What a debut for the Fab Five

It was only an exhibition game, one that won’t count in either the standings or the statistics, but it was a glimpse of the future Monday night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center when the Florida Gators made their 2007-08 debut with a 97-51 win over Flagler College. In terms of competition, what the Gators faced isn’t anywhere near what they will see in the very near future, but considering it was a first game and there are five freshmen and three sophomores on the Florida roster, you could call this a pleasant beginning.

Six Gators scored in double figures led by sophomore center Marreese Speights, who hit 10-13 shots and scored 22 points to go with 13 rebounds and two blocked shots. As impressive as those numbers were, however, the night belonged to Florida’s freshman class. The Fab Five, rated the best recruiting class in the country, didn’t disappoint as all five scored in double figures led by Nick Calathes, who nearly recorded a triple-double. The freshmen combined for 69 points, 28 rebounds, 13 assists, one blocked shot and three steals.

Calathes wowed an announced crowd of 10,444 with 18 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. The two-time Florida Mr. Basketball from Lake Howell High School in Casselberry looked comfortable wherever he was playing on the floor. Coach Billy Donovan started Calathes at small forward but he logged an equal number of minutes at the point and the shooting guard slot.

Calathes’ high school teammate and best buddy Chandler Parsons also scored 18 points, showing a smooth shooting stroke from behind the three-point line. Parsons was 3-5 on three-point shots and he also made a couple of crisp passes for assists.

Alex Tyus, who backed up Speights, hit all five of his shots and both free throws for a 12-point, nine rebound debut. Tyus also blocked a shot and had an assist. Jai Lucas, who started at the point, scored 11 points and contributed a pair of assists and two steals while Adam Allen scored 10 points and knocked down a couple of three pointers.

“I was really pleased with them,” said Donovan. “There is an internal-ness about those five guys that there is a level of toughness, of confidence and whatever words you want to use about them. They played with great energy.”

Calathes played like a veteran and was comfortable at all three positions. When he had the ball in his hands, he found open teammates for easy shots. He turned a blocked shot by Tyus into a fast break that ended with a three-pointer from the corner by Walter Hodge. On a second half fast break he delivered a no-look alley-oop that Tyus finished with a spectacular jam.

When he didn’t have the ball, he was in constant motion. His first two points came in the first 1:30 of the game when he lost his man and broke free under the basket where Dan Werner hit him with a bounce pass that he converted into a layup. He took five shots from the outside, burying two of them for three-pointers and knocking down a 15-footer from the foul line when he pump faked, took a couple of dribbles and made the jump shot look easy. In the second half, he finished a couple of fast breaks with layups.

The Gators had a 23-17 with 7:57 remaining in the first half when Calathes sparked the Gators on a 14-0 scoring run. He got things going with a three-pointer from the top of the key, rebounded the blocked shot by Tyus and found Hodge in the corner for another three. After Speights got a stickback after a miss, Calathes got another three on a good looking pass from Werner to expand Florida’s lead to 34-17. After a Flagler turnover, Calathes made a nice pass to Hodge who passed up an open look from the wing to find Parsons wide open at the top of the key. The 6-9 freshman buried the long ball to give the Gators a 37-17 lead.

It seemed like old times for Calathes, who led Lake Howell to the state Class 5A championship.

“When we get out and run it’s a lot of fun,” said Calathes. “I had a lot of fun tonight and I thought I played okay. I made some mistakes but we won and that’s what’s most important. I thought we played unselfish as a team. I liked that a lot.  I was happy for all our guys. We won and all us freshmen played pretty well, too.”

Donovan was impressed by the way Calathes handled himself playing three positions. The 6-6 freshman looked comfortable no matter where he played on the court.

“He is obviously very multi-dimensional, a guy that I can play at several different positions,” said Donovan who said that Calathes has a basketball IQ like that of former Gator Al Horford. “He’s got a really good mental understanding of what we’re doing that allows me to play him at the point, the two and the three and he played all three of those positions tonight.”

Calathes’ reputation as a scorer and passer before he ever got to Florida. The 13 rebounds in his Gator debut are what impressed Donovan as much as anything.

“Beside the shots and the passes, because he can obviously make some very spectacular plays, he’s got great vision coming down the floor with his size and he can really handle the ball,” said Donovan. “I was pleased that he went out there and tried to rebound tonight. That appeared to be his focus and he grabbed 13 rebounds as a backcourt player and a freshman. I don’t care if it’s against a team that is not as talented as we are, it’s the fact that he’s trying to do the things we’re asking him to do and he’s very, very unselfish.”

The Gators shot 51.4 percent for the game, hitting 36-70 from the field and 8-24 (33 percent) from the three-point line. Florida outrebounded Flagler, 59-33, and the Gators had 22 assists to only 12 turnovers.

Hodge, the only upperclassman on the team, scored six points. Werner didn’t score but he had four rebounds and seven assists. Mitchell had one rebound and one assist but didn’t score.

Donovan knows the Gators made plenty of mistakes that will make the coaching easy at practice the next couple of days, but there were positives to build on.

“Certainly our first priority was to play with the necessary energy and passion that I feel is necessary for us to compete,” said Donovan. “The next thing we really talked about was making an effort to get to the backboard to try to rebound the basketball, and the third thing was to pass it, move it, play unselfish and make the game easy for each other to shoot a high percentage. I think on those three things, I think our guys did a very, very good job.

“I thought our guys played with good energy and passion throughout the course of the game. It was a good game to at least get their feet wet and get at least a game under their belts after practicing for two and a half weeks and play against someone other than themselves.”

Donovan used 12 different lineups in the first half and that gave him a good look at a lot of combinations but there are still things he wants to see in the future.

“The two things that I didn’t do that I would have liked to have done is I would have liked to have played Alex and Marreese together some and I would have also liked to have gone small without Alex and Marreese off the floor,” said Donovan.

Expect that the Gators will see those lineups Monday when they play Lynn University in their second exhibition game at the O-Dome.

Thursday’s win over Flagler was mostly a teaching tool but for Florida’s five freshmen, it was a good beginning.

“It’s something we can build on,” said Parsons. “We’re really young but I think we’ve got a lot of talented players. I think we can only get better.”

Previous articleButler gets blowout win in debut
Next articleVolleyball grinds toward an SEC title
Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.