Walker nears milestone as Gators open SEC schedule tonight


Florida's Erving Walker drives through the defense of Radford University's Jareal Smith, center, during the first half at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center on Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010.

Aaron Daye/Staff photographer
Published: Friday, January 7, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 8, 2011 at 2:15 p.m.

Florida junior point guard Erving Walker recalls the first time the ball was in his hands with the game on the line.

Facts

Today's game

Who: Ole Miss Rebels (12-3, 0-0 SEC) at Florida Gators (11-3, 0-0 SEC)
When: 8 p.m.
Where: O'Connell Center
Gainesville-area TV: CST (Cox Ch. 259)
Gainesville-area radio: 103.7 FM, AM-850

FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G Kenny Boynton 6-2 So. 12.3 ppg, 2.3 apg
G Erving Walker 5-8 Jr. 13.9 ppg, 3.1 apg
F Chandler Parsons 6-9 Sr. 9.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg
F Alex Tyus 6-8 Sr. 9.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg
C Vernon Macklin 6-10 Sr. 10.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg

KEY RESERVES
F Patric Young 6-8 Fr. 2.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg
G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Fr. 2.2 ppg, 2.1 apg
F Will Yeguete 6-7 Fr. 2.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg

MISSISSIPPI PROBABLE STARTERS
G Nick Williams 6-4 So. 8.6 ppg, 4.3 rpg
G Chris Warren 5-10 Sr. 18.5 ppg, 4.3 apg
G Zach Graham 6-6 Sr. 14.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg
F Terrance Henry 6-10 Jr. 8.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg
C Demarco Cox 6-8 Fr. 2.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg

KEY RESERVES
F Reginald Buckner 6-8 So. 6.7 ppg, 7.1 rpg
G Trevor Gaskins 6-2 Jr. 9.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg
G Dundrecous Nelson 5-11 Fr. 6.8 ppg, 1.2 rpg

Walker was seven years old playing for his dad, who coached in a Brooklyn, N.Y., age 9-and-up league. As the game stretched into double overtime, Walker kept getting fouled.

Calmly, Walker made the most of his trips to the free throw line.

“I made them all,” Walker said.

Florida opens Southeastern Conference play tonight at the O'Connell Center against Mississippi as preseason favorites to win the league. Yet how Florida performs from here to March could hinge on the decision-making of the 5-foot-8 Walker, who is closing in on a scoring milestone.

Walker is 14 points shy of 1,000 for his career, a heady accomplishment for a player who arrived on campus as third on the depth chart behind McDonald's All-Americans Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas. He's also the only active player in the SEC with more than 900 points, 200 rebounds and 250 assists.

“The one thing I admire about Erving, and you can say this about any good player that's got a high competitive level, is they don't get wrapped up in who is in the program,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “They realize that wherever they go they are going to have to compete and earn playing time. And I think Erving came in here and really earned his way.”

The self-effacing Walker, who is shooting a team-high 45.1 percent from 3-point range, doesn't look at 1,000 career points as a big deal. He's been hot of late, averaging 17.2 points over his last five games while making 11 of his last 19 3-point attempts.

“It really doesn't mean a whole lot to me,” Walker said. “I've played a lot of minutes on the court since I was a freshman so that kind of comes along with the territory.”

While Walker has been Florida's most consistent scoring threat from the perimeter, he's been inconsistent in his primary job of running the offense. As with most scoring point guards, the decision of when to shoot and when to get others involved can be a tricky balancing act. Walker comes into SEC play with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 43 to 42. Donovan would like to see that ratio work its way closer to 2-to-1.

“He's got to make better decisions,” Donovan said. “I don't think there's any question about that. There's a fine line with any aggressive player. He's shooting the ball well and he's playing with a level of confidence. When he's shooting the ball well, it helps our team so there is a little bit of give and take.”

Donovan said the key is for Walker to cut down on his bad turnovers.

“When he's down in the lane, he's too deep and he leaves his feet, he's got to keep his dribble alive and dribble the ball,” Donovan said. “Those are the kind of decisions he has to get better at, and I think he's learning to do those things.”

Walker's size makes him vulnerable to traps on the press, a weakness first exposed by Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. But Walker said he's confident he's made adjustments, and will get some help. Expect to see Kenny Boynton and Chandler Parsons bring the ball upcourt during stretches. Freshman point guard Scottie Wilbekin also has proven more than capable of logging minutes in SEC play.

Walker is aware of his decision-making issues and said cutting down on turnovers is something he continues to try to resolve in practice.

“It should work itself out,” Walker said. “I'm not going to try to force things or play tentative.”

Parsons said his first impression of Walker was his size. Donovan joked earlier this week that Walker is “5-8 on a good day.”

“Obviously, I thought, this guy is little,” Parsons said. “Then I saw him shoot the ball, and he could really shoot the ball. I always played with Nick (Calathes) so I always played with a 6-5, 6-6 point guard so it was different at first. But he's really held his own and he's hit some huge shots for us.

“He's a point guard but he can score the ball. You guys have seen him shoot the ball. He has incredible range and he can really put the ball in the bucket. Game on the line, he's got ice in his veins at the free throw line. He's really a tough, hard-nosed player.”

Walker said he welcomes his role of hoisting shots with the game on the line. His flurry of 3-pointers last year in the second half against Tennessee helped the Gators upset the Vols at home, the last signature win Florida needed to reach the NCAA Tournament.

“If it's the spot for me to be in for our team, I'm definitely not going to shy away from it,” Walker said. “If that's what the game needs or coach wants me to do, I have no problem doing it.”

Just like Walker did when he was a 7-year-old playing for his dad in Brooklyn.

“It definitely doesn't bother me,” Walker said. “I've been that way since I was young. It's just kind of stayed with me.”

FREE THROWS: Donovan said that sophomore forward Erik Murphy (mid-foot sprain) is doubtful for tonight's game against Ole Miss. ... Senior center Vernon Macklin should be back in the starting lineup after X-rays on his pectoral muscle came back negative. At first, trainers thought Macklin injured his shoulder against Xavier, but it turned out to be a pectoral injury. “He is cleared to play as pain tolerates,” Donovan said.

Contact Kevin Brockway at 352-374-5054 or brockwk@gvillesun.com. Also check out Brockway's blog at Gatorsports.com.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Florida's frontcourt

The Gators come into today's matchup with Ole Miss a little banged up in the frontcourt, with sophomore forward Erik Murphy likely out with a foot sprain. Senior center Vernon Macklin (pectoral muscle) and freshman forward Will Yeguete (hip flexor) also will be playing through nagging injuries. Still, Florida has been tough on the boards, leading the SEC in rebounding margin while out-rebounding 13 of its first 14 opponents. Macklin had his way inside against Ole Miss last season, scoring 22 points. Ole Miss is deeper up front than last season, but it's still an area that Florida can exploit. Look for the Gators to try to establish Macklin and Alex Tyus early and work the ball from the inside-out.

2. Turnovers

Florida was slightly better taking care of the ball last Monday against Rhode Island, though there were still some stretches of unforced turnovers in the second half. The Gators can't afford to make those same mistakes against an Ole Miss team that will pressure the ball from the opening whistle. Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy is a Bob Huggins disciple, like Kansas State coach Frank Martin. Expect Ole Miss to come out with a similar gameplan to Kansas State -- constant pressure on guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton while denying the ball inside. How well Florida adjusts to the pressure will determine the outcome of the game. Florida is turning the ball over 14.3 times per game.

3. Stopping Warren

Like Florida's Erving Walker, Ole Miss senior Chris Warren is a scoring point guard. Warren, an Orlando native, is second in the SEC in scoring at 18.5 ppg and should be fired up in a return to his home state. Look for Kenny Boynton to get the initial defensive assignment on Warren. Boynton has been Florida's best perimeter defender this season. Freshman Casey Prather also could play an important role off the bench guarding Warren during some stretches.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Florida establish an inside presence early and carry it throughout the game?

2. How well will Florida handle Ole Miss's pressure defense?

3. Will junior point guard Erving Walker remain hot from the perimeter and reach 1,000 career points?

Click back to Gatorsports.com after the game to read Kevin Brockway's answers.

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