UF MEN'S BASKETBALL
Chris Walker to make debut for Gators against Missouri
Published: Tuesday, February 4, 2014 at 7:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, February 3, 2014 at 10:07 p.m.
The buildup has been immense, based on potential and the relentless curiosity of the unknown.
Who: No. 3 Florida Gators (19-2, 8-0 SEC) vs. Missouri Tigers (16-5, 4-4 SEC)
When: 9 p.m.
Where: O'Connell Center, Gainesville
Gainesville-area radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM
But Florida coach Billy Donovan is cautioning everyone not to expect too much, too quick from freshman forward Chris Walker.
“This is not going to be a guy that tomorrow you're going to say, 'Billy, you really, really downplayed this thing. This guy came out and played like Wilt Chamberlain',” Donovan said. “It's not going to happen. He's a good player that's got a lot in front of him, a lot of growing and maturing that's got to go on.”
Walker is slated to make his college debut tonight when No. 3 Florida hosts Missouri at the O'Connell Center. The 6-foot-10 McDonald's All-American from Bonifay is expected to add depth to UF's all-senior starting frontline of Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather.
“He understands that coming in he has to do whatever he can to help, whether that's three minutes, two minutes, 10 minutes or 20 minutes,” Donovan said. “It's all going to be predicated on how he's doing and what he's doing to help our team with foul trouble, fatigue and those things. Chris is no different than any member of our team right now.”
Walker began practicing with the Gators on Dec. 14 after becoming academically eligible, but wasn't cleared for competition by the NCAA until last week. The NCAA slapped Walker with a 12-game suspension for receiving impermissible benefits from agents and travel league coaches which included free cell phones, apparel and travel.
In his last competitive game last March, Walker finished with 30 points, 15 rebounds and 7 blocks in the Class 1A Florida state title game. But Division I basketball is a big leap from Class 1A high-school basketball. Still, Walker's physical gifts, which made him the slam dunk contest champion at the McDonald's All-American game, have been apparent in practice.
“He plays with good energy,” Donovan said. “He plays with a good motor. He's athletic and can run. He's a good rebounder.”
Added Florida sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith: “He can jump out of the gym.”
But Donovan said how much Walker plays will be predicated on how quickly he picks up UF's intricate offensive and defensive sets.
“He's caught up somewhat — not fully caught up but he's caught up somewhat — and I'm happy for him that he can now put a uniform on and go out there and play and all this stuff is behind him,” Donovan said.
Walker was not made available for interviews on Monday. Shortly after he was cleared by the NCAA last week, Walker tweeted: “I thank God for allowing me to stay strong through the process — and I'm blessed to be able to make my first debut as a Florida Gator on Tuesday.”
Teammates describe Walker as a humble kid who has been willing to learn in practice. Walker received a loud ovation in the locker room when teammates found out he was cleared by the NCAA last week.
“You just feel for a guy that's a good guy as well, a good person, that finally gets something he's been dreaming to do, finally play his first college game,” Young said. “We're all excited for him just to enjoy that moment with him.”
The Gators have more than held their own without Walker. Florida is riding a 13-game winning streak and takes a school-record 27-game home win streak into its matchup with a talented Missouri team that's posted wins over UCLA, West Virginia and North Carolina State. But Walker could play an important immediate role, considering forwards Casey Prather (sprained left ankle) and DeVon Walker (hip pointer) remain banged up heading into tonight's game. Donovan said DeVon Walker is further along than Prather, but expects both to play.
“I'm not trying to downplay Chris Walker,” Donovan said. “I'm excited for him, but this is not about him now. This is about our team playing Missouri tomorrow, and that's where our focus needs to be.”
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G Michael Frazier II 6-4 So. 12.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg
G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Sr. 11.9 ppg, 3.6 apg
F Casey Prather 6-6 Sr 16.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg
F Will Yeguete 6-7 Sr. 5.2 ppg, 5.4 rpg
C Patric Young 6-9 Sr. 10.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg
MISSOURI PROBABLE STARTERS
G Earnest Ross 6-5 Sr. 14.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg
G Jordan Clarkson 6-5 Jr. 18.9 ppg, 3.4 apg
G Jabari Brown 6-5 Jr. 20.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg
F Johnathan Williams 6-9 Fr. 6.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg
C Ryan Rosburg 6-10 So. 6.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg
Notes: Florida is 1-1 all-time against Missouri, including an 83-52 home win against the Tigers. … The Gators have won a school-record 27 straight games at home this season, the third-longest home winning streak in the nation. … UF's current 13-game winning streak is its longest in-season since winning 17 in a row to start the 2005-06 season. … Florida is shooting for its 17th straight 20-win season, with all 17 coming under head coach Billy Donovan. Only Duke and Syracuse have longer streaks of 20-win seasons under one coach. … Florida ranks first in the SEC and sixth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 57.4 points per game. … Florida senior forward Casey Prather leads the SEC in field goal percentage at 62.6 percent. … Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin ranks fourth in the SEC in assists at 3.6 per game. … Florida senior center Patric Young is averaging 10.3 points and 7.8 rebounds in eight SEC games. … Missouri returns one starter from a team that finished 23-11 and lost in the round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament last year. … The Tigers rank first in the SEC in free-throw percentage (72.0), while Florida is 12th in the SEC in FT shooting at 65.6 percent. … Veteran college basketball analyst Dick Vitale will call the game for ESPN.
Three things to watch
1. Missouri's backcourt
Missouri's three starting guards all rank in the top 14 in the SEC in scoring, which includes SEC leading scorer Jabari Brown (20.4 ppg), point guard Jordan Clarkson (sixth at 18.9 ppg) and Auburn transfer Earnest Ross (14th at 14.2 ppg). Brown also ranks first in the SEC in 3-point field goal percentage at .477. Florida coach Billy Donovan is concerned about the size of Missouri's guards posing a problem for UF's defense. All three starting guards are between 6-foot-4 and 6-foot-5. “They have the ability to shoot over top of people even when you're on them,” Donovan said. “I think that's what makes them such a tough cover. On the perimeter, they've got very big, strong, physical guards. I would say from an offensive perspective, there is not a trio in the country more talented and gifted than them.”
2. Slumping Scottie
You always know what you are going to get from senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin on defense, a consistent high-level performance each night. But Wilbekin has hit a rut offensively the past two games, averaging just 8 points on 29.4 percent shooting from the floor (5-17) and 30 percent shooting from 3-point range (3-10). The Gators could need more scoring production from Wilbekin if the game gets going up and down the floor.
3. Controlling the backboard
Despite being limited offensively up front following the loss of Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers, Missouri has held its own on the boards with a rebounding margin of plus-6.9. Missouri leads the SEC in defensive rebounds (27.3 per game), which means second-chance points could be hard to come by for the Gators. Florida is coming off a dominating plus-30 rebound margin effort against Texas A&M (57-27), its largest rebounding margin since out-rebounding Jackson State 62-19 in the opening round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.