Coming off a pair of stinging losses on the road, things won’t get any easier for Billy Donovan and his squad on Sunday afternoon. The Gators will play host to top-ranked Kentucky at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center in the regular-season finale for both squads.
“They’re talented, they have good chemistry,” Donovan said of the Wildcats, currently 29-1 on the season. “They have length, they have size, they have shot-blocking, guys who can shoot. They really have a lot of answers for just about anything that gets thrown at them.”
Kentucky has already clinched the SEC regular season title, and will now look to close out an undefeated conference run in Gainesville. The Wildcats have accomplished that particular feat twice within the last 16 years – first in Donovan’s first season at the helm in Gainesvile, 1995-96 – UK would go on to win the national title under Rick Pitino that year. Kentucky also pulled off the a 16-0 run in league play under Tubby Smith in 2002-03, finishing with a record of 32-4 and advancing to the Elite Eight before falling to a Dwayne Wade-led Marquette club.
“I think it’s always challenging, regardless of any league, to go undefeated,” Donovan said. “Obviously they have a terrific team, they’ve played very, very well.
“It’s happened before, but it’s not like it’s something that’s happened on a regular basis. So I think it’s a real hard feat, and an impressive feat.”
The Gators (22-8, 10-5 SEC) will look to end a three-game losing streak against the Wildcats, having last defeated Kentucky in Gainesville on Feb. 5, 2011. Florida, however, is still trying to find their footing following the loss of forward Will Yeguete, who suffered a broken foot in a 63-47 win over Auburn on Feb. 21. Donovan admitted that the Gators will have to be at the top of their game against Kentucky if Florida is to end the regular season with a huge win.
“I think, with our team, our margin for error is not great,” he said. “With that being said, whether or not, perception-wise, people feel like we have to make shots, not make shots, or how that affects us, there’s still a lot of things from a discipline standpoint, we have to get better at.”
Coming off a 10-point loss to Vanderbilt on Tuesday, Donovan noted he saw some improvement in his team coming off of a blowout loss at Georgia on Feb. 25. However, the Gators still have to take another big step if they want to close out the season with the type of promise it began with back in November.
“Even in the Vanderbilt game, we had a couple of possessions there where it was a two, four point game, and we didn’t come up with a couple of defensive rebounds that we needed to, that we should have been in a position to come down with, that we were capable of coming down with – those plays hurt a little bit,” he said. “Maybe pressing in a situation, and not rotating correctly. Those discipline kind of things. I think there was a couple of times in transition the discipline of getting back and communicating and getting matched up. I think our guys need to continue to grow and mature in that part of it.
“The effort of how hard they played in relationship to what it was in Athens was night and day. Same kids, same team, [but] totally different on a somewhat quick turnaround playing Saturday-Tuesday.”
In any case, Donovan doesn’t seem concerned with the confidence level of his team heading into a showdown with the nearly unanimous No. 1-ranked Wildcats.
“These guys have all played against each other, in high school, in AAU. I think they’re all familiar with each other. They’ve got some young guys, we have some young guys. Brad Beal has played against Anthony Davis, and [Marquis] Teague and [Michael Kidd-]Gilchrist. So, there’s a little more familiarity – these guys have kind of played against each other, know each other’s games [more] then maybe people realize. They feel they can compete with anybody.”
Saturday will also mark senior day for the Gators, as guard Erving Walker will be the only player honored for Florida in pre-game festivities. Known for being somewhat stoic on (and off) the court, don’t expect Walker to change his mindset heading into his final game in Gainesville.
“I’m not going to cry or anything,” Walker said on Friday.
Coming in with a highly-rated class of five in 2008, Walker is the lone holdover remaining from a group that included forward Allen Chaney (transferred to Virginia Tech), center Kenny Kadji (now at Miami), guard Ray Shipman (now playing football at Central Florida) and forward Eloy Vargas (who will be on the opposing bench for Kentucky on Saturday).
“It’s been a couple of years, I’m pretty used to it by now – it’s not that unusual to me,” he said. “But, it’s strange to be in that role.”
For Donovan, it’s not a game of “what if” as it relates to the ill-fated ‘08 class. He’s benefited from players who needed a fresh start in recent years as well, so the trade-off is something he certainly understands better than anyone.
“I don’t think it’s any different than what happened for us with Vernon Macklin,” he said. “It wasn’t going well maybe at Georgetown for Vernon, he needed a fresh start and he did pretty well. I think the say thing can be said for Kenny. Generally, what happens is, these guys realize that once they leave and go somewhere else, their problems, their challenges, difficulties that they’re facing, don’t stay behind. They follow them right to the next place.”
In arriving at Florida, there were clearly some unknowns for Walker, what with Florida having just signed a pair of highly-rated point guards the previous year in Nick Calathes and Jai Lucas. However, Donovan recalls a young player, slight in stature, who was willing to fight for a spot, and turned into one of the most productive players under his direction over 16 seasons at the helm for Florida.
“When we lost Taurean to the [NBA] Draft, obviously we didn’t really have a back-up point guard,” Donovan recalled. “When I told Erving that we needed to go after a point guard, and we signed Jai Lucas, I think a lot of people told Erving that this would be a bad fit. Too much depth, too many guards and you need to re-open your recruitment.
“When he and I had that conversation, he was great. He said, ‘Coach, wherever I go, I have to compete. I have no problem competing – I just want an opportunity.’ From that point on, he’s played pretty well. He’s had an incredible career for a guy his size. With the way he shoots the ball, leaving here as a top-five all-time scorer, but to leave here as the number-one assist guy in the history of the school. I think he’s been a part of a lot of winning too, which has been great.”
Sunday will bring a close to that brilliant career for Walker in Gainesville. All that is left to write is the ending – one whichs Donovan, Walker and the Gators hoped is closed out by a huge upset victory in front of the home crowd.