Back in October when Florida was going at full crank-mode in basketball practice, Deaundrae Ballard looked like the odd man out.
The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard from Atlanta had to climb over a lot of players to get time on the floor, including senior guard Jalen Hudson.
But as the season has progressed, the forgotten player is leading UF in scoring. Who saw that coming?
“Naw,” Ballard said Monday. “I was the humble guy just trying to do the best I can do.”
Admittedly, there aren’t a lot of teams where a 10.9 points per game average would have you leading the team. But as Florida has struggled to find offense with numerous combinations on the floor, Ballard has been the most consistent of UF’s players.
He is shooting 56.6 percent from the field and 44 percent from 3-point land. He has become an adequate defender and a high-energy performer who can inject instant offense into the lineup.
“He was a little bit behind some of these other perimeter guys,” said Florida coach Mike White, “whose minutes he has stolen since.”
Florida will need Ballard to stay hot from the field and get some other guys going as the Gators (4-3) travel to Madison Square Garden in New York City to take on West Virginia (5-2) in the Jimmy V Classic.
The Gators are at a bit of a crossroads in their non-conference season with no impressive wins and some tough losses. UF takes on 10th-ranked Michigan State at home Saturday.
But first, it’s time to either fish or cut bait for a Gator team that entered the season with high expectations and has yet to impress.
“I hope our guys are excited to fish,” White said. “It’s a really cool opportunity. If we’re not excited, something is wrong with us.”
There has been no problem getting Ballard excited as he runs onto the floor with boundless energy and is greeted by few shots he doesn’t like to take.
The key, he said, from going to the 12th guy on the bench to Florida’s top scorer was buying in.
“Really, what happened was the fact I was just going to give it all to the team and things started going right,” he said. “It was like a mindset every day, telling myself I’m going to do whatever I have to make this team win.”
Ballard has averaged 17.3 minutes a game while Hudson has seen his minutes drop as he continues to struggle offensively.
“(Ballard) has taken advantage of the opportunity,” White said. “He’s developed more of an understanding about what we’re trying to do. He’s always had that competitive energy and he really likes basketball.
“He’s a shot maker. He’s learning to play more within himself. He’s a much improved defender the last couple of months. He’s understanding that’s what is going to get him on the floor.”
Defense hasn’t been Florida’s problem, as the Gators have only allowed 62.4 points per game, which ranks them 33rd in the country. Offense is another story, as UF has averaged 58 points a game in its three losses.
“This team has struggled to score at times,” White said. “But I’m pretty pleased where we are defensively.”
What: Jimmy V Classic
Who: Florida (4-3) vs. West Virginia (5-2)
When: 9 p.m.
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York City
Radio: 103.7-FM, AM-850
KeVaughn Allen; G; 6-2; Sr.; 8.7 ppg; 2.7 apg
Noah Locke; G; 6-3; Fr. 8.3 ppg; 1.4 rpg
Andrew Nembhard; G; 6-5; Fr.; 7.3 ppg; 6.6 apg
Keith Stone; F; 6;8; Jr.; 6.4 ppg; 4.6 rpg
Kevarrius Hayes; C; 6-9; Sr.; 7.6 ppg; 6.0 rpg
WEST VIRGINIA (5-2)
Wesley Harris; F; 6-8; Jr.; 7.2 ppg; 4.5 rpg
Esa Ahmad; F; 6-8; Sr.; 16.6 ppg; 5.4 rpg
Saqaba Konate; F; 6-8; Sr.; 14.8 ppg; 8.2 rpg
James Bolden; G; 6-0; Jr.; 13.4 ppg; 3.4 apg
Chase Harler; G; 6-3; Jr.; 6.9 ppg; 1.4 rpg
NOTES: This is the first time Florida has played West Virginia since Mike White’s first season at Florida when the Gators won 88-71 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. … Four Gator players were on the roster when UF last played at Madison Square Garden — KeVaughn Allen, Gorjok Gak, Kevarrius Hayes and Keith Stone. … Allen scored 48 points in two games there at the NCAA Tournament. … West Virginia started the season 1-2 with losses to Buffalo and Western Kentucky, but has won five straight. … Point guard Andrew Nembhard was named the SEC Freshman of the Week on Monday after he played a near-flawless floor game with 11 assists and no turnovers in 22 minutes against North Florida last week. In the last two games, Nembhard has 18 assists and zero turnovers. … The Dec. 29 home game against Butler has a 4 p.m. tipoff.
— Pat Dooley