Just three years ago, Jacob Kurtz was the guy who showed up every day to watch the Florida Gators practice. Just three weeks ago, DeVon Walker was the guy who thought he might be taking a redshirt this season. Instead of sitting on the bench waiting for Billy Donovan to call their name Friday night, both Kurtz and Walker are likely starters for the very short-handed Gators who take on Florida Southern in an exhibition game at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center (7 p.m.).
They are starters by necessity. Suspensions, sickness, injuries and slow recoveries from surgery have decimated the Gators to the point that only eight will even dress out and maybe only seven will play. Florida’s numbers were reduced by two Thursday when Donovan announced that transfers Damontre Harris and Dorian Finney-Smith are suspended indefinitely for an undisclosed violation of team rules, joining senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin on the suspended list. Wilbekin is still working off a suspension that began back in the late spring and is likely to miss all six of Florida’s games played in November. Harris and Finney-Smith are likely to miss only the exhibition game and next Friday’s regular season-opener against North Florida.
Not having Finney-Smith and Harris available seriously shortens Florida’s bench. Shooting guard Michael Frazier has mononucleosis and will miss at least Friday and next week’s game with North Florida. Senior forward Will Yeguete is likely to dress out, but he might not play. He is recovering from microfracture surgery on his knee and Donovan is pretty much letting Yeguete come back at his own pace.
Additionally, sophomore wing guard/backup point Dillon Graham has only two practices under his belt after missing a week due to a sprained ankle. Rutgers transfer Eli Walker, will play in stretches Friday night, but Donovan says he’s still running with a limp as he continues recovering from a broken ankle suffered last February.
The only 100% healthy scholarship players available Friday night will be seniors Patric Young and Casey Prather, sophomore DeVon Walker and freshman Kasey Hill. Kurtz and Billy Donovan III are both walk-ons who will be ready to play although Donovan is being treated for a torn rotator cuff and is playing through the pain.
The combination of suspensions, injuries and sickness have curtailed the preseason development of a Florida team that when healthy is expected to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament in March. The Gators might be a tremendous team in March, but that’s not exactly what Donovan sees at the moment.
“We’re not a very good team right now,” Donovan said Thursday.
Friday’s starting lineup is expected to be Young (6-9), Prather (6-6), Kurtz (6-6), Walker (6-6) and Hill (6-1).
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Nobody seems more amazed that he could actually be starting a game for the Gators than Kurtz, who three years ago got permission from then UF assistant coach Larry Shyatt to sit and watch practice every day. Kurtz was there every day without fail and midyear, when a managerial position opened, he was all too willing to do laundry, sweep floors, keep charts or run down rebounds for players taking extra shots.
“There is nothing really bad about the job [of manager],” Kurtz said. “You’re around the basketball program so it can’t be that bad.”
That good attitude was parlayed into a tryout before the 2011-12 season that earned him a spot on the team as a walk-on. Now after two years of practicing with the Gators every day and seeing spot action in blowout games, Kurtz will start a game. Even though the game doesn’t count in the standings or official stats, that’s a pretty big deal for a walk-on.
Kurtz doesn’t seem the least bit fazed or nervous, and Donovan doesn’t seem the slightest bit hesitant to put the junior mechanical engineering major on the floor.
“He knows exactly what’s going on, everything that we’re doing,” Donovan said. “He’s a really good passer. He’s extremely reliable. He has a very, very high basketball IQ, if not the highest on the team, one of the highest on our team. I really trust him. I know that if I put him out there he’s not going to take shots he can’t make, he’s not going to do things that he knows he’s not capable of doing and he’s going to grab some offensive rebounds. He’s going to be in the right spots defensively. He’s going to take a charge. He can do a lot of different things that can make our team better.”
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Three weeks ago, Walker was okay with the thought that he might take a redshirt this season. He’s added 15 pounds of muscle since arriving at Florida as a freshman, but when the Gators began practice he was comfortable about spending a year pumping iron. It didn’t take long for him to show Donovan that he’s ready to contribute right now.
“After practice one night, he [Donovan] came up to me and told me that ultimately it was my decision but he felt comfortable with me being in the rotation and able to play,” Walker said.
With so many players missing practice daily because of injuries or illness, Walker got a chance to catch Donovan’s eye with his daily effort. Donovan took notice that the added strength has helped Walker’s entire game take a nice step forward. It was enough that Donovan says Walker would have earned a spot in the Florida rotation even if the training room at the practice facility hadn’t taken a strong resemblance to a M*A*S*H unit.
“He’s physically stronger and he’s done some good things,” Donovan said. “I would say this that with the way that DeVon Walker has done, even with a full allotment of players, he’s going to earn himself into some type of role this year.”
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Yeguete is just now getting back to practice speed. A proven defender and rebounder, he is a versatile element in all of Donovan’s schemes, particularly on the press where he makes inbounding the ball an adventure for opponents. His value to the Gators is such that Donovan is depending on Yeguete to work his way into basketball shape at his own pace.
Donovan has left the decision to Yeguete whether or not he plays Friday night.
“If he does play tomorrow it’s going to be on his terms,” Donovan said. “I’m not forcing him or telling him he can’t, but we’re going to go into this situation where he’s going to have to evaluate where he’s at. He practiced pretty well on Tuesday but yesterday (Wednesday) he was out the whole entire day. He didn’t do anything yesterday but he’s back in today. I’m going to talk to him to find out where he is mentally. I would say that earlier in this week he was probably of the mindset that he didn’t want to play.”
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Carter, who averaged 14.9 points per game last season for Rutgers, broke his leg during a game last February. He elected to transfer out of that situation when allegations of abuse by former coach Mike Rice were made public, but Donovan believes that the turmoil at the school contributed to a slower than normal recovery.
“I think with the situation he was in at Rutgers and all that transpired there, there probably was not a great follow up in terms of staying on top of the rehab part of it and also however he was dealing with the doctors,” Donovan said. “All I know is that when he came here he was really significantly behind in his rehab. We thought he would be further along. I think Eli thought he would be further along. This is going to be a process for him. Whether or not he can get to full strength in his ankle we will have to wait and see.”