Freshman Walsh taking UF by storm
Published: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 25, 2003 at 12:15 a.m.
FORT WASHINGTON, Pa.- It was just four minutes into the season when there was the collision. It was a battle of Northeastern high school basketball powers. Germantown Academy against St. Vincent-St. Mary's. The best team from Pennsylvania against the best team in Ohio.
Four minutes into the season the two best players collided.
LeBron James got up. Matt Walsh didn't.
"Matt stole the ball from LeBron, went up and then came down on his leg," Germantown coach Jim Fenerty said. "I was thinking, 'Oh my God, we're four minutes into the season and I've lost my best player.'
Walsh got up. He scored 26 points. Unfortunately, James scored 38 and Germantown lost the game.
"There weren't too many times when Matt was outplayed," said Germantown teammate Ted Skuchas, now a freshman at Vanderbilt. "When he was, it was against the next Michael Jordan."
If ever there was a time to shrug off a loss, that was the one. It was the first game of the year. He had narrowly escaped serious injury. It was against the nation's best player.
Walsh couldn't do it.
"I found him in my office after the game," Fenerty said. "He had his knee wrapped in ice and he was watching game tape."
Every coach's dream.
"What makes him so good is his high level of toughness," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "He's a great competitor and he knows how to win."
With Walsh, it's not about his talent. It never has been. Make no mistake, Walsh has talent. His passes wind up on SportsCenter, his shots go effortlessly through the net. Walsh passes like a point guard, scores like a shooting guard and rebounds like a forward.
But that's not what people see.
"Matt Walsh is a winner," Fenerty said. "He's always been about winning."
Walsh is competitive to the point that it becomes infectious.
"I've just always been like that," Walsh said. "I've always hated to lose. I don't know where I get it."
Those who know him have an idea where it comes from.
"The guy has a lot of heart," Skuchas said. "With a lot of heart, you can do a lot of things."
Walsh has been at the University of Florida for six months. He's been a star for the last two.
Sometime during the evening of Nov. 19, the rest of the college basketball world found out what Donovan already knew. Fenerty knew it. His teammates knew it. After the Louisiana Tech game, Florida's season opener, everybody else knew it.
Walsh was a star.
No freshman had started regularly for the Gators since Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem did in 1998-99.
In his debut, Walsh scored 26 points. Beginner's luck? Two nights later he had 20 against Eastern Illinois.
Against better competition? Walsh had 17 against Stanford and 22 against Kansas.
It wasn't until the second week of December before Walsh finally struggled the way freshmen are supposed to. Against defending national champion Maryland, Walsh was 1 for 9 from the field. Walsh's shot was off, but he was able to regroup just in time to preserve the win. With 23 seconds left in the game, Maryland changed its strategy.
Foul the freshman.
The Terrapins sent Walsh to the line six times. He hit five. The Gators won 69-64.
"Those were big time shots," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "It takes a big-time player to make those shots."
Miami didn't learn from Maryland's mistake. The Hurricanes sent Walsh to the line 14 times. He converted every time and finished with 33 points in a double-overtime win.
It's not just his scoring. Against South Carolina last week, Walsh hit Matt Bonner with a perfect backdoor pass that gave the Gators the lead for good in a tight game.
Then there was the pass against Vanderbilt. In the final seconds Wednesday night, Walsh made a wraparound, behind-the-back pass to David Lee that will be talked about for years.
"I've never seen a pass like that before," Lee said. "His fakes did exactly what they were intended to do. People asked me if coach was mad about that pass," Lee said. "But if it works, or it has that kind of result, coach doesn't say anything."
Groomed for greatness
Fenerty fondly remembers the first time he met Walsh.
The Germantown coach was watching a youth game, and was impressed with the gritty play of the young point guard. Walsh recognized Fenerty and walked over to him.
"He said, 'Coach, I'm Matt Walsh and I want to come play for you," Fenerty said.
Walsh was 12 at the time. Fenerty told Walsh about Germantown's rigorous academic standards.
Walsh looked at the coach and said, "I have straight As."
Walsh had all the answers.
The draw to Germantown was an obvious one. The private school just outside of Philadelphia is a basketball powerhouse. Toronto Raptors guard Alvin Williams is an alum and the list of Germantown players sent to Division I schools is a long one. Walsh's senior class included Skuchas and Lee Melchionni, who is at Duke. One of Walsh's teammates was Ryan Ayers, the son of Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Randy Ayers.
"We all really looked up to Matt," Ayers said. "He was the guy who the coaches pointed to and wanted us all to emulate."
And why not? Walsh was a three-time all-city selection and his senior year was named Philadelphia area player of the year.
"He was an all-city selection as a sophomore and he wasn't even starting," Fenerty said. "He was talented enough to be, but we thought he'd be more effective off the bench and he had two seniors ahead of him. There was never a single complaint."
One of the blessings for Walsh in high school was his height, or lack of it. He stood just 5-foot-10 as a freshman, and naturally Germantown had to play him in the backcourt.
"We trained him as a point guard," Fenerty said. "As he grew, he turned into a 6-6 player who could pass and score from anywhere on the floor."
It was little surprise that colleges from across the country were clamoring to get Walsh. All of the schools in the Northeast wanted him. Stanford offered, so did Kansas. Arizona was interested.
So was Florida.
"I thought he was going to Virginia or Villanova," Fenerty said. "But he went down to Florida to take an unofficial visit. He was impressed. He liked Billy Donovan a lot."
With Walsh rumored to be heading south, local colleges were scrambling to try to get Walsh before he committed to Florida.
At 10 a.m. on March 27, 2001, Jay Wright was introduced as the new coach at Villanova. His first mission was to keep Walsh from going to Gainesville.
"Jay was here by 11:30," Fenerty said. "He was like, 'Is it too late?' "
It was. The following month, Walsh verbally committed to Florida.
"It felt right," Walsh said. "I really liked coach Donovan and the rest of the coaching staff. It was a good fit."
But it's never easy going to school far from home, and Walsh said there was an obvious adjustment.
"I really miss Philly, but I love it at Florida," Walsh said. "I was homesick for awhile, but it got better once the season started."
Walsh's family hasn't been too far away. His father has been at every game. Walsh's mother was at the Preseason NIT games in New York and came to Charleston for the West Virginia game, which was the day after Walsh's 20th birthday.
"It's definitely made everything easier," Walsh said. "I had my own cheering section at the Preseason NIT. It's always great to have family around."
Looking the part
Walsh has been a lot of places since he arrived at Florida. He's been to Madison Square Garden, he's gone into the house of the national champions in Maryland.
There is one place Walsh has not been.
"When he got here he had a shaved head and seemed like a real disciplined kid," Lee said. "Now, he's letting the hair grow out long. He's wild and crazy now."
Now, as much as the no-look passes, the hair is Walsh's trademark. Even as it's pinned back by a monogrammed headband, Walsh's look has gotten him his share of grief on the road.
"They were yelling at me about it at Maryland," Walsh said. "It is getting a little out of control. I may cut it a little bit, but not because of them."
Walsh's look, and his play has given him a rock star status around Gainesville. With Rex Grossman departing for the NFL, Walsh has replaced him around town as UF's most eligible bachelor. Walsh is as popular with the girls as an issue of Cosmo.
"Everywhere that kid goes, the ladies love him," Ayers said. "Are the girls at Florida as hot as everyone says? They are? Yeah, I'm sure he's loving it down there."
How could he not be? Walsh is on top of the world.
Walsh was supposed to have to wait his turn to start like most other freshmen. Then James White transferred and Christian Drejer injured his ankle.
White is gone. Drejer is playing limited minutes. Walsh is a star. It's hard to imagine White or a healthy Drejer playing any better than Walsh has this season.
It is surprising only because Walsh doesn't look the part.
"With Matt Walsh you look at his deficiencies," Donovan said. "You look at him and he's a skinny kid, and you think, 'This guy can't play.' "
Walsh can play. He can score from anywhere on the court. He passes as well as anyone on the team, but most importantly, he helps Florida win.
"That's all I care about," Walsh said. "I just want to win."
Walsh is convincing.
"That's all genuine. He's not just saying that stuff," Fenerty said. "I'm honest with coaches when they come to recruit my guys. I'll tell them what they do well and I'll tell them about their baggage.
"There is no baggage with Matt Walsh."
Dylan B. Tomlinson covers UF men's basketball for The Sun. You can reach him by calling 374-5054 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
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