With win against Memphis, Gators hoops coming together
Published: Wednesday, December 18, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 18, 2013 at 6:23 p.m.
NEW YORK — After a season filled with injuries and suspensions, Florida is finally close to full strength.
How well the pieces fit between now and March could determine if the Gators can repeat as Southeastern Conference regular season champs and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. But coming off a 77-75 win against Memphis on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, Florida showed signs of resiliency.
“This is the first week we’ve had a team where we had nine or ten players that have been healthy, eligible to play and we’ve kind of been able to get a little bit better,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
The No. 16 Gators (8-2) have lost five different players for a total of 23 games this season due to injuries and suspensions. After the game, Donovan joked he’s had to look twice at times during the past few months to find out who is walking through the door in practice that he didn’t know about.
“It’s been a really big drain on our team emotionally, going through one game without having a point guard to play with,” Donovan said. “There has been a lot of things this team has had to deal with and it hasn’t been like we played this really easy schedule.”
Florida survived a four-game stretch against Florida State, Connecticut, Kansas and Memphis with a 3-1 record. The lone loss at UConn (65-64) came on a shot by senior guard Shabazz Napier at the buzzer. But Florida responded from the heartbreaking loss with back-to-back wins over ranked teams (Kansas, Memphis).
In making a game-ending defensive stand against Memphis, Florida improved to 2-1 this season in games decided by fewer than five points. The Gators struggled in close games last season, going 0-4 in games decided by five points or less and 0-6 in games decided by six points or fewer.
“To be able to find a way to win with the stretch we’ve had — Florida State, at UConn, Kansas, this (Memphis game) … I think these games have helped us get better and in a lot of these games we haven’t had a full complement of players,” Donovan said.
Donovan is now worried about a potential letdown in Florida’s next game Saturday against Fresno State at the Orange Bowl Classic in Sunrise. But he’s been able to settle in with a rotation of eight scholarship players, which includes freshman McDonald’s All-American point guard Kasey Hill and sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith coming off the bench.
“Right now, this is the core of our team,” Donovan said. “I do think we can get better.”
And Donovan continued to temper expectations about McDonald’s All-American freshman forward Chris Walker, who is practicing with the team but has yet to be cleared by the NCAA to play in games. Donovan has not given a timetable as to when the 6-foot-10 forward from Bonifay will get cleared.
“People keep talking about him like he’s going to be eligible and he’s going to be this savior to our team,” Donovan said. “He’s a high school player who hasn’t played competitive basketball (since) the end of February last year, and he’s got such a long way to go to even catch up to what we’re doing on offense, what we’re doing on defense.”
FREE THROWS: With eight points and eight rebounds against Memphis, Florida senior center Patric Young increased his career total to 980 points. Young is closing in on becoming the 50th 1,000-point scorer in school history. … With the win against Memphis, Donovan improved to 5-3 in games coached at Madison Square Garden.