It was never a question of talent. Everybody knew Chris Walker had plenty of that, maybe as much or more than any player Billy Donovan has ever recruited to the University of Florida. The only question about Walker once he was cleared to play by the NCAA was how would he fit in with a Florida team that was already one of the top three or four teams in the country even before the arrival of the extraordinarily gifted 6-10 freshman?
Without Chris Walker the Gators were 19-2 – 8-0 in the Southeastern Conference – and were ranked third nationally. With him they are 1-0 and at 9-0 they remain the only SEC team that hasn’t lost a game in league play.
Without him the Gators were really, really good. With him, they’re even better.
Walker only played seven minutes in Tuesday night’s 68-58 win over Missouri at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center where everything Walker did was greeted with deafening roars from the sellout crowd but it was very productive. His four points, two rebounds and blocked shot didn’t make the difference in winning and losing but it did send a signal to the rest of the college basketball world that the Gators have one more weapon and the depth they will need to make a long run in March in the NCAA Tournament.
What was clearly evident in those seven minutes is that Walker fits in just fine with the Gators, who will try to stretch their winning streak to 15 games and their Stephen C. O’Connell Center winning streak to 29 when they play host to Alabama (9-13, 3-6 SEC) at noon Saturday. On some teams, the addition of a freakishly talented McDonald’s All-American past the midway point of the season would have a disruptive effect on the collective chemistry of both older and younger players who have to adjust their playing time expectations to accommodate the new arrival, but not with these Gators.
This is a team where the leadership starts at the top with seniors Patric Young, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Casey Prather with whom there hasn’t been even a hint of jealousy. They were, are and always will be team first guys who put winning ahead of personal accomplishments. Their willingness to accept Walker instantly and unconditionally told Florida coach Billy Donovan everything he needs to know about this team moving forward. In the six weeks he had to observe the interaction between teammates old and new before Walker ever suited up and stepped on the floor in a game that counted, Donovan knew the reaction to Walker by his four seniors would trickle down through the ranks.
“One thing I have been proud about our older guys, they have been unbelievable with him (Walker),” Donovan said Tuesday night after the Gators had disposed of Missouri. “When you inject a really talented player into your team this late, guys can start looking around and say, ‘How is this going to affect me? What about me?’ They were never like that. They embraced him.”
When Walker first joined the team in December, he was starting from scratch. Everybody else knew the offense and the defense and had grown accustomed to each other’s on the court nuances through hours of practice. Walker had to get in shape, get on a nutrition and strength regimen, learn a complex defensive system and an offense that has more than 60 different base sets, and adjust to life on a campus that has approximately 20 times more students than there are people in his home town of Bonifay, Florida.
It could have been confusing for Walker and it could have slowed down a team that was really starting to get its legs under it about the time Walker was admitted to the University of Florida back in mid-December, but a Gator team that parks egos at the door welcomed him with open arms and became extensions of the coaching staff.
“I think you heard them say they were trying to coach him and try to help him,” Donovan said. “I think they respect how hard he worked academically to get qualified, the stuff he had to go through with the NCAA, seeing him in practice and not getting the reward of playing. I think our guys showed some real maturity and unselfishness that they really went out of their way to help Chris.”
Fast forward six weeks and the momentum that was just beginning to build in December has grown measurably. Florida went unbeaten in January and that has carried over into February. No one has scored more than 62 points on the Gators in the seven games since they won a January 11 shootout in overtime at Arkansas, 84-82. The last four teams they have faced were held to their lowest scoring totals of the season. In the last seven games, the Gators have allowed only 359 points (51.3 per game).
Now, six of those last seven wins were without Chris Walker so it is perfectly clear that this team already knows how to win, but Walker adds a dynamic to the team that wasn’t there before. He can block shots, play above the rim and buy time for Young and Yeguete on the bench. Young suffers from tendonitis in his knees and Yeguete had microfracture surgery on his right knee back in the summer. The extra minutes of rest will keep both of them fresh during games and that will translate long term into less wear and tear as the season hits that February-March grind that separates contenders from pretenders.
Walker’s athleticism fits in perfectly with a team that is already blessed with long, athletic and versatile players who can handle multiple positions. Donovan now has the option of going very big, smaller and athletic or pressing for longer stretches without sacrificing anything.
What has to please Donovan as much as anything is that Walker doesn’t have to be a star to be valuable and his ego is such that he doesn’t expect to be one.
“All I want to do is play my role and do whatever I can to help the team,” Walker said after Tuesday’s game.
Walker will do whatever he is asked to do and be happy in his role. Donovan only needs Walker to give him five productive minutes a game and an additional five fouls to work with. Anything beyond that is a bonus for a team that was already capable of breaking through the Elite Eight ceiling of the past three years and getting back to the Final Four for the first time since the 2007 national championship season.
Without Chris Walker the Gators were already very, very good. With him, they are simply that much better.
FLORIDA-ALABAMA GAME NOTES: This is the seventh time the Gators have had a 14-game winning streak in the Billy Donovan era … Donovan has won 20 games for the 16th straight season … The last two times the Gators started a season 20-2 they won the NCAA championship … Florida has five players averaging double figures: Casey Prather (15.7); Michael Frazier (12.6); Scottie Wilbekin (12.4); Patric Young (10.7) and Dorian Finney-Smith (10.0) … Finney Smith is Florida’s leading rebounder at 7.8 per game while Young averages 6.6.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
ALABAMA (9-13, 3-6 SEC): Shannon Hale (6-8, 220, FR); Carl Engstrom (7-1, 265, JR); Trevor Releford (6-0, 190, SR); Rodney Cooper (6-6, 215, JR); Retin Obasohan (6-1, 205, RSO)
FLORIDA (20-2, 9-0 SEC): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SO)