Nelson back in O-Dome as a coach
Published: Saturday, January 22, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 at 5:28 p.m.
Former Gator guard Brett Nelson was in the process of looking for a house in the Orlando area last summer when the phone rang.
At a glance
Who: Arkansas Razorbacks (12-5, 2-2 SEC) at Florida Gators (14-4, 3-1 SEC)
When: 8 p.m.
Where: O'Connell Center, Gainesville
Regional TV: FSN
Gainesville radio: 103.7 FM, AM-850
On the other end was Arkansas head coach John Pelphrey, who needed to hire an assistant coach to round out his staff. Nelson was prepared to move to Orlando to join Donnie Jones at UCF after spending the previous three seasons as an assistant under Jones at Marshall.
The timing was far from perfect. Nelson's wife, Jamie, was seven months pregnant with their first child.
"It was obviously somewhat of a surprise, and something I really agonized over because of having to leave Donnie, someone I'm close to," Nelson said. "But it was the opportunity for me to coach at a high level in the SEC, at a place where they love basketball with someone that I trust."
Nelson will be back in the O'Connell Center as an Arkansas assistant coach tonight when the Razorbacks face Florida. It's just Nelson's second trip back to the O'Dome since his Florida playing career ended in 2003. His only other trip was to watch Florida play San Diego State in a first-round 2008 NIT game.
Now a father, (Nelson's first son, James, was born in September), Nelson will walk to the opposing bench in a three-piece suit less than eight years removed his UF playing career.
"It's definitely going to feel a little strange, dressing in a different locker room and going through a different tunnel," Nelson said.
Nelson scored 1,417 career points and dished 406 assists during his four-year Gator career that spanned from 1999-2003.
"I have a lot of good memories," Nelson said. "Obviously, getting to play in the Final Four as a freshman and getting to play in the NCAA Tournament for four straight years, there are not a lot of players who get to say that they did that. But for me, it was more about the relationships you build with your coaches and your teammates."
Florida coach Billy Donovan said he could see the traits of a future coach when Nelson played at UF. Donovan had first developed a relationship with Nelson when the seventh-grader from St. Albans, W. Va., attended Donovan's summer camps at Marshall.
"When guys are gym rats, where they make themselves by being in the gym so much, they learn so much about the game because they are always playing," Donovan said. "Brett is one of those guys who was a really smart player and I felt like he had the disposition and the ability to be a really, really good coach."
Nelson first tried to play professionally after his college career ended. But after one season overseas in Sweden and in a summer league with the New York Knicks, Nelson turned his focus to coaching.
"I knew I wanted to coach and I decided to try to get into the profession when I was young," Nelson said.
After a year at Colorado State, Nelson's relationships with his former UF coaches helped continue to spring his career. After Florida won the first of its back-to-back national titles in 2006, Anthony Grant left the UF staff to take over as head coach at Virginia Commonwealth. Nelson joined Grant's staff as VCU director of basketball operations.
"You see a totally different side of a coach when you work for them compared to when you play for them," Nelson said. "Coach Grant is tremendously organized. He's demanding but has a way of communicating with his players to get the best out of them."
Jones gave Nelson his first break as an assistant coach, hiring Nelson to join his staff at Marshall. There, Nelson was instrumental in the recruitment and development of former Marshall center Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside was taken 33rd overall by the Sacramento Kings in last June's NBA draft.
"D.J. is an unbelievable recruiter," Nelson said. "Not just in evaluation but in the ability to build relationships with players. I learned a great deal about recruiting from Donnie."
Nelson is now trying to carry over what he learned from Grant and Jones in working for his third former Florida assistant, Pelphrey. At Arkansas, Nelson said he's involved in all areas, including recruiting and pregame scouting.
The continued education should help Nelson if he moves on to become a head coach someday.
"That's the goal" Nelson said. "For now, I'm trying to do the best job that I can here to make sure that we can keep winning games and be successful."
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G Kenny Boynton 6-2 So. 12.4 ppg, 2.6 apg
G Erving Walker 5-8 Jr. 14.4 ppg, 3.2 apg
F Chandler Parsons 6-9 Sr. 10.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg
F Alex Tyus 6-8 Sr. 9.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg
C Vernon Macklin 6-10 Sr. 10.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg
F Patric Young 6-8 Fr. 3.3 ppg, 3.4 rpg
G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Fr. 2.1 ppg, 2.3 apg
F Erik Murphy 6-10 So. 5.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg
ARKANSAS PROBABLE STARTERS
G Rotnei Clarke 6-0 Jr. 13.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg
G Julysses Nobles 6-1 So. 8.8 ppg, 3.4 apg
G Jeff Peterson 6-0 Jr. 7.2 ppg, 2.2 apg
F Delvon Johnson 6-9 Sr. 10.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg
F Marshawn Powell 6-7 So. 10.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg
F Glenn Bryant 6-7 So. 5.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg
G Marcus Britt 6-3 Sr. 4.9 ppg, 1.8 rpg
G Mardracus Wade 6-2 Fr. 4.4 ppg, 1.2 rpg
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Florida's shooting
After starting out hot from the perimeter in SEC play, Florida has gone cold in its last two games. Florida's 5-for-26 effort from 3-point range against Auburn nearly doomed the Gators in their narrow 45-40 victory over the Tigers. Overall, Florida is just 10 for its last 39 from 3-point range. Arkansas may take a page from Auburn and play more zone defense in an effort to force Florida to win the game from the perimeter.
2. Interior defense
Florida was able to limit undersized Auburn inside, out-rebounding the Tigers 40-32. But Florida will have a much tougher test containing Arkansas post scorers Marshawn Powell and Delvon Johnson. Powell is coming off a career-high 21-point effort against South Carolina and is a tough matchup inside. Florida seniors Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin will need to play better and avoid foul trouble. Freshman center Patric Young could be an important factor defensively off the bench.
3. Shadowing Clarke
Arkasans junior Rotnei Clarke is one of the better 3-point shooters in the league, Clarke ranks eighth in the SEC in 3-point shooting percentage at 39.7 percent. Florida can't afford to leave Clarke open on the perimeter for easy looks at the basket. Look for sophomore UF guard Kenny Boynton to stay on Clarke for most of the night.
1. Can Florida shoot the basketball better after a woeful night against Auburn?
2. Will the Gators continue to rebound the ball well against a more physical Arkansas frontline?
3. Can Florida keep junior Arkansas guard Rotnei Clarke from having a big night from the 3-point line?
Go to Gatorsports.com after the game to read Kevin Brockway's answers.
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