It is the last non-conference game of the regular season when Billy Donovan and his 12th-ranked Florida Gators (10-2) take the floor Saturday afternoon at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center to face the Richmond Spiders (10-4) of the Atlantic 10 Conference, but the lingering question is will it be the last game that freshman and McDonald’s All-American Chris Walker has to sit on the sidelines? It’s been a long ordeal to get Walker eligible – he’s already missed the first semester – but Donovan and Walker will have to be a little more patient because the NCAA hasn’t delivered its stamp of approval.
Walker was admitted to the University of Florida immediately after the fall semester ended. He has been practicing with the team ever since, waiting for the NCAA Clearinghouse to okay him to play. There were indications that Walker would be declared eligible before the Richmond game, but Donovan says there has been no word from the NCAA nor is he sure when Walker will be cleared.
“He’s not playing tomorrow,” Donovan said Friday afternoon before the Gators began practice. “What kind of timetable there is I really don’t know.”
Donovan says that Florida compliance and administration are constantly working with the NCAA
“When he (Walker) got here in the middle of December, I was never given a timetable, never given a date, never given a game when he would be back,” Donovan said. “So it’s one of those things where our school is working with the NCAA and I’m sure they’ll come to some agreement on what will actually happen.”
One reason for the delay in getting an answer from the NCAA could be the holidays according to Donovan.
“I’m sure because of the holidays, Christmas last week, New Year’s a couple days ago, it’s hard to get everyone on the same page,” Donovan explained. “Now obviously the one who suffers in all of this is Chris. He wants to play. He’s anxious to play.”
Getting Walker eligible will give the Gators the added depth and talent of a 6-10 freak athlete who can run the floor, block shots, dunk like a maniac and even step back and knock down a 3-pointer. Having Walker will allow Donovan to go with a basic three-man rotation in the post – Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Walker – leaving Donovan to use the multi-position skills of Casey Prather and Dorian Finney-Smith in a variety of ways. Due to current depth issues, both Prather and Smith have to take their turns in the post – Prather at the high post and Finney-Smith at both the low post where he backs up Young and Yeguete and at the high post where he can step back and take a 3-pointer.
Although Donovan wants and needs Walker eligible to play in games, the practice time right now is more important. Other than a couple of post season all-star games back in the spring, Walker hasn’t played in an organized team situation since leading Holmes County to the Florida Class 1A championship so practice time is imperative.
“I think Chris has such a long way to go,” Donovan said. “He’s getting better. But even if he was eligible to play, the next question would be, ‘Is he really ready to play?’ The answer to that is no. He’s not ready to play. In fairness to him, he shouldn’t be ready to play.”
So for now, it’s a game of catch up for a freshman who could be an important cog for the Gators who have both Southeastern Conference championship aspirations as well as designs on a deep run into the NCAA Tournament once it begins in March. But, Donovan is quick to temper expectations. Yes, Walker is talented, but he has to catch up to his teammates.
“To take a guy out of high school that finished his last game in February and hasn’t done anything competitively until December, it’s almost been a year, and he’s walking into a situation where everything is foreign and new to him, and he’s missed so much strength and conditioning; he’s missed practice; he’s missed individual instruction,” Donovan said. “He’s just so far behind. Like I said early, whenever his time comes and he’s able to play, it’s not like I have this expectation that all of a sudden this guy is going to come in here and totally change the complexion of our team. I don’t see that happening. I want him to play because he’s worked really hard to get here.”
RICHMOND RUNS A PRINCETON-LIKE OFFENSE
Richmond’s offense is predicated on Princeton-like concepts. That means spreading the floor, using a lot of motion and a lot of cuts toward the basket. Unlike most Princeton offenses, however, the Spiders play at a fast tempo.
You know it’s a different, unique style of play,” Donovan said. “They spread you out, they drive it very, very well. They put you in some binds in some situations because of their personnel. But I think the one thing that people look at and they think, ‘Okay, you’re playing against a Princeton style,’ I think immediately people think they’re going to hold the ball. That’s not what they do. They really play fast; they get out in transition; they’re looking to fast-break; they have two guards that are really quick and explosive and can score. They’ve got frontcourt players that can put it down, and can play in the post and can shoot the ball from behind the 3-point line.”
GOOD PREPARATION WEEK FOR THE GATORS
Once school starts on Monday the Gators will get a Southeastern Conference game week mode, which means two games a week and practices that are more preparation for the next game than improving team and individual skills. That’s why this week has been so important for practice as Donovan has been able to focus on improvement and correcting problems from the first 12 games.
I think we’ve had a good week of practice,” Donovan said. “We’ve been able to do a lot of things at practice. I think that anytime you don’t have school going on and they are basically focused in on the basketball piece of it you have a chance to really grow and develop. Once tomorrow comes, I almost look at this as being a league game for us playing against Richmond then we have South Carolina (Wednesday night), so this is a time for us, the last month or so, has been a time where we’ve had a week in between games where we’ve been able to improve and try to get better. The unfortunate part for us has been we’ve had to deal with the injuries and those kind of things but I would say for the last two weeks as we’ve gotten a little bit more healthy we’ve been able to work on different things in practice and I think it’s gone well for us.”
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
RICHMOND (10-4): Trey Davis (6-5, 200, SO); Alonzo Nelson-Ododa (6-9, 210, SO); Derrick Williams (6-6, 270, SR); Kendall Anthony (5-8, 140, JR); Cedrick Lindsay (6-1, 190, SR)
FLORIDA (10-2): 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)