Sunday January 18, 2015 Basketball Notebook: Chris Walker, Streaks, Al Horford, etc.
Updated: 10:36pm, January 18
Welcome to Harry Fodder!
Updated: 10:36pm, January 18
Sophomore center Chris Walker fights to get a shot off in Saturday's loss at Georgia.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Just last week, this story ran on Sports Illustrated’s website. It focused on Florida’s 6-foot-11 center Chris Walker and included this quote.
“He can run, jump, he has fast-twitch reactions,” an NBA Western Conference general manager said. “He can defend 1-5. He’s an NBA athlete.”
Now 17 games into his sophomore season, Walker is averaging 5.3 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. In four Southeastern Conference outings, all starts, he’s totaled 10 points and 18 rebounds.
During Saturday’s 73-61 loss at Georgia, Walker went 1-for-4 from the floor, grabbed six rebounds and got shoved around by the Bulldogs’ veteran and physical frontcourt players.
It’s now been eight games since Walker last hit double-digits in scoring, when he had a three-game run -- at Kansas, then home against Yale and Texas Southern -- where things appeared to be coming into focus for him.
“I don’t want to say I feel bad for him ... but the expectations are just so high for him that people don’t understand where he started,” UF coach Billy Donovan said after the Georgia game. “This is a guy who has been thrust into stuff where we’re having to rely on him, and it’s hard to do at times, coverage-wise and defensively. But we’ve had to do it.”
The lack of a low-post presence has been a running theme on this team and will be the rest of the season, unless Walker has that magic moment of illumination that everybody -- his coaches, the NBA scouts and certainly Florida fans -- hope and/or believe is out there for a player whose athleticism is positively elite, but whose basketball skills and feel are far from developed. He didn't need the latter during his days dominating Class 1A basketball in Bonifay, Fla., nor on the AAU circuit, which is basically glorified pick-up ball.
When Walker, a McDonald's All-American and top-10 prospect who won the slam-dunk contagious at the prestigious game, showed up at UF last December he was unknown curiosity backed with accolades that placed expectations in totally unrealistic proportions. The fact that he parachuted into a team on its way to winning 30 straight games and berth in the Final Four actually helped him and should have been a bridge to his development when he opted to forgo a chance to enter the NBA draft pool last year.
But here we are.
If Walker would just do what the coaches tell him to do.
“Play to your identity.”
For Walker, that means being active on defense, chasing balls and blocking shots. On offense, it means working the so-called “red box” -- an imaginary rectangle that stretches 20 feet or so underneath the basket along the baseline -- and letting the offense find him, while mixing in screens, pick-and-rolls and even an occasional jump shot. It means playing hard and running the floor (he's a greyhound in transition) with abandon.
“He can catch and face up and make a 10-foot jump shot,” Donovan said. “But when he gets the ball with his back to the basket and takes a step-back jumper ... no, he can’t do that.”
He did it against Georgia for an airball.
The Florida coaches, though, will continue to patiently teach and instruct Walker. The did so Sunday, a couple times stopping practice both to advise him and get his feedback. Walker responded. He wants to do well and the coaching staff wants to keep him from getting discouraged, while guiding him through these tough times with the hope that so-called light comes on and the game (as that very real cliche says) begins to slow down.
At some point, it’s up to Walker to punch through and take his game to the next level. Tuesday night against LSU marks his next chance. The Tigers frontline is the second-largest in the SEC behind Kentucky's.
In the meantime, that other next level is waiting. The latest ESPN Top 100 rankings lists Walker as the No. 36 overall prospect for the 2015 NBA Draft, with a lone comment by his name.
“Late first round pick.”
O'DOME SEC STREAK STILL ALIVE
The Gators no longer have a streak for consecutive SEC victories, but they do have a league-best streak that would be nice to keep in tact for a while and that's a proud run of 20 conference home wins in a row.
UF has not lost at the O'Connell Center since March 4, 2012 against Anthony Davis and a Kentucky team that went on to the win the NCAA title that season.
So with those wins over Mississippi State and Auburn last week, Florida is in its third season without an SEC defeat and obviously the Gators would like to see that continue with LSU and Arkansas coming up the rest of the month.
The first home SEC game in February is on the 7th, with a Saturday night prime-time ESPN showdown against the No. 1-ranked Wildcats.
Now that the string of consecutive SEC wins is over, when is the last time the Gators lost back-to-back conference games? And to whom? Answer below in “Free Throws” section.
FORMER GATOR UPDATE
Al Horford, in his seventh NBA season, recorded the first triple-double of his career last week: 21 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists in a 105-87 defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers. The feat went something under the radar because Horford is a blue-collar guy who does not engender a lot of ESPN hype. He also plays for the Atlanta Hawks, who also don't garner much attention from ESPN folks, but are performing flat-out ridiculously despite a roster dotted with what passes as NBA anonymity.
After rolling into United Center to bouncing the Chicago Bulls Saturday night, the Hawks have won 12 straight and are an astounding 33-8. That’s five games better than the next-closest team (Washington) in the Eastern Conference.
Horford, the older brother of current UF center Jon Horford, is averaging 20.6 points on 53.8 percent from the floor to go with 6.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game.
Unofficially, he's believed to be just the fourth UF product -- joining Mike Miller, David Lee and Joakim Noah -- to tally a triple-double in the NBA.
Frazier and Eli in for #Gators.— Chris Harry (@GatorZoneChris) January 17, 2015
@GatorZoneChris be better if it were Frazier and Ali— ro for (@sipowit) January 17, 2015
CHARTING THE GATORS
Junior guard Michael Frazier II hit a pair of 3-pointers in the loss at Georgia, thus extending his streak of games with at least one trey to 39 in a row. That’s tied for the longest in school history. He can break the record Tuesday night against LSU.
Games Player When-to-When
39 Lee Humphrey (right) Nov. 4, 2006 to April 2, 2007
Michael Frazier II Jan. 23, 2014 to present
34 Kenny Boynton Feb. 1, 2011 to Jan. 14, 2012
IRREVERENT PHOTO OF A GATOR
Donovan mentioned after the win over Auburn how his team was fouling too much. Though the Gators committed some late ones against Georgia, the Bulldogs still took 29 free throws off 19 fouls, compared to UF’s 14 free throws and 14 fouls. Last year’s team was terrific in its defensive fundamentals in the paint. This one needs a lot of work on that front. ... Of the 10 players in the UF rotation, everyone played at least eight minutes and eight players logged at least 17. That actually speaks to the team’s struggles, as Donovan said afterward. He was looking for somebody -- anybody -- to put in the game to play well. No one did. ... Trivia answer: UF dropped its final three SEC games of the 2011-12 season, falling at Georgia and Vanderbilt, then at home on Senior Day to that Kentucky team that went on to win the NCAA title.
Updated: 9:50pm, January 12
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Senior center Jon Horford returned to practice Monday but didn’t have a whole lot to say about it.
“It’s good to be back, but this isn’t about me,” Horford said. “I’m focused on the team, and I’ll do anything I have to do now to help the team. That’s really all I’m concerned about now.”
Horford, the 6-foot-10, 250-pounder who started the season’s first 12 games, was suspended last week -- along with walk-on guard Zach Hodskins -- by Coach Billy Donovan, who cited "conduct detrimental to the team." Both players were left home for UF's trip to South Carolina, where the Gators defeated the Gamecocks Wednesday night. Though Horford was reinstated the next day, he was given the weekend to process the situation, missing Saturday's rout of Mississippi State, so Monday marked his return to the court.
He, along with Hodskins, who also rejoined the team Monday, slapped and shook hands with teammates after taking the floor after a pre-practice meeting.
“When you're dealing with a fifth-year senior, a guy who really cares like he cares, you can get very, very self-consumed and self-absorbed about how you're being impacted and affected and everything,” said Donovan, whose Gators (9-6, 2-0) face Auburn (9-6, 1-1) Thursday night at the O’Connell Center. “I think for him taking some time to digest, to evaluate and figure out how he can help was probably the reason why [he did not play against MSU].”
Horford is averaging 8.3 points and making 51 percent from the floor to go with 5.7 rebounds and a team-high 90.5 percent from the free-throw line. But Horford’s last two games, losses at Florida States and home against Connecticut, he totaled only six points and five rebounds, while turning it over three times in a combined 23 minutes. He did not start in the UConn game and the suspension followed.
But Horford, a valued presence in the low post, is expected to be a factor in UF’s rotation by Thursday.
“We’ve got a little bit more time on the front end this week to kind of get him back in practice and get him doing things,” Donovan said. “Jon’s a very, very diligent worker, so even the week that he’s been out I know he’s been in the gym shooting and working and doing things.”
In a program that prides itself on closeness, it’s just as pivotal that Horford does his part in assimilating back into the locker room culture.
His teammates will help.
“Whatever issues he had, I know he’s working on fixing those and getting through them,” junior forward Alex Murphy said. “Part of being a team is forgiving people. I think we've all move on. I know I have.”
Updated: 10:13am, January 12
Gators coach Billy Donovan spurs on Kasey Hill to "Finish!" stronger during Wednesday night's win at South Carolina. [Photo by Tim Casey]
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- In a recent media opportunity, junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith acknowledged that the Florida basketball players were starting to realize exactly what the Florida basketball coach had been talking about the last, oh, say, eight months.
All that stuff about expectations, both internal and external, meaning absolutely nothing was starting to hit home. Finally.
Makes you wonder why it took so long, but human nature is a funny thing. Sometimes, all it takes is people to say you’re good to make you believe you’re good.
True story. Before the Gators played Connecticut last weekend in the so-called rematch of their Final Four game, Coach Billy Donovan was speaking with Huskies coach Kevin Ollie and the two had a laugh together and Donovan said, “Can you believe this team was ranked higher in the preseason than my team last year?”
Think about that.
Upon entering the 2014-15 Southeastern Conference season with their most losses in 40 years, the Gators have put together solid back-to-back efforts in winning Wednesday at South Carolina and Saturday night at home with a rout of Mississippi State. They did not play great in beating the Gamecocks, but they played together and hit clutch free throws down the stretch. UF followed that one up by playing very well, on both ends of the floor, against the undermanned Bulldogs.
Donovan's message has and will continue to focus on taking the floor each day (practice or games, doesn't matter) with a greater sense of the bigger picture.
As in, the team.
“Listen, we are not going to be able to out-talent people. We’re not. We’ve got to become a really good team and it’s got to be a team with a sum that is greater than its parts,” Donovan said. “Their focus shouldn’t be ‘How am I doing?’ but ‘How do I make the other four guys better? How do I make my teammates better? How do I make the group better?’ ”
With a trio of players (Finney-Smith, pictured right, along with junior guard Michael Frazier and sophomore point guard Kasey Hill) back from last year’s SEC championship squad, assumptions were made -- some in the locker room -- the Gators would pick up where they left off by mere osmosis.
As Donovan pointed out Saturday, does anyone remember how long it took Casey Prather to develop into the player he was last year? Or for Patric Young to become the best defensive post player in the country? Or Scottie Wilbekin to channel a skill set well enough to be SEC Player of the Year?
In other words, teams of the past -- especially the one that won 30 in a row, then graduated four senior starters -- shouldn’t be used as measuring sticks.
UF started two freshmen and two sophomores Saturday night.
“My biggest challenge as a coach [with this team] was, What things do we have to let happen for their growth and development and what things do I cut off because we’re headed down the wrong road?” Donovan said. “There’s a process and it’s a painful process. I don’t know any team or individual in sports that has achieved any high level of success without tracing back to some real struggles and a lot of pain. And we’ve had some painful moments. All teams that become good have to go through that.”
How much of the difficulties of the last two months go into what the Gators become over the next two months will determine how deep the season goes in that third month.
THE BALL (AND TEAM) IS IN HIS HANDS
At South Carolina, Hill had one assist and six turnovers. Against Mississippi State, he had seven assists and one turnover.
“What’s next Saturday going to bring?” Donovan asked.
Indeed, there needs to be some more consistency there. Hill knows it because his coach is constantly talking about.
Donovan praised not only Hill’s floor game after the win over the Bulldogs, but mentioned how he sat down with his playmaker for a private screening of his performance against the Gamecocks. Donovan spoke of Hill’s willingness -- and desire -- to hear as much about what he’s doing poorly as what he’s doing well.
“Some guys don’t like the truth or to be confronted with it. He wants that. He wants to know what reality is and I admire that about him and love coaching him for that,” Donovan said. “If it’s negative, he likes that. He does not want to be told how great he is. He can watch film with me and he accepts it. That’s the sign of a player who is going to get better. He looks internally, not externally.”
Hill is averaging 7.7 points per game and is better than 2-to-1 on his assists to turnovers (65 to 30). If the Gators can continue on their upward shooting trend, obviously Hill’s numbers figure to improve. Can’t get assists without made field goals.
Donovan’s has faced his former college coach and mentor Rick Pitino seven times as a head coach without a victory. After Pitino’s 1.000 mark, what coach with at least that many cracks at Donovan has the next-best winning percentage against him? Answer below.
FORMER GATOR UPDATE
The status of Damontre Harris was something of a saga last season for the Gators. Depending on what day it was, no one in the program was quite sure if Harris, who transferred to UF from South Carolina the summer of 2012, was on the team, with sightings of Harris akin to seeing a unicorn.
Harris, once a first-team selection to the SEC's All-Defensive Team, never played a a game for the Gators.
Well, the 6-foot-10, 230-pound center wound up at NAIA Campbellsville (Ky.), where last week he posted 18 points, 15 rebounds and two blocks -- his double-double of the season -- in a win over Nazarene (Kan.). For his effort, Harris was named Mid-South Conference Player of the Week, while improving his season’s stats to 11.6 points per game on 57-percent shooting to go with 9.2 rebounds and an NAIA-leading 3.4 blocks per game. Campbellsville, 17-1 and winner of 11 straight, was elevated to No. 1 in the nation among NAIA teams.
After Harris’ big game against Nazarene, he was a DNP-Coaches Decision when the top-ranked Tigers faced Asbury five days later. A team spokesman said Sunday Harris would return to the floor when Campbellsville plays Fisk University on Monday night.
Here's a recent "Tre" highlight below.
Gators win another SEC game. DFS is playing at a high level and Eli Carter is wired to score. @UFCoachBillyD will coach Em up.Small margin.— Seth Greenberg (@SethOnHoops) January 11, 2015
Muschamp may be at Auburn now but his kids are still sitting in his seats at the Gator basketball game vs Miss. St. tonight. #Gators— Kassidy Hill (@KassidyGHill) January 11, 2015
CHARTING THE GATORS
In starting the SEC season with a pair of wins, the Gators extended their school-record winning streak in league play to 23 games, a run that dates to the 63-60 loss to Ole Miss in the 2013 conference tournament title game at Nashville. If Florida could put together three more (home vs. Auburn, at Georgia, and vs. LSU), the Gators would pass Kentucky’s run of 24 straight over the 2011 and ’12 seasons and equal what the Wildcats did over the ‘95 and ’96 for the most consecutive SEC wins over the last 60 years -- or the so-called modern era. That would be impressive. That's UK's 1952 team, below right.
Streak Team Years
33 Kentucky 1952-54
29 Kentucky 1950-51
26 Kentucky 1995-96
24 Kentucky 2011-12
23 Florida 2013-present
21 Kentucky 2003-04
IRREVERENT PHOTO OF A GATOR
Sophomore center Chris Walker had to be helped off the court with less than two minutes left in Saturday’s game after being overcome by a cramp in his calf. It must have been really bad because Walker had just been fouled and forfeited shooting two free throws to go to the bench. Donovan said afterward his 6-10, 220-pound center was fine. ... To amplify the above chart of SEC winning streaks, the record for most consecutive regular-season SEC wins is 51. Kentucky did that from 1950-54. UF’s 20 straight regular-season conference victories is tied for sixth-most in league history. ... The Gators have scored 35 points off the bench in each of the last two games. Those are highs for this season. Junior guard Eli Carter (right) was a big factor. After totaling 18 points in six games while trying to recover from a sprained foot and strep throat, Carter has 26 points and seven assists the last two. ... In starting both SEC games, Chiozza has zero points, two assists and no turnovers. He’s only taken four shots and he’s certainly had a hand in UF’s improved ball movement. ... Trivia answer: Auburn coach Bruce Pearl, who Donovan will face Thursday night at the O’Dome when the Tigers (9-6, 1-1), when 9-6 (.600) against Billy D from 2005-11 during his stint at Tennessee (2005-11), at one point winning six straight.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Junior guard Michael Frazier II has had enough problems battling the defenses teams have slapped on him this season.
Now comes waves of germs.
Frazier (right) fought through the early onslaught of a respiratory infection in scoring 17 points Wednesday night at South Carolina. That kept him out of practice Thursday. Then on Friday, he tested positive for strep throat and watched from the sidelines again.
Saturday afternoon, though, the Gators' best outside threat took part in the team’s shoot-around as the Gators (8-6, 1-0) prepped for their 7 p.m. date against Mississippi State (7-7, 0-1) in their SEC home opener at the O’Connell Center. Frazier is averaging 14.3 points and 4.6 rebounds.
At South Carolina, Frazier came off the bench for the first time in 47 games, as Coach Billy Donovan sat his leading scorer after growing tired of a certain disposition Frazier tends to exhibit when his shot isn’t falling.
If Frazier’s availability is at all compromised -- or that disposition rears itself again -- Donovan may see what he can get from junior guard Eli Carter, who is coming off his most productive game -- six points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals in 20 minutes -- since scoring 21 in a loss to Miami in the second game of the season.
Carter (right) suffered a mid-foot sprain during practice three days after that performance against the Hurricanes. Though he tried to play through the pain during two games in the Bahamas (where he made just two of 18 shots), the UF medical staff eventually shut him down for a couple weeks. Upon Carter’s return to the floor, after playing one game against Jacksonville, the strep throat bug hit and he did not play against Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl Classic at Sunrise. After recovering from that, Carter aggravated his foot injury 30 seconds into the game at Florida State.
So what Carter was able to do against the Gamecocks was encouraging relative to the UF frontline rotation -- and certainly in light of Frazier’s current situation.
“It felt good to be out there, for my team,” said Carter, whose two free throws with 6.4 seconds left helped seal the victory. “Just being able to contribute for 20 minutes ... it was actually exciting, staying healthy for a whole game.”
Carter's ability to break down a defender and penetrate into the lane, along with his vision to find open players on the perimeter is something the UF offense had missed. And while a streaky shooter, he’s still capable (and definitely willing) to take big shots. Carter’s off-the-dribble jumper from the elbow with 3:19 to play -- after South Carolina had cut the Florida lead to four -- was huge.
Remember, Carter took a medical red-shirt last season while recovering from a broken leg his sophomore year at Rutgers. The leg never healed properly, so it’s really been one thing after another for him.
Said Donovan: “I think Eli finally got to a place where he said, 'I can't control that stuff, I've just got to go out and focus on myself.' ”
COLUMBIA, S.C.-- Senior center Jon Horford and walk-on freshman guard Zach Hodskins have been suspended from the Florida basketball team by Coach Billy Donovan, who cited conduct detrimental to the team.
Neither player made the trip to South Carolina, where the Gators (7-6) open their Southeastern Conference schedule Wednesday night against the Gamecocks (9-3), winners of seven straight.
“This is totally a coaching decision and has nothing to do with the university,” Donovan said. “Our focus now is on this next game and playing with the guys we have here.”
Donovan gave no indication when Horford and Hodskins would be reinstated, other than to say their status would be reevaluated when the team returns to Gainesville. UF’s next game is Saturday night at home against Mississippi State.
Minus Horford (pictured), the Gators will start sophomore Chris Walker at center. Walker, averaging 6.4 points and 4.1 rebounds, will make his second consecutive start and just the third game of his career.
The 6-foot-10 Horford, an instant transfer from Michigan, is averaging 8.3 points and 5.7 rebounds in starting all but one game this season. He struggled, however, in totaling just six points and five rebounds in losses at Florida State and home against Connecticut the last two outings.
Hodskins has played only seven minutes without scoring this season.
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- As the Florida basketball team left town Tuesday for its league opener at South Carolina, back home the roster was growing by one big body.
The transfer of Schuyler Rimmer, a 6-foot-10, 255-pound sophomore forward by way of Stanford, became official this week when the former Orlando Boone High standout was academically cleared and enrolled at UF for second semester.
Rimmer, who played sparingly in his season and a half with the Cardinal, enters the Florida fold as a walk-on and can begin participating in practice Thursday. He’ll be eligible to play for the Gators at the conclusion of the 2015 fall semester.
UF recruited Rimmer while he was at Boone, where he averaged 15 points, 13.5 rebounds and four blocks a game on his way to amassing more than 1,500 points and 1,100 rebounds for his career. He was rated among the top 20 power forwards in the 2013 recruiting class. He verbally commited to play at Florida as a walk-on during his senior year, but reconsidered during the recruiting process and signed with the Cardinal, instead.
At Stanford, though, Rimmer appeared in just 14 games the last two seasons, totaling eight points and 11 rebounds in 75 minutes. He played just six minutes in two games this season when he made the decision to look elsewhere to play.
So Rimmer came home.
His immediate role for the Gators will be as a post player to line up alongside another transfer, 6-10, 250-pound Jon Egbunu by way of USF, who will be eligible for the ’15-16 season, to bang against Chris Walker, Alex Murphy and the rest of UF’s front court players during practice the next several months.
Updated: 12:28pm, January 5
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Back in the late-1980s, then Florida-basketball coach Norm Sloan was at Southeastern Conference Media Days and going on about the lack of exposure for basketball in the football-dominated league.
Asked what it might take for the game he loved to start making some headway with reporters in the region, Sloan famously scanned a group grizzled, gridiron-crazed columnists and said this.
“A few timely funerals would be a good start.”
Yikes. While I won’t go to that extreme, there’s no question basketball gets buried in the state of Florida by both the NFL and college football. Seeing a newspaper columnist at a Florida basketball game that either isn’t against Kentucky or not being played in March is akin to seeing Bigfoot.
That said, David Whitley (left) of The Orlando Sentinel stepped out of the box over the weekend, actually reaching out to the UF Communications Department the day after the Gators’ crushing, bad-bounce loss at Florida State last week with a request to speak with walk-on forward and hometown boy Jake Kurtz.
[Normally, I’d provide a link-out to the item, but The Sentinel’s pay wall might swat the reader away.]
Kurtz, of course, was on the wrong end of some of the worst luck in UF basketball history, when he jumped to rebound FSU’s desperation shot at the horn, only to have the ball tip off his hands and roll into the basket. Whitley watched and like everybody else who knows anything about the Gators wanted to hear from the guy known to his teammates as “Snake.” Kurtz agreed, but on one condition.
No pity party.
Below is the column, which Whitley wrote after Saturday’s loss -- another back-breaker, by the way -- to Connecticut. A varied version of the piece actually was ready for print two days earlier, but was held for space reasons.
It was bumped for football.
GAINESVILLE — Jacob Kurtz had a message for anyone who showed up at the O'Connell Center on Saturday wanting to give him a hug.
"I don't want any sympathy," he said.
The UConn game was Kurtz's first public appearance since temporarily becoming the world's most famous basketball player. If you don't know why, you must have been renting the Unabomber's old cabin for the holidays.
The Hagerty High grad tipped in the winning basketball during FSU's last-second win last Tuesday. Problem was, Kurtz plays for Florida.
Gators' Jacob Kurtz tips ball into own basket to win game for FSU
The good news Saturday was Kurtz didn't tip in the winning basket for UConn. The bad news for UF was Kurtz was its second-leading scorer in the second half.
He had three points, which helps explain how UF lost 63-59 in a rematch of last year's Final Four semifinal game. As they frittered away a 13-point lead, it again became apparent that these Gators are a weak-kneed imitation of those Gators.
"We don't have enough competitive substance inside us," Billy Donovan said.
He said Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith do. Then one other player occurred to him.
And Jake," Donovan said. "I hate to using the reference he was a walk-on . . . "
But he was, which shows Kurtz's strength and the Florida's weakness. Walk-ons are supposed to be lovable lunks the crowd cheers to get in when the game is won.
Before he even got a tryout, Kurtz spent a season as a manager, doing laundry and fetching water for some of the guys he now calls teammates. The senior forward is basically a basketball version of Rudy, which makes what happened against FSU a movie script gone terribly wrong.
The Seminoles had the ball with the score tied at 63. They got off a jumper that looked like an airball.
Kurtz went up to grab it, but the ball grazed off the rim. It bounced off his hand and into the basket with 0.4 seconds left. Back in Oviedo, Asa Kohn spoke on behalf of the entire community.
"That shouldn't have counted!" he screamed.
Then he started to cry.
Asa is 7, and the son of Hagerty coach Josh Kohn. As sorry as he felt for Kurtz, millions more got a good laugh.
If a fluke play had turned Jameis Winston into an international goat, OK. But Kurtz?
It just didn't seem fair, right Jake?
"That stuff happens in sports. It does no good to sulk about it," he said. "I'm not going to lay down and have a pity party."
That's the attitude that made "Jake da Snake" a crowd favorite at the O'Connell Center the past couple of seasons. It's also turned him into more than a lovable lunk.
Kurtz is playing almost 22 minutes a game this season. He's the 6-foot-5 guy with the crewcut and intense look, setting picks, getting floor burns and doing everything except the laundry. If Donovan could transplant Kurtz's heart into the bodies of his more talented players, the Gators might again be Final Four material.
"He is one of the mentally toughest guys on our team," Donovan said. "I wish our guys responded more like he does when things don't go well."
Things could not have gone worse for Kurtz than they did against FSU. If there were karmic justice in this world, he would have tipped in the winning shot Saturday — into the Gators' basket.
But life isn't "Rudy," especially not when you make only 2 of 8 free throws in the second half. Back to Billy D:
"There is a mental, competitive spirit that you must have," he said, "and our team does not have it."
So don't cry for Kurtz.
It's the rest of the Gators you should be worried about.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Here we go again, with another lineup change.
Sophomore center Chris Walker and freshman guard Chris Chiozza will be on the floor first -- alongside forward Dorian Finney-Smith, wing Michael Frazier and point guard Kasey Hill -- as the Gators (7-5) alter their starting lineup yet again for Saturday’s showdown with defending national champion Connecticut (6-5).
The unit will mark the ninth different starting combination for Coach Billy Donovan in his team’s 13 games this season.
Meanwhile, junior guard Eli Carter, in and out of the lineup due to a sprained foot and strep throat for the last six weeks, is cleared to play against the Huskies after aggravating his foot injury after just 30 seconds and leaving Tuesday’s game at Florida State for good.
The tweak to the starting unit comes after starting combo No. 8, with transfer Alex Murphy at forward, was rolled out Tuesday night at Tallahassee, but the Gators got off to a poor start as both Murphy and center Jon Horford were ineffective against the Seminoles’ enormous frontcourt in a 65-63 loss.
Walker, who is averaging 6.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and has blocked 12 shots, will replace Horford in the starting five and make just the second start of his career. For Walker (pictured above with Donovan), playing end to end is a key, but his stamina -- just 15.8 minutes per game -- and some poor shot-selection have kept him from playing more this season.
Chiozza, the rookie out of Memphis, Tenn., started against Jacksonville last month when Kasey Hill was coming off the stomach flu. He’s averaging 4.9 points and just over two assists per game, but his 3-point shooting has improved since earlier in the season.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- At around 1:10 p.m. Thursday, Florida coach Billy Donovan said junior guard Eli Carter, who aggravated a sprain in his left foot during Tuesday's loss at Florida State, would not practice for the second straight day and was doubtful for Saturday’s home game against defending national champion Connecticut.
At about 3:10, Carter was racing up and down the practice floor and swishing 3-pointers.
“He came to me and said he wanted to go,” UF trainer David “Duke” Werner said. “So we let him go.”
What Friday or even Saturday brings is anyone’s guess, but what’s clear is that Carter’s health is nowhere near as bad as it looked when against the Seminoles -- 30 seconds into his first game since Dec. 14 -- the combo guard collapsed in pain (above), was carried off the floor and did not return.
He may be able to play against the Huskies.
“These decisions, once the doctor and trainers clear him to go, it's kind of on him how he feels," Donovan said before practice. "When he was cleared to play [in some practice and games last month], he elected not to. He didn't think he could. He felt like it was still bothering him. From our standpoint right now, whenever the doctors clear him to play, he's going to be cleared. ... [Whether to play], that's a decision Eli's got to make.”
Three days after scoring 21 points on 8-for-9 shooting in a loss to Miami, Carter suffered a sprained left foot at practice and the next few weeks bounced in and out of the lineup. When he was set to return, Carter came down with strep throat, which set him back again and cost him another game.
Carter, averaging 7.8 points and 2.2 rebounds at the start of the week, appeared good to go at FSU, but no sooner was he on the court, he was back in the locker room with Werner.
Against his Gators teammates at practice Thursday, he looked pretty darn good.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It didn’t take long for Alex Murphy’s eligibility to impact the Florida first unit.
Murphy, the 6-foot-8, 225-pound transfer forward from Duke who made his UF debut 10 days ago, will be in the starting lineup Tuesday night when the Gators (7-4) take on rival Florida State (7-5) at the Tucker Center.
A midseason transfer last season, Murphy had to wait for the fall semester to end and his grades to be cleared before seeing the the court. Once that happened, the younger brother of former Florida star Erik Murphy scored nine points, grabbed four rebounds, blocked a pair of shots and came up with two steals in UF’s last outing, a 63-50 defeat of Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl Classic at Sunrise, Fla.
Now with all UF players available for the first time this season, Gators coach Billy Donovan has opted to insert Murphy -- with his size, athleticism, ability to run the floor and high basketball IQ -- into the starting unit alongside forward Dorian Finney-Smith, center Jon Horford and guards Kasey Hill and Michael Frazier.
Make that 10 different players figuring into eight different starting lineups through Florida’s first 12 games.
Here's a look at UF's starting lineups to date and how each fared:
Starting Five Record (opponents)
Hill, Eli Carter, Frazier, Finney-Smith, Horford 1-0 (William & Mary)
Hill, Carter, Frazier, Jacob Kurtz, Horford 0-1 (Miami)
Hill, Frazier, Devin Robinson, Kurtz, Horford 1-0 (Louisiana-Monroe)
Hill, Frazier, Robinson, Horford, Walker 0-1 (Georgetown)
Hill, Frazier, Kurtz, Finney-Smith, Horford 1-1 (UAB, North Carolina)
Hill, Frazier, Robinson, Finney-Smith, Horford 3-1 (Kansas, Yale, Texas Southern, Wake Forest)
Chris Chiozza, Frazier, Robinson, Finney-Smith, Horford 1-0 (Jacksonville)
Hill, Frazier, Murphy, Finney-Smith, Horford ? (Florida State)
Updated: 9:50am, December 27
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- After a longer-than-usual Christmas break, the Florida Gators have some catching up to do before their next game and will jam a few a extra practices in along the way.
Perfect time to throw another player into the mix.
Freshman guard Brandone Francis (right), ruled academically ineligible to play during the 2014-15 season, was cleared by the NCAA to join the Gators for the second semester and take part in all team activities, including practice. Francis will not be eligible to compete in games until the 2015-16 season.
His first collegiate practice Friday night was eventful, with a couple made shots, a few missed defensive assignments and three trips to the sidelines to throw up after a brutal team-wide conditioning session welcomed everyone back.
Let the record show Francis wasn't the only Gator heaving from the holidays.
“It was really hard, but I knew it would be hard,” said Francis, who hails from the Dominican Republic, but starred at Jacksonville Arlington Country Day. “I was down and I was tired, but I just got it in my mind to push through. I have to earn these guys’ respect, so I had to fight through it and show some toughness.”
The 6-foot-5, 205-pound Francis signed with UF in the fall of 2013, but his transcript was flagged by the NCAA Clearinghouse. Eventually, the NCAA ruled Francis could enroll at Florida, but not be a part of the team for the first semester -- and could only join the squad if he reached a 2.5 grade-point average for the fall.
That meant a lonely basketball existence of shooting by himself, lifting by himself and being relegated to watching practices from the second-floor mezzanine, if at all. It was only after he hit the targeted academic marks two weeks ago that UF’s coaches were allowed to get with him and go over their basic actions in anticipation of Francis joining practice.
“It’s all worked out,” Coach Billy Donovan said. “The fact he’s out there and can be a part of the team is really big for him. The first semester was hard for him, not being able to be at practice or in film or in meetings. Now, it’s just good to have him in the locker room and ready to be a part of what we’re doing every day.”
Francis is a combo guard who can handle any of the three perimeter spots in the UF system. With his size, comes a willingness to defend and rebound, plus a nice feel and IQ for how to play. Pretty good shooter, too.
“I haven’t really practiced since like April,” Francis said. “So just being out here with these guys is a blessing.”
With so much making up to do, Friday night’s workout -- which came after a five-day layoff, following last Saturday’s win over Wake Forest at Sunrise, Fla. -- was the first of seven practices the Gators (7-4) will hold before playing Tuesday night at Florida State (7-5).
Junior guard Eli Carter, who's missed five of the previous nine games dealing with a sprained foot and strep throat, was back on the court for the first time in two weeks and figures to be ready to play against the Seminoles.
Because it’s the holidays, there are no restrictions on how much time coaches can work with players, so that means 8 a.m. individual instruction sessions (starting Saturday), afternoon practices, plus some meetings and video sessions.
“The first day back [from Christmas] always reminds me a little of the first practice of the season, with guys having been away and excited to be back,” Donovan said. “But with so much time off, they need to get their wind back -- and first-day conditioning is part of it. They’ll get it back quickly, believe me.”
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Eli Carter was back on the practice floor Wednesday night and is expected to play Friday when Florida (4-4) takes on Texas Southern (1-6) at the O'Connell Center.
Carter, the junior combo guard, missed the team's loss at Kansas last Friday and Monday's home win over Yale due to soreness in a sprained left foot he suffered back on Nov. 20. He played in two games after the injury -- losses to Georgetown and North Carolina at the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving week -- but came out of that tournament hobbled after playing 36 minutes against the Hoyas, taking the next game off against Alabama-Birmingham, and going just 12 minutes against the Tar Heels. Along the way, he shot a combined 2-for-18 from the floor.
Though he's still in some pain, taking nearly two weeks off from all contact activities has him on the right track.
"It's getting there," Carter said after practice. "When I run and curl, and on certain cuts, that's where most of the pain comes from. We're working through it, though."
Carter, who transfered from Rutgers in the summer of 2013, is averaging 9.0 points on 35-percent shooting, but was only healthy for the first two games of the season. In the second, a last-second home loss against Miami, he went 8-for-9 from the floor and finished with 29 points before fouling out.
Coach Billy Donovan has left it up to Carter and team trainer David "Duke" Werner to manage the rehab.
“I know he’s having some discomfort and he doesn’t feel comfortable moving laterally," Donovan said earlier this week. "I think Eli would like to play, obviously. I’m sure he might be a little frustrated with it, as well. ... But I deal with the trainer before every practice and just kind of go with the guys who are available.”
After breaking his right leg his final season at Rutgers, then dealing with a lengthy setback last year that got him a medical redshirt season, Carter just as soon be safe than sorry.
With that said, though, he was out there Wednesday running drills, scrimmaging and paying for his mistakes during practice with "burpies" on the sidelines while his teammates ran sprints.
"Injuries come with the game. At any given moment, you can get hurt. You want to be back out there, but sometimes that takes time," he said. "But I'll try and do whatever I can to help the team."
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- The shoot-around Friday afternoon was Billy Donovan’s first trip to iconic Phog Allen Fieldhouse in 25 years. The place is an absolute shrine to the game and the Kansas fans arguably the best in all of college.
Earlier this week, Donovan was asked if he’d ever been to this basketball sanctuary, which he acknowledged with a simple, “yes,” and got a follow-up question about his memories of that trip.
“Not good. Not good,” he deadpanned. “I was there with Kentucky. We lost by 55.”
That is a fact.
The date was Dec. 9, 1989 and the Wildcats were annihilated 150-95 by the Jayhawks, making for the second-worst loss in UK’s storied history, dating to an 87-17 drubbing against Central College (Iowa) in 1910.
Donovan was a first-year assistant coach for Rick Pitino (his staff pictured above) after the coach left the New York Knicks to take over a Kentucky program torpedoed by major NCAA violations under predecessor Eddie Sutton. The Wildcats had six scholarship players, one of which was third-year sophomore John Pelphrey, now an assistant for Donovan at UF.
Pelphrey recalled going into the game feeling pretty good about his team. The Wildcats were 3-1, with the lone loss a tight 71-69 setback against top-10 Indiana in front of 50,000-plus at the Hoosier Dome one week earlier.
So the Cats took the court for pre-game warm-ups. He was singled out by an old man decked in Jayhawks garb.
“Hey Pelphrey,” the gentleman said. “This ain’t Indiana.”
No, it wasn’t.
The game was fairly close, a margin of just five or six, with about five minutes to go in the first half when KU went on one of those runs the blew the roof off the "Phog" and pushed the Jayhawks out in front 80-61 at halftime.
Yes, 80 points in the first 20 minutes.
And it got worse from there.
“I started the game at the small forward spot and finished at the center spot because we were fouling guys out left and right -- and Coach Pitino would not stop pressing,” Pelphrey said. “I was in the back of the press, so by the time I’d get to halfcourt [Kansas] was dunking and by the time I’d get back to the top of the key on offense we’d be shooting a 3.”
Pelphrey finished with 20 points, 5-for-10 from the 3-point line and grabbed six rebounds. The Wildcats, who took 40 shots from the arc, got 32 from Derrick Miller, while KU -- remember Mark Randall, Kevin Prichard, Terry Brown and Rick Calloway -- had seven players in double-figures.
The Kentucky charter got home around 3 a.m., and Pitino made his players watch the entire game film, then took forward Daron Feldhaus out to the court for some individual instruction. Pelphrey, trying to be a good teammate to his good friend, went with them.
“Where you going?” Pitino asked.
“Coming with you, Coach,” Pelphrey said,
“Get out of here,” Pitino shot back. “I don’t want to see anymore of you tonight.”
Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk!
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Junior guard Eli Carter will not play Friday night when Florida (3-3) takes on 11th-ranked Kansas (5-1) at Phog Allen Fieldhouse in one of the marquee match-ups of ESPN’s Big 12/SEC Challenge.
Still hampered by a left foot sprain he suffered in practice on Nov. 20, Carter did not accompany the Gators on their road trip, but instead remained back in Gainesville to rehab with the training staff and tend to academics.
Carter, who is averaging 9.0 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.2 assists, played in two of UF’s three games during last week’s tournament in the Bahamas, but discomfort in the foot kept him out of practice all this week. Players that don’t practice, don’t play for Coach Billy Donovan.
Just three days after going 8-for-9 from the floor in a loss to Miami, Carter suffered his foot injury and missed UF’s win over Louisiana-Monroe on Nov. 21. Carter returned to Action at the Battle 4 Atlantis -- playing against Georgetown, sitting out against Alabama-Birmingham, then playing sparingly against North Carolina -- but made just two of 18 shots in the tournament.
UF has basically been short-handed the entire season, with Carter's injury keeping him in and out of the lineup, plus junior forward Dorian Finney-Smith hampered by the two fractures he suffered in his left hand in the season opener and sophomore center Chris Walker suspended for the season's first two games. The Gators still several weeks from the eligibility of junior forward Alex Murphy, who transfered from Duke last December and will be eligible once the fall semester grades are posted.
UF junior guard Michael Frazier II drives to the basket in Friday night's loss to North Carolina at the Battle 4 Atlantis in Paradise Island, Bahams. [Photos by Bobby Metelus / Atlantis]
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Friday night, maybe 20 minutes after his team had been mauled by North Carolina for a second loss at the Battle 4 Atlantis in less than 72 hours, I asked Florida coach Billy Donovan if coming to the Bahamas and having a real-life lesson tomahawk-dunked in his players' faces was worth the trip.
After speaking a few sentences about making too many “losing plays” at pivotal parts of the game, Donovan got to some real talk.
“I do think this, which I like ... these guys don’t live in reality, and I don’t think it’s their fault,” he said. “Right now, the truth is slammed in our face, which I think is great. A lot of times, in your non-conference scheduling, you’re not playing against high-level competition, it’s hard to get to the truth. For these guys, what they’ve been exposed to with our schedule and how difficult it’s been, it’s bringing them close to the truth of finding out who they are and who we are. That’s a good thing. That’s a positive.”
Immediately to Donovan’s right, sat senior center Jon Horford, who transferred to UF from Michigan and was eligible immediately because he got his degree at UM and was enrolling in graduate school. He's a smart guy.
He was about to sound like he'd gotten smarter.
Horford came to a program coming off a stellar season of Southeastern Conference championships and a Final Four run. He, like his new teammates coming back, were told repeatedly how different it all would be -- the Florida basketball experience in 2014-15, that is, versus the ones of the previous few years that featured teams loaded with veterans -- and probably brushed it off as coach-speak.
No. They knew they’d be good.
Now, they know they're not.
If they didn’t understand that before going international, losing on a near-buzzer beater to Georgetown, rallying in the final minutes to defeat UAB and getting trampled from the opening tip by Carolina provided the dose of reality they needed.
Cue Horford (picture right).
“Results speak for themselves," Horford said. "We honestly thought we were better than we are. The coaches have done a great job of laying it out for us and coaching us. As a team, we have to accept it and completely buy in and put everything we have into it. If we do that, whatever happens, we can walk around with our heads held high.”
Then came this.
“But if we keep living in that illusion that coach is talking about -- and I’m as stubborn as anyone -- but coach is right. He’s absolutely right. It’s not working. If it doesn’t change, then nothing is going to change going forward.”
Donovan loved hearing that because, one, he definitely knows how stubborn Horford can be. But, two, there was a sincerity in Horford’s acceptance of the situation. If the rest of the Gators take the same tact -- and they had better -- than UF will be in a better place mentally and with a better sense of who they are.
That would make for a good baseline, considering UF’s next time on the floor comes Friday night against No. 11 Kansas (5-1) at Phog Allen Fieldhouse in the ESPN Big 12/SEC Challenge. The Gators, who fell out of this week's Associated Press rankings, need a win to avoid putting Donovan below the .500 mark for the first time since the final game of the ’97-98 season, but rest assured the coach does not care about that statistic.
He wants to see more fight in his team from the opening tip, more desperation throughout, and more made baskets.
"Eventually, you have to put the ball in the basket," he said.
And he wants this group of players to quit worrying about what they're doing individually (how well they're shooting; lack of playing time; turnovers) and focus more on the things that go into winning.
Upon returning from Paradise Island Saturday afternoon, the players had the balance of the day off, but returned to work Sunday. The Gators did not practice, but lifted weights, went through individual instruction drills (with tight focus on fundamentals, technique and executing good reps with their shots) and then met privately in small groups with Donovan for film review.
On Monday, it was back to work -- a full-blown, full contact practice -- with emphasis on the details.
Donovan wants more from players, no question, but he’s also turned a finger on himself the UF staff. A lot of things aren’t working on a lot of different levels.
The upside? There is a lot of time to fix things. One big step may have happened at Atlantis.
Without question, sophomore point guard Kasey Hill was floundering through the season’s first six games, but may have righted himself in the tournament. He competed ferociously against UNC in finishing with a career-high 20 points, as he attacked the Tar Heels constant double teams. If it took some rock-bottom moments (and maybe watching freshman backup Chris Chiozza torch UAB the night before) to light a fire within Hill, maybe his struggles of the first two weeks were worth it.
* Shooting guard Michael Frazier went 4-for-10 from the 3-point line against the Tar Heels, but he’s still at 35.9 percent for the season. Some of his misses have been wide-open looks, the likes of which he hit like free throws the last two seasons. He's not a good shooter, but a great one. He can be again.
* Forward Dorian Finney-Smith has been dealing with two fractured bones in his hand since the season opener, yet his body language and inability to move to the next play after a bad one (a Frazier trait this season, as well) has disappointed the coaches. They're demanding more consistency from him.
* Guard Eli Carter (pictured left) clearly was hampered by a sprained foot in the Bahamas. In his two games, Carter was 2-for-18 from the floor. Still, against Georgetown, his ability to get in the lane drew help defenders and led to offensive rebounds, but Donovan wants to see more dribble-drive kickout passes from Carter and better use of a basketball IQ and savvy court sense that is among the best on the team.
* Sophomore center Chris Walker came to UF with the expectations of an NBA lottery pick, yet how many of those “experts” putting together mock drafts actually saw Walker play Class 1A games in Bonifay, Fla.? Now that the 6-foot-10 center is playing, where he is and what he is as a player -- an inexperienced and raw prospect blessed with phenomenal athleticism -- is out there for everyone to see. And it’s the same player Donovan warned everyone not to expect so much from, both last year when he joined the team in midseason, and again this year when his role was set to increase. The coaching staff, Donovan admits, needs to do a better job with him.
There were some rolled eyes when Donovan insisted in the preseason this wasn’t the No. 7 team in the country?
Maybe a few of his players did some eye-rolling.
Well, they’re not now.
Maybe that's exactly where this team needs to be.
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GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- The most obvious takeaway from Florida’s 66-65 overtime loss to Georgetown was the dramatic -- and crushing -- manner the Gators lost their opening-round game in the Battle 4 Atlantis.
Hoyas guard D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera swished a 21-foot jumper from the top of the key with 3.5 seconds left for the win, just eight seconds after UF point guard Kasey Hill’s driving, old-fashion 3-point play had given Florida a one-point lead.
But as far as Billy Donovan was concerned, the Gators (2-2) did not lose the game on that play.
“I look at it differently,” he said. “There probably were combined, for both teams, more than 100 plays in the game. We probably played our 100 plays, in all honesty, about 50 of them -- maybe less -- at a level I’d like to see us play. You can focus on the last play, but I wouldn’t have felt great even if Rivera’s shot was off. It would have felt good [to win], but sometimes winning is delusional because sometimes it does away with what is actually real.”
So Thursday morning, Dononvan and his staff met with the team and had some real talk about playing the right way and about playing to identities -- both individually and team-wise. Tonight’s loser-bracket game against Alabama-Birmingham (2-3), which was smashed by No. 3 Wisconsin 72-43 in its first-round game, would be an ideal place to start.
As a sample case, take junior shooting guard Michael Frazier (pictured above).
Last year, Frazier was a second-team All-Southeastern Conference selection and one of the most deadly 3-point shooters in the country. Now in a new role, Frazier has tried to take on more leadership, improve his dribble-drive skills and become a more well-rounded player. All that is admirable, all that is good.
Except, what he's doing now is not working for this team.
Frazier leads the Gators in scoring at 15 points per game, but he’s shooting 43.5 percent from the floor (down from 46.1 last season) and has made just seven of his 22 shots from the arc for 31.8 percent (down from 44.7).
Granted, the Gators’ lack of low-post presence -- Patric Young was on another plame compared to what Jon Horford and Chris Walker are providing the team -- has allowed defenses to extend and pay more attention to Frazier, but a little more of staying in last year’s character (freeing his mind, focusing on that deadly jumper we'd come to know the last two seasons) may do Frazier and the Gators a lot good.
Same goes for Kasey Hill, the sophomore point guard who has taken over the role as playmaker, but may too often be forcing things versus finishing plays and locking in on running the offense.
As Donovan likes to say, what happens between the lines ultimately defines you.
So what are these Gators going to be?
“That one is over. We’re not getting it back, we’re moving on from it,” Donovan told his team before Thursday afternoon’s shoot-around at the Imperial Grand Ballroom, as Georgetown and Wisconsin were preparing to play in a winner's bracket game at the arena across the hall. “It’s not about what we were [Wednesday]. It’s about what we are today. And you guys should be excited as hell to be playing tonight.”
PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- “Doe-Doe” is a go-go tonight.
Florida forward Dorian Finney-Smith, out the last two games with hairline fractures in his left non-shooting hand, and guard Eli Carter, who sprained his left foot in practice last week, will play Wednesday night when the 18th-ranked Gators (2-1) face Georgetown (3-0) in opening-round play of the Battle 4 Atlantis at 9:30.
Both Finney-Smith and Carter took part in the team’s shoot-around Wednesday afternoon, with the former doing more than the later.
“They’re going to try and go,” Coach Billy Donovan said after the one-hour workout. “We don’t know how much they can play, but we’ll find out.”
Finney-Smith (above right), the 2014 Southeastern Conference Sixth Man of the Year, scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds in the opener against William & Mary when he was injured in the early minutes, but returned to finish the game with his hand taped.
Carter (right) averaged 14.5 points in two games -- including a 21-point, 8-for-9 performance in UF’s loss at Miami last week -- before suffering his sprain in practice Thursday.
Both player’s missed Friday’s overtime win over Louisiana-Monroe, as the Gators struggled to score minus their offense.
PARADISE ISLAND, Bahamas -- To tell the story of the Battle 4 Atlantis, we probably need to visit the story of Atlantis itself.
In 1994, a South African hotel magnate named Sol Kerzner (right) bought a series of floundering resort properties along a two-mile stretch of Paradise Island from famed talk-show host and entrepreneur Merv Griffin. When that purchase went down, tourism in the Bahamas was at an ebb (as was unemployment), but Kerzner had a vision to reinvigorate the local economy by building a state-of-the-art resort the likes of which the world had never seen.
The blueprints, of course, used the mythical “Lost City of Atlantis” as its theme. It took four years and $800 million to make Atlantis a reality, highlighted by what brochures call “the world’s largest open-air marine environment” of 11 million gallons that are home to 50,000 sea creatures, representing 200 species, lagoons and waterfalls, plus the now-world famous Mayan Temple Waterslide complex.
[Note: Yes, I plan on partaking in the slides, including the ridiculously steep one and the one that takes you through a tube inside a shark tank (see video below).]
The Florida basketball team’s chartered flight arrived here Monday night around 7:20 and went through customs in Nassau (above). The team checked in at Atlantis around 8:30, but Coach Billy Donovan sent them to their rooms for the night after a team meal.
On Tuesday morning, Donovan turned his players loose for three hours to roam the grounds (or go back to bed, which some did) before an afternoon meal. Ninety minutes later, the team reported for its one-hour practice in the Imperial Arena followed by another one-hour practice in an adjacent ballroom.
Not much time to sight-see, but then again that's not why they're here.
Which brings us to the tournament.
The Imperial Arena is actually the resort’s Imperial Ballroom (see below). In 2010, local organizers and ESPN partnered to add the event to its schedule of sexy November non-conference, cross-sectional basketball games.
It costs about a half-million dollars to convert the ballroom -- and that means opening a bunch of temporary walls and removing the chandeliers that hang from the ceiling -- into an arena that seats 3,200. The inaugural event, in 2011, featured UCF, College of Charleston, Florida State, UMass, Connecticut, UNC-Ashville, Harvard and Utah.
Harvard won the tournament.
The tournament winners since have been Duke (2012) and Villanova (2013), but the 2014 field -- UF, Georgetown, Alabama-Birmingham, Wisconsin, North Carolina, UCLA, Oklahoma and Butler -- being touted as the event’s best yet.
The Badgers, ranked third nationally, loom as the tournament favorite.
[So far, I really like the concept. And why not? I'm in the Bahamas for Thanksgiving week. But some may roll their eyes at the notion of a tournament in such a tight place, but watching UCLA and North Carolina, for example (which could happen), throw it up in a ballroom? Yeah, that would be cool.]
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- When the schedule lines up with a game on a Friday or Saturday and the next one not for three or four days out, it’s been customary during Coach Billy Donovan’s basketball tenure at Florida to give his players a day off. Usually, the day after the game.
But Friday’s 61-56 overtime squeaker against Louisiana-Monroe -- both the performance of the players and the dire lack of bodies -- made the circumstances anything but customary. So Donovan tweaked his routine just a bit.
Three practices Saturday.
Two more Sunday.
“We’re not a very good team right now,” he said.
That team is about to play in a very, very good basketball tournament in a very unusual venue.
With top forward Dorian Finney-Smith (hand) and top guard Eli Carter (ankle) questionable with injuries, 18th-ranked Florida (2-1) will face Georgetown (3-0) in opening-round play Wednesday night of the Battle 4 Atlantis at Paradise Island, Bahamas. Should the Gators manage to get past the Hoyas, they’d likely on Thursday face No. 3 Wisconsin, which figures to be a big favorite over Alabama-Birmingham, with either North Carolina, UCLA, Oklahoma or Butler waiting on the other side of the bracket for the third-round game Friday.
Three games in three days with all kinds of uncertainty regarding manpower.
“It concerns me in terms of style of play,” Donovan said Monday, several hours before the team hopped its chartered flight, with a scheduled arrival around 8 p.m. “This [UF] team needs to press. I don’t think we can sustain that kind of intensity, never mind three games in a row, for 40 minutes. Not enough depth.”
Or defined roles, either.
Donovan and his staff holed up in the basketball complex between those five sessions over the weekend -- some were full-blown practices, some individual instruction sessions -- to try and scratch out ideas to improve on a bevy of elements, among them the Gators’ collective shooting percentages (43.9 percent on field goals, 34.7 from 3-point range), especially when it comes to sophomore point guard Kasey Hill (pictured above).
Hill is a combined 3-for-24 for the season. That’s 12.5 percent. Opponents are packing the defense on the block to take away the post, honoring shooting guard Michael Frazier on the perimeter, but playing completely off Hill, just daring him to make a shot.
So aside from watching Hill take oodles of shots in individual instruction, Donovan and his assistants are trying to find ways to help his battered confidence and put him in better position to be more effective offensively; both in attacking the defense to find teammates, but also with his pull-up jump shots and drives down the lane.
“Most of his shots have been in the lane and he’s got to finish better,” Donovan said. “He’s got to do a better job waiting on screening actions; he’s going off too quick. And I think he’s made some rough decisions, especially in transition where he’s trying to go one-on-four and use his speed when he probably needs to run our team a little bit.”
If that sounds like a lot to correct in a short period of time, well, hence the cram sessions over the weekend.
Plus, the games in Paradise are going to be played whether UF is ready or not.