Location: Stephen C. O’Connell Center – Gainesville, Florida [Capacity: 11,548]
Time: 7:00 p.m. EST
SiriusXM: 84 | Radio: Gator Radio Network [Affiliates]
Live Updates: @OnlyGators on Twitter
|FLORIDA GATORS||LSU TIGERS|
|Head Coach: Billy Donovan||Head Coach: Johnny Jones|
|Record: 10-7 (3-1 SEC)||Record: 13-4 (2-2 SEC)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Southeastern|
Odds: Florida -10
STILL NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME
Forward Chris Walker, despite joining the Gators during the mid-way point of his first season and being suspended for the first two games of the 2014-15 campaign, has played in 33 games at Florida. He may have been listed as a sophomore before this season began, but his first full year of actually being a college basketball has just passed.
And the results, at least to this point, indicate that Walker is far from the phenom many expected the day he committed to the Gators. In fact, he more closely resembles former UF center Patric Young, a freakish athlete who has a long way to go to be a capable college starter, let alone an NBA player.
“I just know I need to improve,” Walker said Monday. “I just need to come in every day and be focused and just work hard.”
Averaging just 16.3 minutes per game this season, Walker is doing little right. He only hits 48.6 percent of his field goals – despite being positioned around the basket – and is a team-worst 37.0 percent from the free throw line (he’s only drawn 27 fouls and made 10 gimmies in 245 minutes of court action). Walker is rebounding at a high rate with an average of 4.2 per game, and his ability to block shots has helped the Gators’ defense, though his inability to be reliable on pick-and-rolls and other sets has been a hindrance.
In Donovan’s mind, none of this should be much of a surprise. He knew expectations for Walker were too high while the player was still in high school and being billed a five-star prospect who was supposed to be one of the best players in the country. Due to the external hype, and Walker’s own lofty aspirations for himself, he is now seen as overrated – even a bust, according to some – despite the fact that he is still young and relatively inexperienced.
“Up there in Bonifay, around Holmes County, there’s not a lot of 6’11” guys running around. He could stand there and do things just purely based on athleticism, size and running and jumping. He had an unbelievable impact on the game,” explained Donovan. “It’s smart. If I’m coaching a high school team, I’m putting Chris Walker at the rim and saying, ‘Listen, if anyone comes in here, just block shots.’ That’s not realistic in college. I saw that.”
Walker now agrees with his coach’s assessment. “Bonifay, like in high school, I’d just stand in the middle of the paint. People like 5’10″, 5’8″ would come in, shoot a layup, and I’d just block shots. College you got to be in position, you got to help the helper, you got to actually box out people. It’s different.”
But Donovan reaffirmed his belief that Walker would struggle once the highly-touted talent arrived in Gainesville, Florida.
“Once he got here, I knew he was going to be really, really behind physically coming in [the middle of the season],” he said. “My biggest concern was what kind of basketball acumen did he have, what kind of basketball IQ did he have, how much could he actually retain and pick up? And you know what? He’s pretty good. He remembers, he’s much better with our offense, he remembers picking up things; he’s done a good job in that area. I knew it was going to be a process.
“But what happens is, out of sight, the legend grows when people don’t see him. I think last year when the guy came into play [against Missouri], ‘This guy’s coming back!’ like it’s Wilt Chamberlain. I’m like, ‘Listen, it’s not that. I was just in practice with the guy. It’s not that.’”
Donovan said he feels bad for Walker, who is living “a hard existence” because of raised expectations and Walker sometimes feeling like he’s a “failure” and “letting people down.” But he is also proud of how Walker has been handling those circumstances, as Donovan noted that Walker does not point fingers, understands that he needs to improve and is finally coming around to realizing how that needs to be accomplished.
“I think at the beginning of the season, I was kind of doing my own thing,” Walker said, “but I’m starting to buy into everything [Donovan] says, listen to him and listen to all of the coaching staff every single day.”
He continued: “[I need to] just do whatever I can to help the team, man. Really, finish more around the basket, go up strong and get more rebounds, go to the offensive glass a little harder. … I’m just staying with the process. It will come. Everything will fall into place.”
As much as Donovan wants to take some of the pressure off Walker, and Walker may now be saying the right things, he is not without fault in this situation.
Due to family struggles – and perhaps an (understandably) inflated ego, too – Walker initially planned to declare for the NBA Draft after his freshman season. Eligibility issues and limited court time made it a no-brainer for Walker to return for a second season at Florida, but he indicated upon announcing his return that it would be his last with the Gators and said as much privately.
There are few at this time that would project Walker as a late first-round pick – even with his potential and high ceiling – let alone a legitimate NBA prospect. He has way too much to work on, not just from a physical aspect or a basketball stills standpoint but also mentally.
“For Chris right now, it’s not about watching film. It’s not. It’s about working. It’s about working and him getting on the court and working. That’s an area where he needs to get better. He needs to get better at pushing himself. You as a coach can show a lot of tape to a guy, but I think Chris is a guy because of maybe his lack of experience here in college, lack of playing time, playing at this level, being a frontcourt player – as he gets older, he’ll be physically stronger – he needs a lot of reps every single day. He has to work better,” Donovan explained.
“That’s the thing with me. He has to work better. Then it becomes challenging. I don’t believe, as a player, you can really get a lot better without having a great work ethic. He’s got to develop a great work ethic. He can do that; there’s times he works really, really hard. But again, sometimes it’s, ‘I’m a little sore today. I’m a little tired today,’ and you’re constantly pushing him and he’s got to do it. He sometimes struggles with that. But if he wants to be the kind of player that he talks about being, he’s going to need to continue to work. I believe he can do it. He’s a young player right now that needs to learn how hard he needs to work.”
According to Donovan, Walker took 150 reps around the basket after practice on Monday. Earlier in the season, conditioning was an issue, but he appears to be doing better in that regard. Now, he needs to gain confidence on the practice court and translate it to the game.
Walker said his poor performance in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament got into his head and humbled him, though he has not considerably improved since. He still lingers on bad shots he takes, rushes post moves (resulting in turnovers and badly-missed shots) and is often out of position on defense. He admitted as much on Monday.
“Just me playing horrible the past couple of games, I feel like this game [Tuesday] is what I need. To start off, I’m just going to be so aggressive when I come out,” he said. “I just can’t wait for the opportunity.”
Against a sizable LSU frontcourt, Walker will have every opportunity to prove to Donovan and his Florida teammates that he can be counted on in the game. If the past is any indication, Walker will show flashes but also display that he has a long way to go.
The question that remains is whether Walker will understand the opportunity he has with the Gators to continue to learn and grow under Donovan. Can he look to the future of the next game rather than the bright lights and big dollars that are calling from the NBA, especially considering he has already proven to be far from ready for prime time at this point in his young career?
HISTORY, STATS AND STREAKS
» LSU owns a large advantage in the all-time series against Florida with a 60-43 record overall, though UF is 27-19 against its SEC West rival in Gainesville. The Gators are 14-8 against the Tigers under Billy Donovan with six-straight wins in the series and a 6-3 record in the O’Dome.
» The Gators were 86-10 over the last three seasons when holding opponents under 71 points in a game; UF is 9-5 this season when doing so.
» Florida has put forward 10 different starting lineups in 17 regular-season games. Overall, 10 players have started at least one game for UF this season.
» The Gators learned to win close games last season, going 15-2 in contests decided by single digits; Florida is 3-5 in such affairs this season.
» UF is on pace for 18.2 wins in the regular season while looking for its 17th consecutive season with 20+ victories. Florida’s 16-straight campaigns with that many wins is the longest streak in the SEC and fifth-longest nationally. Only eight coaches have ever won 20+ games in 14+ consecutive seasons.
» The Gators’ struggles have resulted in a number of long winning streaks being snapped. Florida lost a program-record 33-game home winning streak (which was the second-longest active streak in the nation) and school-record 25-game home winning streak against non-conference opponents earlier this season with a defeat at the hands of Miami. Another rival, Georgia, ended UF’s program-record streak of 24-straight wins against SEC opponents (21 in a row in regular-season action) and school-record streak of 10 consecutive victories against SEC opponents on the road.
» Florida’s lone remaining program-record winning streak stands at 20-straight SEC home games, which dates back to Jan. 9, 2013.
» Junior guard Michael Frazier II is tied with Lee Humphrey after draining a three-pointer in his 39th consecutive game on Saturday. He can set a new program record with a trey on Tuesday.
INJURIES AND ABSENCES
» Out (2): Sophomore center John Egbunu (transfer – season), freshman G Brandone Francis (academics – season)
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Donovan on Florida’s struggles against Georgia: “On that quick turnaround, with this team, I think that I’ve learned some things in terms of these guys need to practice more in those situations whereas maybe last year’s team didn’t need to do that as much from a cerebral standpoint. … I don’t think I did a very good job of getting our guys emotionally, mentally ready to play. In terms of whatever I did do, we didn’t respond. That was the disappointing part for me, on a quick turnaround that I could have done a better job.”
» Donovan on using 10 players and whether the Gators’ depth but lack of overall talent is a hinderance: “Some of it is a byproduct of, on a given night, trying to find different lineups and stuff.”
» Donovan on sophomore point guard Kasey Hill, who has continued to show an inconsistent streak: “This is what I’m talking about, like Kasey Hill for two games was really, really good. He was 14 assists, one turnover. We’re in a [close] game, we have back-to-back turnovers by him. He’s got to learn and grow from that a little bit better. He has gotten a little bit more consistent but we need more than just two games in a row.”