11 possessions.
That’s a DER (defensive efficiency rating) of 1.45 points per possession.
For context, Florida’s goal is .90.
That’s why Thursday’s practice was defensive loaded, with the blue team (the starting rotation) in the coaching staff’s crosshairs. There was no mention of Memphis, the nation’s 16th-ranked team and the next opponent on the UF schedule.
That game is Tuesday in New York. These next few days will be Gators focusing on Gators.
“We’re building for a different day when we’ve got to play two halves, like we did our first [against Kansas],” Pelphrey said. “We’re building for a day when we’re in the SEC or NCAA Tournament, or maybe trying to win an SEC championship. Hopefully, in the last three minutes we’ll have a chance to win the game. We won’t win it if we foul a bunch, let the other team score and hit 3s or if we miss free throws and turn the ball over.”
This is not just a reaction to Kansas, either. Consider the last three games.
* The Gators had an eight-up lead with three minutes to go, but needed a free throw (one of two) from forward Dorian Finney-Smith with 1.1 second left to defeat Florida State 67-66. The Seminoles, though, nearly threw in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer.
* UF had a 1-point lead with time expiring at Connecticut, when a Husky crashing the glass tipped Shabazz Napier’s badly missed shot back to Napier, who hit a 15-footer at the horn to hand the Gators a crushing 65-64 loss. If a Gator gets even a finger on the ball, Florida wins.
* Against Kansas, UF was leading 56-44 with just over three minutes to go, then let freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins get loose for a trio of 3-pointers to put some drama in the game. Fortunately for the Gators, they hit enough free throws to keep the margin from shrinking below four, but that was after building an 18-point first half lead.
During Thursday's practice, Donovan called for better communication, more aggression and even an element of violence in the way his players competed.
Yes, against one another.
Reminders about fundamental principles -- boxing out, securing loose balls and proper defensive positioning -- were a constant.
“Our defense? Yeah, it was bad,” senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “It’s gonna get better.”
Memphis will be an ideal measuring stick. The Tigers are explosive, especially on the perimeter, and have a pair of outstanding frontcourt players in sophomore Shaq Goodwin and freshman forward Austin Nichols.
Neither of those names, nor any other Tiger, was mentioned Thursday.
That’s one of the blessings rolled into the tedium of December, when the Gators play just five games the entire month (after playing seven in the last three weeks of November). There’s time to work on things, rather than prepare for opponents.
“We accomplished our main goal against Kansas, which was to win the game,” Pelphrey said. “But there’s something about learning lessons -- and it’s good to learn them in a win.”
Time to soak in the knowledge and apply it.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- On the recruiting trails and AAU circuit, Billy Donovan had seen Andrew Wiggins live before, so the Florida coach didn’t need Tuesday night’s front-row viewing at the O’Connell Center to validate what he already knew.
The kid's a really, really good player.
“I’ve always appreciated and admired his disposition on the court,” Donovan said after the Kansas freshman phenom forward totaled career-bests of 26 points and 11 rebounds in 19th-ranked UF’s 67-61 defeat of the No. 13 Jayhawks. “For a guy so heralded, he’s always maintained his composure and handled himself great.”
The 6-foot-8 Wiggins already is being touted as a potential No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft next June. In fact, some analysts and scouts have labeled Wiggins as the next LeBron James. Before the season even started, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated superimposed with images of -- get this -- Wilt Chamberlain and Danny Manning, arguably KU’s greatest hoops icons.
That’s where Donovan draws the line.
Wiggins maybe among a handful of young players who figure to make up the next generation of great pros, but let the guy get some games under his belt before any King James-like coronation.
“There’s a part of me that feels bad for him,” said Donovan, who knows a little bit about NBA pedigree, with 12 players currently in the league, including five lottery picks. “The minute you start getting comparisons to LeBron James and hearing things like that [and] you don’t get 30 points every single night and dominate and take over, guys walk away and say, ‘Geez, this guy is [not that].’ I just hope he’s enjoying his experience. He’s a very, very good player. He’s athletic and explosive. But he’s young.”
Against UF, Wiggins hit seven of his 15 shots, including four of nine from the 3-point line, and all eight free throws. In the first half, he split two Gators on a fast break with the kind of move that maybe one or two players in the country can make.
And made it look effortless.
“He looked like a four-year player to me,” UF senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
Yet Donovan thought the Gators did a decent job containing Wiggins for the better part of his game-high 37 minutes. Then came 11 points (including a trio of 3-pointers when he managed to get loose deep against the defense) in the final 2:23 when the Jayhawks cut UF’s 10-point lead to four.
“He scored a lot of his points late on us. He threw in some bombs,” Donovan said. “He’s got a chance to be a special player and a very, very good player. But I always get concerned when I see young kids compared to the greatest players of all time. Are people going to say when he scores 10 points, ‘Wow, he’s overrated.’ But he’s a good player and seems to be a good team player, unselfish and plays the right way.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When Kasey Hill returned to practice over the weekend, the Florida Gators welcomed back a much-needed body to their rotation.
Another one -- a really big one -- is expected Saturday.
Chris Walker, the 6-foot-11, 215-pound McDonald’s All-America forward, completed his academic requirements last week and is expected to be enrolled at UF for the 2014 spring semester. Walker, who signed with the Gators in November 2012 but did not qualify academically in time for the 2013 fall semester, can join the UF basketball team once the fall semester officially ends Friday, assumming the enrollment process is done.
“His work is completed,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said Monday. “It’s out of my hands right now.”
That’s a fact.
Walker’s fate now rests with the NCAA and its Clearinghouse.
While some media reports and fan blog sites have suggested Walker could be in action as early as next week when UF plays Memphis in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, that’s not happening.
Even if he was eligible to play as soon as next week, the notion that Donovan would throw a guy into a game with next-to-no knowledge of the system and having not played in a real game since last March, well, is absurd.
So now the Gators wait.
Walker, a consensus top-10 national prospect for the 2013 signing class, averaged 32 points, 15 rebounds and six blocked shots a game as a junior, and as a senior led Holmes County High to the Class 1A state championship with 30 points and 15 rebounds in the 2013 title game.
A month later, he won the slam-dunk contest at the McDonald’s All-America Game (pictured above).
If nothing else, Walker will be a big boon for the UF scout team for a few weeks and should get a crash course in collegiate post play going against Patric Young, Dorian Finney-Smith, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather every day in practice.
“He’s certainly got a lot to catch up on, a lot to make up, so to speak, with him missing as much time as he’s missed here,” Donovan said. “But I would be excited if that did work out.”
A lot of Gators will.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- One point guard back, still one to go.
Florida senior Scottie Wilbekin returned to practice Saturday and will be in the lineup when the 15th-ranked Gators (6-2) face sixth-ranked Kansas (6-2) Tuesday night at the C’Connell Center. Wilbekin suffered an ankle sprain in Monday night’s loss at Connecticut and did not return to the game.
“We held him out the last couple days,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “He’s fine now.”
Wilbekin injured his right ankle grabbing a rebound late in UConn’s buzzer-beating 65-64 win. In three games since returning from a suspension, he’s averaging 11.3 points on 37-percent shooting, plus 3.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. He’s turned the ball over just seven times.
After a team day off Tuesday, UF’s training staff held Wilbekin out of Wednesday and Thursday practice, but cleared him for full-go work Saturday.
Meanwhile, freshman point guard Kasey Hill participated in some non-contact work, but was relegated to the training room for treatment while the Gators practiced. His status for the KU game remains questionable.
The Jayhawks lost Saturday at Colorado on a 30-foot shot shot at the buzzer.
Hill averaged 10.3 points and 4.2 assists in starting the season’s first four games, then suffered a high ankle sprain Nov. 17 against Southern. He was cleared for running and lower-body conditioning a week ago.
Updated: 2:38pm, December 3
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Delta Air Lines released a statement Tuesday explaining its decision to delay a commercial flight to Atlanta and use the aircraft to take the University of Florida basketball team on its Sunday chartered flight to Connecticut.
“An internal review is underway to understand the specific circumstances around this aircraft substitution,” the airline said, “but it is clear that the University of Florida in no way participated in the decision-making process.”
The UF team flight was scheduled to depart around 3 p.m., but according to Delta was grounded due to mechanical problems. The flight from Gainesville to Atlanta was scheduled for a 3:26 p.m. departure. According to the airline, it was Delta’s intention to try and accommodate both groups, first having Florida take off as close to its scheduled departure time as possible, then fix the mechanical issue with the other plane to allow the Atlanta-bound passengers take off with as limited a delay as possible.
The airline indicated it gave no priority to the University of Florida. Its intention was to get both flights off the ground as close to on schedule as possible. Unfortunately, flight 5059 ended up being cancelled.
The circumstances reportedly inconvenienced travelers trying to reach their destinations on the last day of the Thanksgiving weekend, one of the most traveled days of the year.
“Delta Connection partner ExpressJet, which operated both the charter as well as the regularly scheduled flight, made the operational decision to swap aircraft as the maintenance work was expected to be done quickly,” the airline said. “Unfortunately, it was not and Delta flight 5059 was cancelled. Delta made every effort to re-accommodate those customers on alternate flights and we apologize to the 50 customers who were inconvenienced.
“Our efforts to better serve our customers are constant and a well-intentioned operational decision unfortunately did not work as planned,” the airline said. “We continually look for ways to improve the customer experience and again, we apologize to those customers who were inconvenienced.”
STORRS, Conn. -- The Florida-Connecticut game tonight will represent an attractive cross-regional matchup for ESPN, not to mention what figures to be some nice RIP points for both teams down the line.
A rare matchup, too.
The Gators and Huskies have played just once before and longtime UF basketball followers surely remember; just as longtime UConn fans -- not to mention a certain first-team All-American named Donyell Marshall -- surely would like to forget.
Take Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie, who wore a Huskies uniform that game, for example.
“They played well, they had the crowd behind them and got the momentum,” Ollie told UConn reporters this week. “We thought Donyell would make one of those free throws. He didn’t and they took it to us. It happens.”
Rewind to March 25, 1994.
[Note: I was in Miami that night as UF’s beat writer for The Tampa Tribune in what, without question, was one of my all-time writing deadline nightmares, given the tip-off time (10:05 p.m., if memory serves), circumstances (overtime) and historical significance (Florida basketball like never before).]
The Gators and Huskies met in the NCAA East Region semifinals at Miami Arena. UF, the region’s No. 3 seed and ranked 14th in the country, was in the Sweet 16 for only the second time in school history. UConn was not only the No. 2 seed and conference regular-season champ, but the nation’s third-ranked team and armed with Marshall, the 6-foot-9 forward and Big East Player of the Year, who came in averaging 25.4 points per game.
UF shot just 37 percent for the game and trailed by 10 in the second half when UConn went uncharacteristically cold -- 10 minutes without a field goal.
Meanwhile, the Gators, behind the backcourt of Craig Brown and Dan Cross chipped away at the Huskies’ lead and tied the game at 57-all on a pair of pressure-packed free throws from Cross with 31 seconds remaining.
Florida followed with what seemed to be a great defensive possession until forward Andrew DeClercq fouled Marshall underneath with three seconds remaining.
Marshall, a 76-percent shooter from the line for his career, stepped to the line and promptly bounced the first off the rim. UF coach Lon Kruger called a timeout after that fist attempt to give the Huskies star a little more time to think about the second.
He missed that one, too.
The Gators ran UConn out of the building in overtime, winning 69-60 to advance to the first Elite Eight in program history, and eventually to the Final Four after defeating Boston College for the regional title.
For Florida to accomplish such a feat in its home state was a big deal. Really big. Conversely, you can imagine the blowback in New England directed at Marshall, who finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds and four blocked shots, but went scoreless the final 12:25 of the game and had the two ill-timed boinks.
"If there is one thing that is unfortunate about this game, it is that Donyell Marshall had to go through something like that at the end, but we obviously benefited from that,” Kruger said after the game. “This is a big-time win and it is very important to us."
Marshall’s coach defended his standout.
"Donyell Marshall is a large, large percentage of why we're here playing in the Sweet 16," Calhoun said. "Donyell Marshall is a large reason we won 21 basketball games. Donyell Marshall is a giant, giant reason why we won the Big East by three basketball games. Donyell Marshall has made a lot of shots for us, and before it's over, he'll make a lot more."
Actually, he made no more shots for UConn. Marshall entered the 1994 NBA Draft and was the fourth overall choice by the Minnesota Timberwolves. He went on to play 15 seasons and still holds the NBA single-game record (along with Kobe Bryant) for 3-pointers in one game with 12.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It’s sounding less and less likely that Damontre Harris ever will suit up for the Florida Gators.
“I have not spoken to Damontre,” UF coach Billy Donovan said Wednesday when asked about the status of the suspended center/forward who transferred last year from South Carolina. “I know he’s going to class and those kinds of things.”
Asked if Harris was still in Gainesville, Donovan gave this cryptic response.
“From what I gather.”
From what everyone gathered from this conversation, the 6-foot-10, 230-pound Harris is not only worlds away from taking the court for the Gators, but on the verge of looking for this third basketball program in three years -- if he wants to play the game at all.
Sightings of Harris are like Bigfoot these days. Some players and coaches have not seen or spoken to him in days. Donovan says Harris oftentimes doesn’t even return his text messages.
“He has a lot of work to do inside of his team; a lot of work,” Donovan said. “I think our guys like Damontre and want to help Damontre, but they’d also like to see Damontre help Damontre. That is what’s so difficult as a coach. When you have all the resources here at Florida to really help someone in every possible area -- on the court, off the court, academically, weight room, film -- and you’re not taking advantage of it, at some point he’s the one responsible."
What’s frustrating for the people in the program is that two other players, senior guard Scottie Wilbekin and sophomore transfer Dorian Finney-Smith, also started the season on the suspended list. Both paid their dues, served their time and are back in good standing and playing for the team.
And the road Harris had to take to come back, by the way, in no way resembled Wilbekin’s.
“That’s kind of some stuff that’s in the team,” Wilbekin said Wednesday, two days after playing his first game of the season after completing a challenging six-month to-do list laid out by his coach after a second suspended in seven months. “I don’t really want to talk about that.”
Donovan had no problem talking about it.
UF, the coach said, has a bevy of resources to help student-athletes, from the Office of Student Life, to the support staff, to various facets of counseling.
All have been made available to Harris, yet the last few weeks the coaching staff has gone days without hearing from him (much less seeing him).
Two weeks ago, Harris was on track to making his way back to the team; attending twice-day conditioning sessions with the strength staff and individual skills sessions with coaches. They were encouraged. At South Carolina, he averaged 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and finished second in the league with 2.3 blocked shots per game. Harris was a terrific defensive player who figured to provided instant impact and depth to a deep Gators front court.
Then he stopped coming.
“At a certain point, he's got to want to say, ‘This is what I want and this is what I'm prepared to do.’ He has not done that. He has said, ‘This is what I'd like. I want to play on the team.’ Well, this is what you have to do,” Donovan explained. “What he wants and what he has to do are not matching up. I'm now at a crossroads in the dilemma. Does he want to play? There’s going to be some things he’s going to have to go through to get back on our team. He’s not going to just come in here and say, 'I want back on the team.' Great, come on down to practice, we’ll throw you on and give you a uniform. He has got a lot of work to do.”
For Harris, each day that passes is a day wasted.
And another step further away from this team.
Updated: 6:38pm, November 27
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- DeVon Walker sat on the sidelines during Wednesday practice.
And he was OK with that.
“I was afraid it was a fracture,” Walker said.
Instead, X-rays on the right foot the 6-foot-5 sophomore guard injured less than two minutes into Monday night’s win at Jacksonville came back negative. Walker, who started the season’s first six games and averaged four points and 1.5 rebounds, suffered a foot sprain and now is listed day-to-day, which means he could practice as early as Thursday as the 15th-ranked Gators (5-1) get ready for Friday night’s game against Florida State (5-1) at the O’Connell Center.
“I’m not really sure where he is,” UF coach Billy Donovan said. “It could take 10 days, it could take a couple days. A lot depends on how he responds. I think the biggest thing [was] just making sure it wasn’t a break or a tear and they’ve eliminated all those things, so that’s a positive sign.”
The loss of Walker from the Florida rotation -- he averaged 25.4 minutes through the first five games -- was softened by the return of senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who made his season debut in the 86-60 defeat of the Dolphins and scored 12 points, grabbed five rebounds and carded seven assists Monday. The Gators are still without freshman Kasey Hill, their starting point guard in the first four games. Hill is currently sidelined with a right ankle sprain suffered Nov. 18 in a win over Southern.
But there was good news on the Hill (10.3 points, 4.2 assists per game) front Wednesday. After watching practive and another session of treat, the training staff cleared him to go without his walking boot. No, he will not play against FSU and is an extreme longshot for Monday night's date at Connecticut. The Gators are holding out hope Hill could return for their monstrous Dec. 10 showdown against currently No. 2 Kansas in the Big 12/SEC Challenge at the O'Dome.
Updated: 8:21am, November 27
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They didn’t quite make it into this week’s Associated Press Top 25, but make no mistake about the Florida State Seminoles.
They’re a very a good basketball team.
And they’re coming to the O’Connell Center Friday night.
The 15th-ranked Florida Gators (5-1) will butt heads with the Seminoles (5-1) in a 7:30 game on ESPN2. With a basketball game on the eve of the two schools’ annual football showdown, the atmosphere inside the O'Dome is expected to be a electric for what figures to be a sellout by tip-off.
As of Tuesday, about 600 tickets remained and available here on GatorZone.com.
UF has won four straight, after Monday night’s 86-60 road victory at Jacksonville, a game that marked the return of senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin.
Though two of Florida three players who began the season on the suspended list are back, the Gators are still dealing with some roster issues; an ankle sprain that has sidelined freshman point guard Kasey Hill since Nov. 18, and the loss of sophomore swingman DeVon Walker to a foot injury Monday night.
Hill is not expected to play against FSU, while the UF medical staff was scheduled to re-evaluate Walker's status Tuesday.
The Seminoles shocked then-No. 10 VCU last week with an 85-67 rout in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. FSU, which led that game by as many as 30, then lost 82-80 to reigning NCAA runner-up Michigan in overtime, and defeated Northeastern 62-60 in the tournament consolation game.
After their nice week in Puerto Rico, the Seminoles finished three spots out of the top 25 (and one place behind VCU).
FSU has a couple really good guards in senior Ian Miller (15.5 points per game) and sophomore Devon Bookert (13 points per game, 47 percent from 3-point range), but also a formidable frontcourt led by 6-foot-8 forward Okaro White (14.3 points, 7.5 rebounds).
For the Gators, the game will be a springboard into an absolutely brutal four-game stretch in their non-conference schedule: FSU; at 13th-ranked Connecticut (currently 6-0) on Monday night; home against No. 2 Kansas (4-0) on Dec. 10; then a neutral-site date against 21st-ranked Memphis (2-1) at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 17.
Florida leads its all-time series with Florida State 42-22, including four straight victories. The Gators defeated the Seminoles 72-47 at Tallahassee on Dec. 5, 2012.
Updated: 12:25am, November 26
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- At first glance, Brandone Francis looks like a big, happy kid -- maybe even a football player -- who just might enjoy a good meal.
And that’s exactly what Francis wants you to think.
“When you see me, you probably don’t think I’d be very quick with the ball,” he said. “I like that.”
So does Florida coach Billy Donovan, who made Francis, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound guard from Arlington (Fla.) Country Day, one of three recruits signed to national letters of intent last week.
The future Gator checked in with his future squad Monday night when Florida took on Jacksonville University at the Veterans Memorial Arena.
Francis chose UF after being romanced by the likes of Louisville, Kansas, Indiana, Oklahoma State, Washington ... you get the picture. He did not, however, take his allotted number of visits. He didn’t see the necessity. His dreams, Francis said, “were bigger than a couple days at those places.”
Besides, the place he felt best fit him turned out to be the one closest to home and closest to his heart.
Francis grew up rooting for the Gators, hopping on the bandwagon for those back-to-back national titles. As native of the Dominican Republic, Francis rooted hard for fellow countryman Al Horford.
Not that their games are at all similar.
Ask any of the UF coaches and they’ll tell you (with a straight face) that Francis has the speed, acceleration and explosiveness of -- get this -- freshman point guard Kasey Hill.
Now you know why the Gators are so intrigued by Francis, the prospect, who averaged 16 points, six rebounds a five assists per game last season at the private high school near Jacksonville that plays under independent status and takes on some of the best teams in the country.
“He looks like a linebacker and has that football mentality; an unbelievable will to try and dominate every single possession,” UF assistant coach Rashon Burno said. “But he gets end to end like a 5-10 point guard.’
Francis, whose father Bobby played at Boston College in the 1980s, doesn’t necessarily agree with the Hill comparisons. But he won’t disagree, either.
“We’re different players,” Francis explained through his accent. “He’s super quick, stupid quick, but I feel I can get there if I get myself in better shape and lose some weight. I may not be as fast as him, but I will have my own speed and it’ll be better than people think.”
Along with that speed, Francis also has some impressive ball-handling skills and a shooting touch that already is good and figures to get better once UF’s coaches get him in the program.
Here’s how Francis’ prep coach, former JU star Rex Morgan, broke down Francis, a four-star and top-30 overall prospect, according to Rivals and ESPN recruiting analysts.
“He’s got the whole package,” Morgan told The Florida Times-Union. “When you’re 6-5 and can shoot and make the 3, when you can take it to the hole and finish above people ,and when he passes the ball like he does, you’re at an elite level. He reminds me of [Brooklyn Nets guard] Deron Williams. Brandone definitely has pro potential. I don’t know if he’s one-and-done in college — I wouldn’t want to put that kind of pressure on him — but he is really, really talented.”
And he’ll join a UF signing class along with Devin Robinson, a 6-8 forward and top-20 overall prospect from Chesterfield, Va., and Chris Chiozza, a 5-11 point guard from Memphis, Tenn.
Francis talks or texts his incoming classmates a couple times a week. In fact, Arlington Country Day, currently 5-0 and beating teams like drums, is scheduled to play Chiozza’s White Station High in a holiday tournament next month.
They’ll be in Gainesville before they know.
“Billy Donovan has me really excited about what the future holds,” Francis said. “Florida just felt like where I belonged, so I followed my heart.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Scottie Wilbekin has been reinstated to the Florida basketball team and will be with the 16th-ranked Gators (4-1) when they face Jacksonville (2-3) on the road Monday night.
UF coach Billy Donovan announced Wilbekin’s return Sunday. The senior point guard and team’s best on-ball defender was suspended for violating team rules in June. It was Wilbekin’s second such suspension in seven months.
“He’s back on the team and available to play,” Donovan said Sunday, adding that Wilbekin’s place in the lineup would be a game-day decision. “He’s done everything I’ve asked of him since basically last spring. And like I’ve been saying, I think he’s made some good strides and growth as a player and person.”
Meanwhile, the status of suspended center/forward Damontre Harris, the 6-foot-10 transfer from South Carolina, remains unchanged. Harris has not practiced with the team in several weeks.
After a summer of off-court punishment, Donovan allowed Wilbekin to join the team for the start of practice Oct. 11. He’d worked exclusively with the scout team while missing the first six games (one exhibition, five regular-season).
On Saturday, Wilbekin took the ball with the regulars and lived up to his billing as the team’s best all-around player. He’ll instantly fill the void left by the loss of freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who was averaging 11.1 points and 4.2 assists when he suffered a high ankle sprain in last Monday’s home win against Southern. Hill could be out several more weeks, but is rehabbing daily in hopes of accelerating his recovery.
Wilbekin was suspended for the first three games of the 2012-13 season. Upon his return, the 6-2, 180-pounder started 29 games, averaged 9.1 points on 45.3-percent shooting and nearly five assists per game, all the while guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player.
The five weeks since practice began have been about proving to Donovan he deserved another chance.
“He made a commitment and investment to get back on the team," Donovan said.
Wilbekin is the second UF player to be reinstated to the team since the season started. After sitting out the first two regular-season games, forward Dorian Finney-Smith, the transfer from Virginia Tech, made his debut against Arkansas-Little Rock and is averaging 13 points and 7.3 rebounds in three games.
As for Harris, the third of UF’s preseason suspended players, Donovan had no timetable regarding his reinstatement. Two seasons ago at South Carolina, Harris averaged 6.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and was second in the Southeastern Conference in blocked shots at 2.3 per game.
Said Donovan: “Based on the decisions and choices he’s made, he’s still not here.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Toward the end of Thursday’s shoot-around, Billy Donovan called his players into a huddle. The Florida coach wasn’t particularly pleased with a couple of the things he was seeing and took the moment to remind his team about the dogfight he expected tonight against a tough Middle Tennessee State squad.
Back to work they went.
The coach walked to the sidelines and assumed his pose. About six feet to Donovan’s right -- on the bench, left leg propped on a chair, crutches by his side -- sat freshman point guard Kasey Hill. He turned in Hill’s direction.
“This is all your fault,” Donovan said.
The two smiled.
Hill was playing very well (10.3 points, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals) through three games. He was executing offense, dictating the uptempo pace Donovan craves and taking care of the ball (just four turnovers total).
Then came that drive in transition through the teeth of the Southern defense Monday night. Hill stepped on a defender’s foot in traffic, the ankle rolled, Hill screamed and the Gators are expected to be without their gifted rookie playmaker for the next few weeks; maybe as long as a month.
“It was the worst pain I’d ever had spraining my ankle -- and I’ve been playing basketball a long time,” Hill said while watching the UF shoot-around. “I was thinking it was really, really bad.”
It could have been really, really worse. X-rays, however, were negative. Hill went right from the O’Connell Center to the training room at the team's hoops complex that night and commenced icing the injury. The swelling was down considerably the very next morning.
“They’ve got a good grasp on how to treat it and they’re doing that right now,” Donovan said.
UF trainer David “Duke” Werner praised Hill’s commitment and diligence to the rehab process. Werner said Hill has reported for treatment each morning, then gone to class and returned for more treatment; gone to lunch, then back for treatment; gone to class, back for treatment while his teammates practiced.
"I want to be back as soon as I can," he said.
Hill even got an upper-body lift in with strength coach Preston Greene.
“He’s been great,” Werner said.
The health staff knows it has to be careful with Hill. His greatest assets are speed, acceleration and quickness. No need to get him out on the court until the ankle can support the explosiveness that makes Hill the player he is.
“The one thing you don’t want to do is have him come back where he’s not fully healed or he’s hobbled and he can’t play to his strengths,” Donovan said. “His game is a game that’s played in the open floor with speed, going to the rim and finishing. If we’ve got him out there and he’s not fully healed and can’t explode like he once did, then that’s not going to help him as a player.”
Hill and Werner, together, will is do everything they can to accelerate the process.
Much can happen in a month. Some bodies heal faster than others.
“And if he gets back before a month, the trainer looks great,” Donovan said.
The Gators will look better, too.
Updated: 4:29pm, November 21
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- If you’ve been to a University of Florida home football game the last few years, you’ve likely experienced frustration with your cellular phone service. No one likes to be disconnected from the world for three hours.
But to borrow and paraphrase from the Florida Gators’ Official Wireless Partner Verizon’s recent marketing campaign, chances are, “They can hear you now.”
More than 300 new antennas were installed throughout Ben Hill Griffin Stadium last year by AT&T, and with Verizon having installed additional equipment to use those antennas this season, both Verizon and AT&T customers now enjoy vastly improved service in the heavily trafficked ballpark.
The union made its debut for the Nov. 9 homecoming game against Vanderbilt and fans overwhelmingly experienced boosted service.
“Astronomically boosted,” said Chip Howard, UF’s executive associate athletics director for internal affairs. “It’s important to provide a level of service that keeps our fans connected at the stadium when they’re here for games. This is just another step in dealing with that issue.”
The first step came in the summer of 2012 when AT&T installed its new Distributed Antenna System in the stadium. Last season, those new antennas serviced only AT&T customers. Together with Verizon, the two companies provide clear, crisp service to an estimated 80 percent of the fans in the stadium.
“Obviously, it’s a lot better than when we had one loan cell tower on top of the press box,” Howard said.
The stadium improvements are part of a bigger picture goal for the UF campus and part of a three-year investment to expand and broaden its IP broadband networks with more high-speed internet access and new mobile app and cloud-based services.
“We will continue to explore all options to increase connectivity for fans in our stadium,” Howard said. “The needs of our fans change over time. That means we need to change with them.”
Updated: 6:33pm, November 19
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- His mood was upbeat, especially given the situation. Then again, Billy Donovan’s mood is rarely anything but.
He’d just lost his talented and blossoming young point guard, freshman Kasey Hill, to a high ankle sprain in Monday night’s win against Southern. With senior Scottie Wilbekin still suspended, the 16th-ranked Gators suddenly were without a bonafide point guard on the roster.
“I may just go totally nuts and throw some crazy lineup out there,” Donovan said.
The UF coach and his staff headed back to the proverbial “lab” Tuesday to figure this all out. Given that previous quote, we may see the workings of Billy Donovan, the mad scientist, when the Gators (3-1) take on Middle Tennessee State (4-0) Thursday night at the O’Connell Center.
He indicated as much Monday after Florida’s 67-53 win, hinting he needs to test some really unconventional combinations against the Blue Raiders or else run the risk of having unproven non-point guards under full-court pressure for long stretches of the game.
When Hill went down about two minutes into the second half, the Gators had to scramble for a guy to run the offense, scratching possessions from off-guards Michael Frazier (a pure shooter), DeVon Walker (an average ball-handler on the wing), power forward Dorian Finney-Smith (a rangy, 6-foot-8 post player who’s fairly comfortable with the ball in his hands) or swing forward Casey Prather (the best athlete on the team).
The skills are one thing.
But there’s also the matter of knowing the offense from that “1” position.
“For guys like DeVon and Michael Frazier, [playing] the ‘2’ and the ‘3’ and the point, their heads will explode,” Donovan said. “It’s not fair to them.”
Maybe not, but these are drastic times -- at least until Wilbekin gets back -- so look for drastic measures. How ‘bout a 1-3-1 press of all big guys? Finney-Smith at the point, with Prather, Jake Kurtz and Will Yeguete on the second line, and Pat Young manning the back?
When those five guys (the shortest of whom is 6-6) lining up full court, opponents likely will choose to back out of the pressure versus facing a very large UF unit that can throw it over their heads, with a couple really strong finishers in Prather and Finney-Smith on the other end. The alternative for the Gators will be to play more conventionally, which means having no true ball-handler and penetrator to space the floor in halfcourt sets. They'll have to live some with that, too.
“We’re going to have to do some things and run some different actions,” Donovan said.
Frazier and Walker (who at 6-4 and 6-5 aren't exactly small) could plug into spots in the middle of the press, with Yeguete and Prather spelling Finney-Smith at the top of it. When pressing, it’s good to have two or three guys who can hawk the in-bounder at the top on the ball. The Gators have that. And none of them are injured or suspended.
So there’s that.
“Coach Donovan is going to do a good job of preparing us,” Young said. “But not having Kasey out there is going to change us.”
More like drastically alter. Let the experiments begin.
And end fairly soon, hopefully.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Check out the new guy on the Florida bench today.
Lexx Edwards, a walk-on for the UF basketball team in 2011-12 and back again this season, will suit up for the Gators for the first team when 11th-ranked Florida (1-1) plays Arkansas-Little Rock (0-1) today at the O’Connell Center.
Being down in numbers -- even with the return of Dorian Finney-Smith -- the Gators may need him in the upcoming games.
Edwards is a 6-foot-2, 225-pound guard from Orlando Jones, where in addition to being an outstanding student in the school's International Baccalaureate program he was recruited to play running back by the likes of South Carolina, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Rutgers and Marshall.
Instead, the brother of former Gators linebacker Lorenzo Edwards came to UF and has spent two of the last three years working with the scout team, oftentimes as a power forward. When you see his shoulders, you will know why.
Edwards will wear No. 11.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- “DoeDoe” is a go-go.
Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith, the 6-foot-8 sophomore transfer by way of Virginia Tech, will suit up today and make his Florida debut when the 11th-ranked Gators (1-1) face Arkansas-Little Rock (0-1) at the O’Connell Center.
The status of Finney-Smith, who goes by the nickname “DoeDoe,” was in doubt even after Coach Billy Donovan reinstated his player following a three-game suspension to start the season. A viral infection had Finney-Smith in bed the last three days, but he felt well enough Saturday morning to take part in the team’s pre-game shoot-around and came to the coaches asking to play.
“I gotta try,” Finney-Smith told GatorZone.com as he threw some shots up after practice. “Been waiting too long for this.”
Finney-Smith sat out the entire 2012-13 season after leaving Virginia Tech, where was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference All-Freshman team after averaging 6.3 points and 7.0 rebounds a game. He spent last year working on the UF scout squad and was suspended by Donovan for one exhibition and two regular-season games for violating team rules to start his first season of eligibility.
Donovan reinstated Finney-Smith to the team Wednesday, but he did not practice Thursday or Friday.
“I don’t know what we’re going to get out of him,” Donovan told GatorZone after the shoot-around. “Maybe he plays 10 minutes, maybe 15. We’ll see how he feels.”
In addition to popping a few jumpers during practice, Finney-Smith also popped a few throat lozenges. He’s lost a few pounds over the last week.
Still, trainer David “Duke” Werner said the various blood work and tests administered by the team came back negative and that Finney-Smith was “fully cleared” by the medical staff.
“He’s excited and he wants to play. He’s also still sick, so there’s definitely some adrenaline at work there now,” Donovan said. “Even if he doesn’t get much time, he’ll be dressed out and on the bench with the the team in a game for the first time in a long, long time.”
Updated: 3:09pm, November 15
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith has been reinstated and is eligible to play for the Florida basketball team now.
If and when he’s healthy, that is.
“He’s done everything asked of him, so yes, he’s back with the team,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said. “Only now, he’s sick.”
And he won't play Saturday when the Gators (1-1) face Arkansas-LIttle Rock (0-1) Saturday at the O'Connell Center.
Finney-Smith, the 6-foot-8 transfer from Virginia Tech, missed UF's first three games (one exhibition, two regular season) while serving a suspension for violating undetermined team rules. Donovan announced Friday that Finney-Smith (aka “DoeDoe”) was back in good graces with the program, only to come down with a virus earlier this week when the team was on the road at Wisconsin.
His status will be evaluated daily, with the Gators playing two home games next week -- Monday against Southern, then Thursday against Middle Tennessee State.
When he finally takes the court, Finney-Smith will provide a serious boost for the Gators on both ends of the floor -- and should flourish in UF's full-court pressure schemes. He’s long, athletic, a threat to score inside and out, and an excellent rebounder, having averaged 6.3 points and 7.0 rebounds a game as a freshman at Virginia Tech two seasons ago.
Finney-Smith was one of three Gators suspended to start the season. Donovan said the status of senior guard Scottie Wilbekin and junior center and Damontre Harris, the transfer from South Carolina, had not changed. Neither will play against UALR.
Updated: 9:21am, November 14
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Dara Torres was somewhat taken aback by the phrasing of the question.
“Why did you have to put it like that?” she asked. “A quarter-century? That makes me feel old.”
The feeling, no doubt, was fleeting.
Torres may be 46 years old, but she’s without question one of the fittest and most famous 40-something athletes of all time.
She also was in pretty good shape back in her University of Florida days, winning national championships, garnering 28 All-America accolades and twice being named the Southeastern Conference Swimmer of the Year. She even played a season on the UF volleyball team.
Since last competing for the Gators in 1988, Torres became a fixture -- make that marvel -- on the international swimming scene, capturing 12 Olympic medals, including four golds, and becoming the first woman past the age of 40 ever to swim at the Olympics.
So it's been quite a (pardon the term again) quarter-century. The folks in Indianapolis who govern collegiate sports obviously thought so when they tabbed Torres this week as one of the six recepients of the NCAA’s 2014 Silver Anniversary Awards.
Torres was recognized along with UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman, USC quarterback Rodney Peete, Yale basketball player Earl Martin Phelan, Brown offensive lineman George Pyne and New Hampshire lacrosse and hockey standout Katey Stone for their achievements in the 25 years since wrapping their collegiate careers.
“Each of those other names are who’s-who athletes in their respective sports, so it’s an incredible honor,” Torres said in a recent chat with GatorZone.com. “When I heard that I was being nominated, I realized how prestigious it was and kind of just blew it off and said, ‘No way am I going to be one those people.’ Now, I’m just so humbled to be in that company and recognized for this award.”
The springboard to it all was UF. Torres (pictured left in her Gator days) grew up in Los Angeles, where she was a swimming prodigy who won a gold medal in the Olympic Games in her hometown as a member of the United States’ 4x100 freestyle relay team.
Then it was off to join UF coaching legend Randy Reese.
“I took my official visit during spring break, so there really wasn’t anybody there,” Torres recalled. “I came back in the fall, this girl from L.A., and was just blinded by the orange and blue. To me, it was a small college town that went crazy for their Gators. It was a culture shock.”
So was swimming for Reese, the UF Hall of Famer who made the Gators one of the nation's most dominant programs.
“I had some tough years there, training and all, and Randy was a really, really tough coach,” she said. “It was different than what I was used to growing up and in high school, but once I got used to it I chalked it all up to experience. Those years, the college years, can really shape you as a person.”
Torres still recalls fondly the late-night trips to the now-defunct Skeeter’s, but suffice to say the biscuits and gravy -- “Loved ‘em,” she said -- did not shape her in the literal sense.
A remarkable fitness regimen did.
Torres maintained her torrid training to qualify for the Olympics in 1992, 2000 and 2008, then missing a spot on the 2012 team -- at the age of 45 -- by .09 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle.
These days, she remains active with her sponsorships and motivational speaking engagements, but devotes most of her time to raising her daughter Tessa-Grace.
“I’ve been blessed,” Torres said. “I’ve been able to do something I really love and also been able to be a great a parent, which is the most important thing in my life. I’m proud of that.”
Now she’ll have something else to be proud of when the Silver Anniversary Class of ’14 is honored in January at the NCAA’s convention in San Diego.
A quarter-century in the making.
MADISON, Wis. -- The Kohl Center, a venerable palace of a campus facility, opened at the University of Wisconsin at 1998.
Bo Ryan arrived as basketball coach three years later.
Together, the Badgers have been practically unbeatable here since.
As if 10th-ranked Florida (1-0) doesn’t have enough internal issues, what with its roster depleted by three suspended players, the Gators not only must stare down 20th-ranked Wisconsin (1-0), but also one of the most intimidating home-court advantages in all of college basketball.
Not exactly the ideal circumstance for a freshman point guard, but as Aristotle once said, "It is what it is."
"I will not be nervous ... I can't be nervous," Kasey Hill said. "I'm the point guard. I can't show my teammates anything but confidence because they need to have confidence in me."
Far more battled-tested players have had their confidence wilted by Kohl and the Badgers during the Ryan years. But with a UF non-conference schedule littered with four teams -- Wisconsin, Kansas, Connecticut and Memphis -- ranked in the preseason Top 25, plus a date with Florida State, a challenge of such magnitude in just the second game of the season could be significant for the growth of a team looking to replace three starters.
Win or lose.
"We'll find out a lot about guys with this game," Coach Billy Donovan said.
Under Ryan, the Badgers are 181-18 at Kohl -- that’s a .910 winning percentage -- and have won 90 of 97 games against non-conference opponents. UW has been to the NCAA Tournament in each of Ryan’s 12 seasons, winning at least a share of four Big Ten Conference titles along the way including the program's first back-to-back championships (in ‘02, ’03) since the 1923 and ’24 seasons.
Kohl Center, with its basketball capacity of 17,230, was built for a cost of $76.4 million, with a $25 million chunk courtesy of U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), the grocery magnate who owns the Milwaukee Bucks.
Want a sample of its magic?
Remember this from a year ago against eventual NCAA runner-up and Gator-eliminator Michigan?