Trio of Gators will have a tough decision to make

As the Florida Gators try to mentally block out the three-game losing streak they are taking into the postseason and prepare for action beginning Thursday in the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament, another upcoming event is also on the minds of a few players: the 2012 NBA Draft in June.

Up to three Gators – freshman guard Bradley Beal, sophomore center Patric Young and junior G Kenny Boynton – may decide it is in their best interest to become professional basketball players at the end of the season. Any or all of those three could join senior point guard Erving Walker, who is graduating in the spring, leaving what could potentially be a large void of talent in the Florida basketball program.

Beal is considered the most likely of the three to leave – and for good reason. Despite being one of the youngest players on the team, he has quickly earned head coach Billy Donovan’s trust and respect and is playing 34.2 minutes per game this season, the most on the team. Beal, who is averaging team-highs of 6.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals while scoring 14.4 points and dishing out a pair of assists each contest, has been praised by Donovan for his maturity (at such a young age), basketball IQ and an overall understanding of what it takes to win both on and off the court.

Those are just a few reasons why Beal is projected in most mock drafts to be a top-10 pick by the time the event rolls around. Analysts believe his size at 6’3” and 207 lbs., length, athleticism and production will translate well to the NBA.

That does not mean he is without his issues and flaws. A sharpshooter in high school, Beal was expected to be a high-percentage scorer both while driving to the hoop and taking jumpers from three-point range. However, his 42.9 percent shooting from the field is second-lowest out of anyone playing at least 20 minutes per game for Florida, and his 31.8 percent accuracy from downtown is the lowest on the team out of any player who has taken at least two treys this season.

Despite all of his positive attributes, another year in college would likely do Beal a lot of good. Returning to UF could not only help him hone is game but also raise his draft stock further and put him in position to be a top-five pick when 2013 rolls around. According to his coach, an additional season at the collegiate level would help Young even more.

Donovan spoke at length Monday about Young, who had arguably his best performance of the season on Sunday against No. 1 Kentucky by posting 21 points and nine rebounds while providing a great deal of effort and energy on both ends of the floor. That has not always been the case for Young this season, and Donovan has had the reason why pinpointed for a while now.

“When you’re talking about maturity, it rears its head in a lot of different ways. Maturity can also be when the game is not going well for you that you still find ways to impact the game by still staying locked in instead of maybe having your own internal pity party that you’re not playing well,” he said. “I talk to our guys a lot about an internal will. Internal will to me is, when you’re not playing well as a player, do you fight harder because your internal will is that you want the outcome or result that you want? Are you willing to fight for those things not only for yourself but for your team? That can be a lack of maturity, when adversity hits not being able to understand how to deal with it.

“Another part of maturity can be your self-talk in your own head, convincing yourself of something that may not even be true but you deem it to be true in your head. Patric has dealt with some foot and knee [injuries] but it’s not anything that is preventing him from playing. He played that way against [Anthony] Davis and Kentucky [Monday], he’s capable of doing that every single game. I’m not saying getting 21 points and 15 rebounds, but he’s capable of having that impact in the game.

“There’s a level of requirement that you have to have as a player that, when you step into practice, you’ve got to work on a regular basis to get better. He had two really good days on Friday and Saturday going into the game, and he did not have a very good day on Wednesday at all. It’s that up-and-down-ness of, ‘I’m tired, I’m sore, my knee hurts, my foot hurts.’ You can’t one minute say that and then the next minute jump up and tomahawk dunk. That doesn’t make any sense. That’s part of any player growing, and I think Patric is still scratching the surface of understanding who he can be and what he can be on a consistent basis.”

Donovan has never been one to hold a player back from going to the NBA if he truly felt he was ready to leave. He told Corey Brewer, Al Horford and Joakim Noah that he felt all three were prepared to turn pro after they won their first national championship; the decision to stay was a choice the trio made, partially because they wanted to win another title and partially because they knew their coach could get them even more prepared for the next level.

Based on general comments he made about Young on Monday, Donovan does not appear convinced that he is ready to take that next step in his career. Though NBA teams may have him up high on their draft boards based on his physical attributes and potential, Young still has a ways to go to become a well-rounded basketball player in Donovan’s eyes.

“As much as I want to expedite that process – I want it to happen right now – he’s got to go through it. What happens is, when you go through the pain and struggle of competition, you start to find out a lot more about yourself internally,” he said. “Patric is finding those things out because I think there was a struggle there for a while for him, even in practice every day – giving the effort and the commitment that he needs to give.

“It also comes down to, more than that, what does Patric want out of the game of basketball? Every player can want something. There are some players that like what the game brings to them – notoriety, attention, for certain guys playing in the NBA, money. Then there’s certain guys that really want to be great in the game and what drives them is to be the best they can be. This process, while these guys are in college, is all about them figuring out what do I really want from the game? Who do I want to be in the game of basketball? It can’t be about external, peripheral stuff. It has to be: what do I really want?

“Once you find out what you really want form the game, then you’re able to go in with incredible perseverance, great internal will because you have a clear-cut understanding of what it takes. Patric is finding out right now what it takes to be a great player. Now the next step is, is he able to make that commitment every single day to play like he did [Sunday] all the time? Not scoring – his activity. A post presence, good post moves, running the floor, offensive rebounding, being physical, defending. He’s capable of doing those things every single night.”

Unlike Beal and Young, Boynton is not a player on the top of teams’ draft boards right now. Slightly undersized for a shooting guard and lacking experience at the point, he has not had the sustained success that scouts like to see from veteran college players.

Working to Boynton’s advantage, however, is the fact that he is in the midst of a career year for the Gators, posting career-highs in points (16.8) and shooting averages. He is hitting shots from the field at a 45.9 percent clip (7.4 percent better than a season ago) and has improved his accuracy from three by 10.3 percent, now hitting 43.4 of his attempts from long range.

Asked Monday if he has made a decision on whether or not he intended to return for his senior season, Boynton gave a short, simple and potentially concerning reply.

“I don’t know,” he said.

Should Beal be the only player to leave early, Florida whould be able to recover relatively quickly. His talent is irreplaceable, but junior G Mike Rosario can step into his minutes and the Gators also have a trio of young guards committed for 2012.

Young and Boynton departing along with Beal would be a cause of major concern for Florida, the former being UF’s only true dominant post presence and the latter being a veteran scorer who is only beginning to hit his stride at the collegiate level. The Gators have no big men committed for 2012 and would face major depth issues in the frontcourt.

The best-case scenario for Florida, of course, would be all three returning for the 2012-13 season with the potential to build on the foundation laid out this year. With as few as two and as many as eight games remaining until the 2011-12 campaign comes to a close, winning tournament games is not the only thing on the Gators’ mind as much as some may want to believe that’s the case.

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Florida falls six spots in latest top 25 polls

The 17th editions of the 2011-12 regular season USA Today/ESPN and Associated Press Top 25 Polls were released on Monday, and the Kentucky Wildcats (30-1, 16-0 SEC) held on to the No. 1 spot in both rankings, receiving 94 of 96 combined votes as the near-unanimous top team in the country.

The Florida Gators fell in the rankings after dropping two more games; UF has now lost three in a row and five of their last eight games. Florida dropped down six spots to No. 19 and No. 22 in the respective polls on the heels of a tough road loss against Vanderbilt (77-67) on Tuesday evening and an even rougher defeat at home by the hands of No. 1 Kentucky (74-59) on Sunday afternoon. The Gators are one of just two Southeastern Conference teams listed in the rankings this week.

WeekGator BaitRecordAP Top 25USA TodayNCAA RPI
Preseason--No. 7 (1,153)No. 7 (568)-
2W 68-45 vs. William & Mary1-0No. 8 (1,127)No. 7 (560)-
3L 69-67 vs. Miami
W(OT) 61-56 vs. ULM
2-1No. 18 (467)No. 16 (303)-
4L(OT) 65-66 vs. Georgetown
W 56-47 vs. UAB
L 64-75 vs. North Carolina
3-3NR (40)No. 24 (60)-

USA TODAY/ESPN COACHES POLL
This Week 1-5: Kentucky (31), Syracuse, Kansas, North Carolina, Missouri
6-10: Duke, Ohio State, Michigan State, Marquette, Murray State
11-15: Baylor, Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgetown, Indiana
16-20: Wichita State, Florida State, Saint Mary’s, Florida, UNLV
21-25: San Diego State, Creighton, Notre Dame, Temple, Gonzaga

Last Week 1-5: Kentucky (31), Syracuse, Duke, Kansas, Michigan State
6-10: North Carolina, Marquette, Missouri, Murray State, Baylor
11-15: Ohio State, Georgetown, Florida, Wichita State, Wisconsin
16-20: Michigan, UNLV, Louisville, Notre Dame, Indiana
21-25: Saint Mary’s, Florida State, San Diego State, Creighton, Temple

ASSOCIATED PRESS TOP 25 POLL
This Week 1-5: Kentucky (63), Syracuse (2), Kansas, North Carolina, Missouri,
6-10: Duke, Ohio State, Michigan State, Marquette, Michigan
11-15: Murray State, Baylor, Georgetown, Wisconsin, Indiana
16-20: Wichita State, Florida State, San Diego State, Creighton, UNLV
21-25: Temple, Florida, Notre Dame, Gonzaga, Iowa State

Last Week 1-5: Kentucky (63), Syracuse (2), Kansas, Duke, Michigan State
6-10: North Carolina, Missouri, Marquette, Baylor, Ohio State
11-15: Georgetown, Murray State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Wichita State
16-20: Florida, UNLV, Indiana, Louisville, Notre Dame
21-25: San Diego State, Florida State, Temple, Virginia, Creighton

*Numbers in parenthesis represent first-place votes.

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SIX BITS: Walker, softball, Nelson, gym, lax

1 » Florida Gators point guard Erving Walker was honored on Senior Day before Sunday’s game. Because the game aired on CBS and the broadcast began following the ceremony, most fans did not get to see Walker enter the court with his mother to a loud ovation from his fans. The entire clip, including the video highlight package of some of Walker’s best plays in orange and blue, can be viewed below courtesy of GatorVision.tv:

2 » No. 3 Florida softball improved to 19-1 on the season and extended their winning streak to nine games after winning six contests from Thursday-Sunday by a combined score of 53-1. UF defeated Eastern Michigan 2-1 in extra innings on Thursday before beginning the Lipton Invitational, which the team hosted in Gainesville, FL. The Gators again beat EMU on Friday (16-0) and followed that up with a thrashing of Gardner-Webb (9-0) in the evening. Florida beat GWU a second time on Saturday (14-0), adding a win against Tennessee State (8-0) later that afternoon and a victory over Campbell (4-0) on Sunday. Sophomore right-handed pitcher Hannah Rogers (10-0) earned two wins striking out 19 batters and giving up one earned run in 17.0 innings (she also made one relief appearance). Freshmen RHPs Alyssa Bache (3-0) and Lauren Haeger (6-1) each added two victories with neither giving up a single run and the latter mowing down 15 batters in 10.0 innings. The Gators’ offense was impressive all weekend long, but two players in particular stood out for their powerful performances. Senior center fielder Michelle Moultrie went 12/20 with four home runs, 10 RBIs, 11 runs and three stolen bases over the six games, and junior catcher Kelsey Horton matched her with four dingers of her own alog with 14 RBIs, six runs and three walks. UF will play five road games this week including two against Mississippi State and three at Tennessee.

3 » It is looking more and more like Cincinnati Bengals safety Reggie Nelson will be wearing different colors in 2012. With no reports of negotiations for an extension occurring between Nelson and Cincinnati brass, the local media expects that he will hit the market as an unrestricted free agent next week. Should that occur, it is believed that the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans will make a run at him. The Dolphins in particular look like a promising landing spot for Nelson considering former Bengals defensive backs coach Kevin Coyle, who helped resurrect Nelson’s career in Cincinnati, was hired as Miami’s new defensive coordinator after the season.

4 » No. 1 Florida gymnastics (10-1) earned a nail-biting victory on the road Sunday against the No. 6 Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-2). The Gators defeated the Cornhuskers 196.95-196.825, earning two individual event victories while only winning one of the four overall events. junior Ashanée Dickerson and sophomore Alaina Johnson each won the vault with a score of 9.90, while junior Marissa King took home the balance beam victory with a 9.925 mark. Florida’s sizable win in the beam (49.325-48.950) was enough to push them past Nebraska in the overall score. UF will take on No. 7 Utah in their regular season finale on Senior Night on Friday, March 16 at 7 p.m.

5 » No. 4 Gators lacrosse (4-2) dropped their second game to a top-10 ranked opponent this season, falling 12-11 in double overtime to the No. 9 Syracuse Orange (2-2) at Donald R. Dizney Stadium in Gainesville. Behind 6-4 at the half, Florida rallied over the final three minutes of the second period, scoring three-straight goals to knot the contest at 10 as the whistle sounded. SU got on the board first in overtime, but UF matched their visitors again to force a sudden death second overtime period. The Orange did not take long to make their move, scoring at 5:05 to end the game. Junior midfielder Brittany Dashiell led the Gators with three goals (including the tying score in the first overtime), an assist, six draw controls and five ground balls (a season high for the team), while junior attacker Kitty Cullen had an off game with only one goal in 10 shots. Despite scoring fewer goals than their opponent, Florida had more shots than Syracuse (39-26) and committed fewer turnovers (9-20). UF is scheduled to face Georgetown on the road Wednesday before returning home to host Temple on Saturday.

6 » Both involved in close matches, No. 15 Gators women’s tennis and No. 10 Florida men’s tennis wound up with different outcomes when taking on the No. 5/6 Georgia Bulldogs’ women’s and men’s squads over the weekend. Florida’s women improved to 8-1 by taking down Georgia 4-3 on the road. The Gators won two of three matches to earn the doubles point with victories from the No. 13 pairing of junior Allie Will and sophomore Sofie Oyen and the No. 31 duo of junior Lauren Embree and senior Joanna Mather. No. 1 Will fell in singles action to No. 11 Chelsey Gillickson, but No. 18 Mather, No. 23 Embree and No. 39 Oyen were all victorious to earn the overall win.

Florida’s men rallied back from a 3-0 deficit to tie things up with Georgia 3-3 but simply could not complete the comeback victory. The Bulldogs won the doubles point by taking down two of the three ranked duos for the Gators. The No. 8 pairing of junior Billy Federhofer and senior Nassim Slilam won their match, but the No. 18 duo of junior Tripper Carleton and sophomore Spencer Newman and the No. 43 team of sophomore Andrew Butz and junior Bob van Overbeek both fell 8-4. Singles wins by Carleton, Slilam and sophomore Michael Alford tied the match, but No. 51 van Overbeek fell to No. 3 Wil Spencer 6-7(4), 6-0, 7-5 in a final that lasted 2:28.

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Mental focus helping Young step his game up

A dominant force for the Florida Gators early in the season, sophomore center Patric Young’s production began to tail off as Southeastern Conference play began.

Not only was he facing tougher competition, Young was also dealing with tendinitis in his ankle that limited him in practice and some games. The biggest body on Florida’s team, he has been noticeably less aggressive getting himself in position offensively and has only grabbed double-digit rebounds twice against SEC opponents.

Head coach Billy Donovan, as he has mentioned previously, said after Sunday’s 74-59 loss to the Kentucky Wildcats that Young’s recent struggles are all in his head and have little to do with any injury.

“It’s all mental for Patric. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with him physically. I don’t think there has been anything wrong with him physically for a while except for the normal bumps and bruises, tendinitis and things like that,” he said. “I do think there is a growth and a maturity that Patric is going through right now, there really is – the length of the season, the wear and tear physically, the expectations that he places on himself.”

Young scored 21 points on 10-of-15 shooting Sunday with nine rebounds and just one foul. He was also a solid presence on the defensive end, doing his best to hold Kentucky’s Anthony Davis off the block

“He took a step forward, in my opinion,” Donovan said.

Though Young posted a career-high 25 points on an even more efficient 12-of-15 shooting performance against Arizona earlier in the season, his game Sunday may very well have been the best he has played during his sophomore campaign.

“He played phenomenal tonight and hopefully he can continue that for the rest of the season,” said senior point guard Erving Walker, who was honored before the game as part of the Senior Day celebration. “When Pat plays like that I think it can take our team to another level. His mindset – he was ready to go against Anthony Davis, who is supposed to be the No. 1 pick. Pat just wanted to prove that he can play against him.”

Young recognized his improved performance even though he saw some areas in which he can improve as the team heads into the postseason tournaments.

“It was really encouraging,” he said. “I thought I gave it everything I had tonight. I had a few mistakes but overall I thought I played well. I think I could have done a better job communicating with our team and trying to lead the guys out there. We were so close when they had a four-point lead and there was a lot of time left in the game.”

He was not the only one on the court to take note of his impressive game. Kentucky head coach John Calipari had some words for Young following the contest, too.

“Patric Young was a beast,” he said after the game. “[If] Patric Young plays like that they’re fine in postseason, they’re fine. Patric, whatever you had for breakfast this morning, eat it [again], because he dominated us. He was really, really good.”

Donovan noted that “trying to get Patric to understand that he can control his mindset in getting him prepared to play” has been an experience that has been rewarding, frustrating and “scratch-my-head” confusing at times this season. It is an aspect of his game that Donovan has discussed all season long, though he thinks that a corner may very well have been turned on Sunday.

“Sometimes mentally when you convince yourself of something, you basically deal with it as truth,” he said. “‘My knee is really bothering me today so we’re going to focus on that the whole entire day.’ His growth and maturing of going through some of that stuff, I don’t know if Patric ever understood how challenging it was going to necessarily be for him. He just figured, ‘OK Vernon [Macklin] and Alex [Tyus] are gone, I’m going to step right in and this is what I’m going to do. I’m big, I’m strong and everything is going to be fine.’

“He got challenged in a lot of different ways by me, by himself, by the competition. There’s been a level of inconsistency because of that. I’m hoping that basically some of the adversity he has gone through and he has had to deal with this year, that there is a growth and maturity for him going forward.

“I thought he was a really big, bright spot for us [on Sunday].”

Young specifically recognized and noted that his improved mental focus was one of the main reasons for his success against the Wildcats.

“I think it was mostly just my mentality coming into the game, asking God if I could have fun out there [Sunday] because I haven’t been having too much fun out there,” he said. “I had an opportunity. He took my pain away. I didn’t feel my knee, didn’t feel my ankle or anything like that. My team was able to find me and I was able to finish.”

Whether or not he can maintain that strong mentality focus for the two upcoming tournaments is something that remains to be seen and will undoubtedly play a major role in determining how far the Gators can go in the postseason.

NOTES AND QUOTES

» Donovan on one major difference between Florida and Kentucky: “Their talent and ability to make a difficult shot was much, much better than our ability to do that.”

» Donovan on what kind of team can beat UK: “It would have to be a real physical team where somebody would have to constantly – there would have to be pressure at the basket constantly. Duck-ins, post-ups and a physical game that is played three-out, two-in, smash mouth basketball. […] I don’t think a finesse team, so to speak, [could win]. I think it would have to be a real physical game.”

» Donovan on where his team goes from here after losing three-straight games: “I’m just hopeful that, at the right time, our guys can understand what is to be taken from the experiences they’ve gone through up to this point in time and if they really buy into and are committed. That’s the biggest thing, being committed to working hard and knowing this is what needs to be done collectively as a group in every situation – approaching practice, being on time, maturity-wise, handling adversity, handling set-backs, handling when things don’t go your way in practice or in a game. Those kind of things now, there needs to be a maturing process to be able to handle the difficulties, the adversities and the challenges.”

» Sophomore guard Kenny Boynton did not earn the start Sunday due to being late for a team meeting earlier in the week. He entered the contest following the first media timeout.

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Kentucky bests Florida 74-59 on Senior Day

Despite a valiant effort that kept the score close most of the game, the No. 13/16 Florida Gators (22-9, 10-6 SEC) were unable to hold off the top-ranked team in the country, dropping their third-straight game to end the 2011-12 regular season and falling 74-59 to the No. 1/1 Kentucky Wildcats (30-1, 16-0 SEC) on Senior Day at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in Gainesville, FL.

Florida senior point guard Erving Walker was honored before the contest but was one of three Gators backcourt members to struggle mightily during the game, scoring just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting in his final appearance in the O’Dome. Guards junior Kenny Boynton and freshman Bradley Beal were also ineffective shooters, combining to hit just 3-of-18 shots from the field and 2-of-10 from beyond the arc.

Sophomore center Patric Young led the way for the Gators with team-highs of 21 points (on 10-of-15 shooting) and nine rebounds. He was matched by Wildcats forward Anthony Davis, who posted game-highs of 22 points and 12 boards for the visitors.

Kentucky started the game on fire from the floor, hitting five of their first six shots (including eight points from G Terrance Jones) to jump ahead 11-4. However, three-pointers by Walker and junior F Erik Murphy on consecutive possessions were part of a quick 10-2 run that gave Florida their first lead of the game at 14-13.

The Wildcats would not be down long, answering the Gators with a 15-2 scoring stretch that earned UK a 28-16 advantage with 7:41 remaining until the break. Kentucky extended that lead to 16 points with 4:08 left, but Florida cut their deficit to eight, ending the half on a 10-2 run including back-to-back threes by Walker and Boynton.

UF maintained their energy coming out of the break, outscoring UK 12-6 and capping their stretch with a powerful dunk by Young to cut the Wildcats’ lead to two with 16:25 left in the game. However, the Gators found themselves down double digits just minutes later as Kentucky responded yet again by scoring eight-straight points.

Florida quickly found some rhythm again and rebounded with another impressive stretch to get within four, but the Wildcats answered back immediately by using a 9-0 run to jump ahead 13 points with 6:09 left in the game.

UK played strong and maintained their double-digit lead the rest of the way, holding UF to just one field goal over the final 9:03 of the contest.

Kentucky bested Florida scoring from the field (52.5-38.2%), downtown (41.7-27.3%), in the paint (40-28), off turnovers (8-2) and on second-chance opportunities (16-10). The Wildcats also outrebounded the Gators 36-30 and 11-9 on the offensive glass and forced seven turnovers on as many steals.

With the loss, Florida retained their bye but will drop to the No. 4 seed in the upcoming 2012 SEC Tournament, facing the winner of five-seed Alabama and 12-seed South Carolina in second-round action on Friday at 3:30 p.m. The game will air live on SEC Network (check your local listings for availability).

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Florida Gators vs. Kentucky Wildcats Gameday & Honoring Erving Walker on Senior Day

Location: Stephen C. O’Connell Center [Capacity: 12,000]
Time: 12:00 p.m. (ET)

TV: CBS/CBSHD
SiriusXM: 91
Online Video: CBSSports.com
Live Updates: @OnlyGators

(13) FLORIDA GATORS (1) KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Head Coach: Billy Donovan Head Coach: John Calipari
Record: 22-8 (10-5) Record: 29-1 (15-0)
Conference: Southeastern Conference: Southeastern
Roster | Schedule Roster | Schedule

Odds: Florida +4; O/U TBD

HISTORY and STREAKS

» Kentucky leads the all-time series against Florida 91-33, and the Gators are just 13-21 against the Wildcats since Donovan took over the team.
» UF is 9-6 against UK under Donovan in Gainesville and defeated Sunday’s visitors 70-68 in the last meeting in the O’Dome on Feb. 5, 2001.
» Florida is 0-8 against Kentucky all-time when UK is ranked No. 1 in the country.
» Calipari is one of two coaches (Frank McGuire) to lead three different schools to No. 1 rankings; he has accomplished that feat in five total seasons.
» The Wildcats have a 21-game winning streak including a number of blowout victories.
» All five of the Gators’ normal starters are averaging 9.9 points per game or more.
» Florida has made 10+ three-pointers in 19 of 30 games, a season-high mark under Donovan. UF has also made more treys this season (301) than any other in team history.
» Four Gators shoot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc.
» Florida has made a three in 681 consecutive games dating back to Jan. 1992.
» The Gators are undefeated (17-0) this year when posting a positive assist-to-turnover ratio and are just 5-8 when the margin is even or negative.
» Florida is 287-37 since 1988-89 when holding opponents under 70 points and 237-38 since 1998-99 when recording 15 or more assists in a game.
» The Gators have won 20+ games for the 14th consecutive season. That mark is currently the longest active streak in the SEC and fifth-longest nationally.
» Kentucky has more wins (2,081) than any other NCAA team – ever.
» The Wildcats have five players averaging double figures.
» Kentucky is 73-1 under Calipari when holding an opponent to 67 points or fewer.
» Florida is ranked No. 1 in three-pointers (10.0 per game) nationally as of March 1. The Gators are also ranked No. 1 in the SEC in assists (14.9 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3) and No. 2 in scoring offense (77.4 points per game).
» Kentucky is ranked No. 1 in scoring margin (19.4 points per game), No. 1 in field goal percentage defense (.364), No. 1 in blocked shots (9.0 per game) and No. 10 in rebounding margin (7.4 per game) nationally as of March 1. The Wildcats are also ranked No. 1 in the SEC in scoring offense (77.8 points per game), free throw percentage (.724), field goal percentage (.489) and rebounding (39.2 per game).

SENIOR DAY – ERVING WALKER

Point guard Erving Walker will be the lone senior participating in Senior Day ceremonies prior to Florida’s tip-off against Kentucky on Sunday at noon. A four-year player who will graduate with a degree in sports management, Walker has made a major mark and lasting imprint on the Gators basketball program despite being undersized for his position. Below are some of the notable accomplishments and distinctions that Walker carries heading into the final home game of his collegiate career along with some highlights to help fans relive some of his most memorable moments in orange and blue.

All-time marks in Florida history:
» No. 1 in minutes played (4,133)
» No. 1 in assists (519)
» No. 1 in three-point field goals attempts (723) and No. 2 in makes (276)
» No. 4 in scoring (1,707 points)
» No. 6 in games played (137) and No. 8 in games started (106)
» No. 7 in free throws made (419) and attempts (528)
» No. 8 in field goal attempts (1,281)

Career honors and awards:
» Two-time All-SEC Second Team (2009-10, 2010-11)
» SEC All-Freshman Team (2008-09)

Career accomplishments:
» Led Florida in points (539) and steals (41) as a junior; assists (166) and steals (45) as a sophomore; and three-point shooting percentage (.419) as a freshman. Currently leading UF in assists (142) and free throw percentage (.820).
» Started 106 of 137 games he has played for the Gators including 100 of 101 over the last three seasons.
» Scored a career-high 31 points this season in his fifth-to-last regular season game.
» Leads the SEC as a senior with a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio.
» Current active SEC leader in minutes; second in points, threes, assists and free throws made; third in steals.
» One of three active players nationally with at least 1,700 points and 500 assists.

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Walker’s Senior Day, No. 1 Kentucky in town

Having lost back-to-back games, the No. 13/16 Florida Gators will play their regular season finale on Sunday at noon, hosting the No. 1/1 Kentucky Wildcats on Senior Day for point guard Erving Walker. With Florida looking to bounce back from two tough losses and Walker looking to go out on a high note, he and head coach Billy Donovan spoke on Friday about the upcoming contest.

WALKER CELEBRATING SENIOR DAY

As the lone senior on the Gators’ basketball team, Walker will be trying to go out with a bang on Sunday against the Wildcats. There would be no greater send-off for him by his teammates than Florida knocking off the top-ranked team in the country on their home court to close out the regular season.

Walker – even with his mother, father and cousin in the stands – said he is not likely to be emotional on Sunday (“I’m not going to cry or anything”) and that the only thing he is thinking about is the match-up. “I just know it’s going to be a pretty tough game against Kentucky, so I’m just trying to get ready for that,” he said.

While speaking with the media on Friday, Donovan recounted a story about Walker’s recruitment, one that he said he will always remember to this day.

“The one thing that impressed me with him when he came here was when we lost Taurean Green to the draft, we didn’t necessarily have a backup point guard,” he said. “When I told Erving that we needed to go after another point guard, and obviously we signed Jai Lucas, a lot of people told Erving that this would be a bad fit, too much depth, too many guards, you need to reopen your recruitment. When he and I had that conversation, he was great, he just basically said, ‘You know what coach? Wherever I go I’m going to have to compete and I have no problem competing. I just want an opportunity.’”

Walker did exactly that with the Gators – he was given an opportunity and made the most of it. As Donovan eloquently summed it up: “He’s had an incredible career for a guy his size. It’s pretty impressive.”

He has played more minutes (4,133), handed out more assists (519) and taken more three-pointers (723) than any other player in school history. Walker is also No. 4 on the all-time scoring list (with the No. 3 spot in reach), No. 2 in threes made (with No. 1 in reach) and No. 6/8, respectively, in games played (137) and started (106). He has the opportunity to play more games than any other UF player except Walter Hodge (151) if Florida performs well in their two upcoming tournaments.

Walker said Friday that he wants to be remembered in a simple manner: “A tough kid that played his heart out for Florida.” Though he said that he would not change anything about his career with the Gators, one game in particular stood out to him as both the high and low point he experienced while wearing orange and blue.

“Actually making it all the way to the Elite Eight was a really high moment,” he said, “and actually losing that game was one of the lowest points in my career.”

He will graduate with a degree in sports management though his immediate future after school remains a mystery. Walker will obviously want to play in the NBA, but the likelihood of that is not necessarily high considering his size. As he put it on Friday, the unexpected is not something that bothers him now, just as it didn’t when he committed to Florida with two point guards in front of him on the roster.

“I really didn’t know what to expect so I just tried to come in and work my hardest and let the chips fall where they may,” he said. “I think it worked out pretty good for me but coming into college I really had no idea what to expect.”

CAN FLORIDA TAKE DOWN OF THE NATION’S NO. 1?

Outside of Michael Wilbon making a prediction of Pardon the Interruption, not many analysts are expecting the Gators to pull off an upset victory on Sunday. The Wildcats are undefeated in SEC play this season and their hosts have been finding more problems than solutions recently.

“With our team, our margin for error is not great. With that being said, whether or not perception-wise people feel like we got to make shots, not make shots or how that affects us, there are still a lot of things from a discipline standpoint that we have to be better at,” Donovan explained.

“Our guys need to continue to grow and mature. The effort of how hard [they played Tuesday] in relationship to how it was in Athens was night and day. Same kids, same team, totally different [effort] on a somewhat quick turnaround playing Saturday-Tuesday. That’s only part of it. Then there’s the discipline of doing collectively the right things. Sometimes we’ve done that and sometimes we haven’t.”

Donovan pointed to Florida not boxing out well against Kentucky the last time the teams squared off and failing defensively to contain a team with better size, length and speed than their own. He thinks the Gators have improved in some of those areas, especially recently, but whether or not that will be enough for an upset win remains a big unknown.

“There’s things we’re doing better now than maybe we were doing a week ago, but we still have some growth [to go] and need to learn to play with the personnel we have now,” he said.

Be sure to check OGGOA on Sunday before the contest begins for the Gameday Preview!

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Donovan pleased with Florida’s effort in loss

Three days after head coach Billy Donovan was as disheartened as he had ever been when he and the Florida Gators left the court on Saturday, he had a much better disposition despite the fact that his team had just lost by double digits to the Vanderbilt Commodores on Tuesday in Nashville, TN.

“I was as disappointed as I was as a coach walking off the floor in Athens, Georgia after watching our team perform. I felt totally opposite here [Tuesday night],” he said.

“I thought we competed; I thought we played hard against a very good team. I’m disappointed with the loss [but not in the team’s effort].”

Donovan questioned Florida’s passion and intensity one week ago, pointing to a void in leadership as one reason why the team struggled mightily on the road against Georgia. He said that the Gators never gave themselves a chance to win the game and that it was completely up to the team to turn their season around.

“Some of our mishaps, some of our lack of execution in certain situations was a byproduct of not being really on-edge, locked in [during] practice and utilizing that time to get better,” he said following Tuesday’s contest.

Florida has also been dealing with injuries to more than half of their roster, including sophomore forward Will Yegute who is out for the season with a broken foot. Donovan wants the Gators to use two long periods of upcoming practice time to work out the kinks and get ready for the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament.

“I told our team we got basically Wednesday-Saturday practice and then we have basically from Monday-Friday. If they want to really continue to try to get better, I still think we have growth left in our team,” he explained.

“We obviously have got to play a little bit differently, and we did some of that stuff [Tuesday]. We were spacing it and trying to drive the ball to the basket. The next 11-12 days for our team, because we do have some periods where we can practice and focus on ourselves, we got a little bit of time here right now.

“With one game left, we have to take a day or two and spend some time really working on us and then towards the end of the week we have to get ready and prepared to play Kentucky.”

Senior point guard Erving Walker, who was criticized by Donovan on Monday for not leading the team by his actions, played with fire in his belly on Tuesday, scoring 15 points while dishing three assists and grabbing two steals.

“When he is locked in and he is really focused and applying, it charges our team up. It gives them confidence and it gives them a lot of energy,” Donovan said. “When he is not locked in, our team is looking for direction and there is no direction.”

Though Walker is not a vocal player, his intensity helped lead a strong Florida effort for most of Tuesday’s game. Some of his teammates – including freshman guard Bradley Beal, sophomore center Patric Young and sophomore PG Scottie Wilbekin – visibly huddled the team during critical stretches help clear up some communication issues.

The Gators’ newfound effort will be tested early Sunday when Florida hosts No. 1 Kentucky in both teams’ regular season finale. The game will air live on CBS at noon.

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