Location: Stephen C. O’Connell Center – Gainesville, Florida [Capacity: 11,548]
Time: 9:00 p.m. EST
SiriusXM: 136/190 | Radio: Gator Radio Network [Affiliates]
Live Updates: @OnlyGators on Twitter
|FLORIDA GATORS||TEXAS A&M AGGIES|
|Head Coach: Billy Donovan||Head Coach: Billy Kennedy|
|Record: 14-15 (7-9 SEC)||Record: 20-8 (11-5 SEC)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Southeastern|
Odds: Florida -4
SUPER WALK-ON WALKS OFF
The origin story for Florida super redshirt senior walk-on forward Jacob Kurtz is well-known by now.
Once a mild-mannered student at Florida who asked to watch practice inside the Gators’ facility, Kurtz was granted the opportunity to do so by Donovan and quickly became a constant presence around the team. Seeing Kurtz was extremely interested and undoubtedly persistent, Donovan let him begin contributing to the program as a glorified custodian who mopped the floors and took care of the laundry. “The Snake” then slithered his way into a role as an official team manager. Then one day, Florida was short on bodies for a practice, so Donovan asked if Kurtz wanted to run around with the team. That’s when everything changed.
“Then it was like, ‘Wow, this guy is not that bad. Would you like to play?’ ‘Oh yeah, I would love to play,’ [Kurtz replied]. Then he is in practice every day and all of a sudden he is playing and he was very, very cerebral and he was smart and pays attention,” Donovan recalled on Monday.
“I give him a lot of credit for perseverance, patience and resiliency and being really smart and always being ready. He took advantage of his opportunity and was prepared for his opportunity.”
Like walk-ons on many teams, Kurtz barely saw the court during the 2012-13 campaign, playing in 20 games but never getting more than four minutes of action. He did not “wow” with his ability, nor did he flash any semblance of greatness, but Donovan trusted him enough that when Florida was short-handed entering the 2013-14 season, he knew where to turn.
Kurtz averaged 19.7 minutes per game during the Gators’ first seven contests that year. He scored 29 points, hit 7-of-11 free throws, averaged 3.9 boards and posted a 4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio as UF started the season 6-1. His minutes dropped off as Florida’s roster grew stronger with players coming off suspension and returning from injury, and he barely played over the team’s final 18 games.
Then the calendar turned to the 2014-15 campaign and Kurtz knew that his role could increase, only if slightly. How wrong was he?
Kurtz has started six games for the Gators this season. He’s played at least 12 minutes in every contest and been on the court for 19.8 minutes per game (19+ minutes in 17-of-29 contests). And he’s earned all of that time not by flexing his muscles but rather by using his superpowers – his head and his heart.
“You can look at a lot of things that Jake Kurtz can’t do: he doesn’t shoot threes, he is not a scorer, he is always undersized defensively, [he] has a hard time finishing over length, and he is 6-foot-4 playing the power forward spot. You would never define him by any of those characteristics,” said Donovan of his super walk-on.
“You would define him as a guy that gives unbelievable effort, is physical and tough, is a great teammate and makes other people around him better. I think that is how you would define him. He has been great example for other guys on the team – that it’s not about your talent level, it’s about your competitiveness. He has a high level of competitiveness and to me he is a great winner.”
Kurtz is only averaging 4.4 points per contest, in large part because it is rare for him to attempt a shot outside of a layup. For that reason, he’s shooting a team-high 60.5 percent from the field while grabbing 3.9 rebounds (fourth-most on the team). He’s also Florida’s fourth-most reliable free throw shooter, hitting gimmies at a .698 clip.
The Gators are 14-15 with Kurtz. Imagine where they’d be without him.
“When you want to be respected inside of a team sport, you have to be totally selfless, and the last person you have to think about is yourself because your actions, more often than not, display what your intentions are. If you are playing a team sport and you say you are all about the team, but your actions show that you are not and you are more about yourself, that stuff stands out like a sore thumb. His intentions on our team are as pure as anyone I have ever been around. He has no other intentions but helping our team win and helping those guys get better,” Donovan said of Kurtz.
Kurtz has been a large part of the incremental improvement being shown by sophomore center Chris Walker, according to Donovan, who said Kurtz worked out at 7 a.m. over the summer in order to help Walker and even rooms with him on the road with the two watching film together all the time.
“He wants to win and contribute and he doesn’t care about points, minutes or numbers,” Donovan continued. “The most unbelievable thing I have ever witnessed as a coach is, because of his intelligence level on the court, when we have had some guys out due to injuries and suspensions, there have been times when in practice we have needed to work against our opponent and I will take Jake and put him with the scout team. For the whole practice, he will go and be on the scout team with the other team. He won’t do anything that we are doing, but we need an extra guy. He plays all five positions.
“Whatever you need him to do, he does, and there are no intentions there, and our guys respect him because you are never worried about what angle this guy is coming from. In order to be really, really respected within the team, you have got to be first totally selfless, and he is totally selfless.”
The question now: where does Kurtz go from here? Donovan calls Kurtz wise beyond his years and notes that he is not only an “unbelievable kid” but has a “great sense of humor” off the court and commands respect through his work ethic.
In many ways, Donovan speaks about Kurtz like Rick Pitino spoke about Donovan during his senior year at Providence in 1986-87. So when Donovan was asked if he saw a future “Coach Kurtz” in Jake the Snake, he did not hesitate to support the possibility.
“He’s got this really bright [mind and] probably could do a lot of other things in his life, and here this guy wants to coach. I find it funny. He would be very good. He would be a really, really good coach,” he explained.
“I think the one thing he’s got to get better at is… Jake has a lot to say, and he’s very smart and he’s very bright, and what he would say would be very, very helpful to our team. If there’s one thing I’ve struggled with him on it’s trying to get him to be more vocal inside of our team when he sees something that needs to change. … I think he’s sold himself short in a lot of those areas. I think he would be great. He’s going to need to talk more than he talks, but I think he would be good.”
Kurtz has been a much-needed perfect fit for the Gators over the last two years. He was a background roleplayer when Florida was humming along on the way to the program’s fourth Final Four last season; since, he has stepped up to play major minutes as the 2014-15 squad has endlessly struggled to find a rhythm and any manner of consistency.
He has truly been the lone rock for UF during a most-turbulent time.
Sometimes, the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes, people deserve more. Sometimes, people like Kurtz deserve to have their faith rewarded.
“This was something I always wanted to do. I really put a lot of work into it, and I’m glad I did. It has been very rewarding,” he said.
HISTORY, STATS AND STREAKS
» Florida and Texas A&M are squaring off in a home-and-home series against each other for the first time ever. The Gators are 4-2 all-time against the Aggies, 3-1 under Donovan and 0-1 this year after UF fell to TAMU 63-62 on Feb. 14.
» The Gators were 86-10 over the last three seasons when holding opponents under 71 points in a game; Florida is 13-11 this season when doing so.
» UF is scoring 64.4 points per game, the third-lowest average in program history (since the statistic was tracked) and worst since 1950-51 (62.7).
» Florida is shooting .435 from the field, its worst mark since 1995-96 (.426) and the second-lowest in program history.
» The Gators are hitting at a .644 clip from the free throw line, their worst average since 1992-93 (.635).
» UF is shooting the three at a rate (.322) that is its fourth-lowest in the 29 years the shot has been part of the game, its worst such mark since 2009-10 (.313).
» The Gators have double-digit losses for the first time since 2011-12. In the last 16 seasons, Donovan has only lost 10+ games six times (including 2014-15).
» Florida has put forward 13 different starting lineups in 29 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 6-11 in such affairs this season, 2-6 in games that have come down to two points or fewer.
» UF is on pace for 15 wins and is therefore unlikely to reach 20+ victories this season, ending a streak of 16 consecutive seasons with that many wins. Florida’s 16-straight such campaigns marks the longest streak in the SEC and fifth-longest nationally. Donovan is one of only eight coaches that have ever won 20+ games in 14+ consecutive seasons.
» With the NCAA Tournament seemingly out of the picture, UF still needs to play better just to make the NIT. No SEC team with fewer than 19 victories earned an NIT berth in 2013-14.
» The Gators have a record of .500 or worse during the spring semester for the first time since 1997-98.
» Donovan won his 500th career game on Saturday, becoming the second-youngest Division I coach to hit the mark and only one of two to do so before his 50th birthday. On Saturday, Donovan will go for his 200th SEC win; he would become the third coach in league history to hit that mark.
INJURIES AND ABSENCES
» Active (1): Redshirt junior guard Eli Carter (strep throat)
» Doubtful (1): Junior G Michael Frazier II (high-ankle sprain)
» Out (3): Junior F DeVon Walker (ACL), sophomore center John Egbunu (transfer – season), freshman G Brandone Francis (academics – season)
“I would say he is probably not playing. He hasn’t practiced at all. He tries to do some shooting and stuff, but he is not cleared for practice at all, so I don’t anticipate him playing [Tuesday] unless I get some miraculous diagnosis from our doctor and trainer saying he is cleared to play. But I don’t envision that happening,” Donovan said of Fraizer, who is missing his seventh-straight game over 19 days.
“High-ankle sprains are 4-6 weeks. He has just gotten into his third week, so we have been talking to the trainer and the doctor and this is totally normal for a high-ankle sprain. He has worked hard to try and come back. He is in there getting treatment. The biggest challenge for him right now is stopping and starting; it appears to be painful for him.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» On redshirt senior walk-on Lexx Edwards, who is participating in Senior Night but has eligibility remaining: “Lexx has a chance to come back and play. He still has another year of eligibility. I’d love for Lexx to come back, but he’s got to make that choice at the end of the year. He’s been another guy that’s been a great addition. I appreciate what he’s been able to do for us. He’s been extremely, extremely helpful in practice in a lot of ways. He does have the ability to play one more year but a lot of it will be up to him.”
» Donovan on redshirt senior center Jon Horford, who is not taking part in Senior Night festivities: “I’m happy he’s had an opportunity to play. I feel like he’s gotten better, he’s improved. I think there was a lot for him to learn in terms of going from one system to another. I’ve really always admired his work ethic. He’s a guy that eats right every single meal, he’s going to get his rest, he’s going to go to bed early, he’s going to take care of himself, he’s going to be the first guy to show up every day, he’s going to be the last guy to leave, he’s going to put time and energy and effort in there. And I’ve really always admired his work ethic. He’s got a phenomenal work ethic, as good of a work ethic as I’ve been around. … Jon’s a very, very bright kid. He’s very, very well-rounded. There’s a lot of things he can do besides play basketball. He’s a very talented kid, well-spoken kid, well-read. I think he’s smart. I’m sure for him with the amount of time and energy he’s put into the game he wants to play, but whenever his time is over playing, he’s going to be successful in whatever he wants to do.”
» Donovan on Florida’s continued free throw shooting struggles: “We’re just trying to practice as much as we can. That’s what we’re doing. We’re trying as best as we can in practice, putting these guys in different challenging situations, trying to create [game-like pressure situations]. … We try to create that as best we can. And then obviously through repetition. It’s what we’re trying to continually work on. … The one thing I try to focus on in free throw shooting is I think the more movement you have in your shot, the more room there is for error. … It’s very, very rare these days that you find a kid that ever really shoots the ball with what I would call picture-perfect form.”
» Donovan on the Gators’ most likely ending their streak of 16-straight seasons with 20+ wins: “After we went through the transition period after 2007, I’m not so sure our schedule was as good. So maybe some of those records weren’t, so to speak, [legitimately 20-win seasons]. I think when you get three or four NIT games, your non-conference is not great and then you’re walking into the conference schedule with 11 wins. This team, in looking back, I’m happy that our schedule is a lot more challenging because I felt like when we were going into the league back then, we didn’t have a good feel for a true sense of who we were. … I think our record [this year] is a legitimate record, so to speak. … I think we are what our record says we are. We’re not a great team. I don’t think we’re an awful team; we’re a very, very average team. That’s what we are.”