Maybe the most important thing that happened Friday night when 10th-ranked Florida got its exhibition game out of the way was that the Gators finished with the same number of healthy and semi-healthy bodies as they had when their 110-88 rout of Division II Florida Southern began. Of the nine players who dressed and played, only five Gators were certifiably healthy and one of those was walk-on Jacob Kurtz, who resisted the temptation to wave to his parents when he ran out on the floor at the beginning of a game instead of garbage time.
“They [parents] were in the upper deck and I didn’t want to be too obvious,” Kurtz said after going 5-6 from the field, scoring 11 points and grabbing nine rebounds in a start that was as much earned as it was necessity. Suspensions to Scottie Wilbekin, Damontre Harris and Dorian Finney-Smith along with a bout of mononucleosis to Michael Frazier felled the Florida roster to nine for this game but a lack of bodies has been a problem since practice began three weeks ago.
Kurtz would have been in the practice rotation anyway, but with so few there every day in the first couple of weeks, he played longer stretches and was under greater scrutiny from the coaches. He didn’t miss any practice time and held his own every day.
That convinced Florida coach Billy Donovan to start Kurtz against the Moccasins, a power program in the Sunshine State Conference.
“What you saw today is what we see every day in practice,” Donovan said. “He hangs around, he grabs a couple of rebounds, comes up with loose basketballs, makes a couple of good passes, he kind of hangs around the basket and will deflect a ball. He’s really, really smart. He’s very bright. He doesn’t do anything that he’s not capable of doing. He knows how to play. Jake has been out there every single day, He hasn’t missed any practices and I felt like he deserved and earned the opportunity to start. He played very well tonight.”
In the past two years, Kurtz has earned an almost cult following among Florida’s student section, which chants his name for Donovan to put him in during garbage time. There was no need to chant Friday night, which Kurtz admitted was a change of pace from the norm.
“It was definitely different,” Kurtz said. “I’ve never been in during the first five minutes of a game [here at Florida] so it was really cool to get out and play.”
Kurtz wasn’t Florida’s only feel-good story. Sophomore DeVon Walker, who, like Kurtz, hasn’t missed a practice because of illness or injury, also got a start and he finished with 11 points and eight rebounds.
Billy Donovan III, who hasn’t missed a practice despite a torn rotator cuff, played 15 minutes, knocked down a three-pointer and finished with five points and three rebounds.
Eli Carter, playing at perhaps 65-70% of his capacity as he works his way back to basketball shape from a broken leg that required surgery, also scored 11, hitting 3-9 on three-pointers although two of the misses were gravity-defying because it seemed the ball was almost all the way through the net before they popped out.
Will Yeguete, who assessed his conditioning at 80% as he comes back from microfracture surgery on his knee, scored 12 points and grabbed nine rebounds in 18 minutes. Yeguete said he decided to play after talking with Donovan after Thursday’s practice. Although it was obvious that Yeguete doesn’t have the rise off the floor back in his game and that he’s still unsure of the knee, Donovan felt it was important for him to play. During the game, Yeguete said Donovan kept monitoring him to see how he felt.
“He kept asking me how I felt and I said ‘I feel good’ so he kept putting me out there,” Yeguete said. “He said it was up to me so I tried it out to see how it felt.”
Then there was Florida’s big three: Casey Prather, Patric Young and Kasey Hill. Prather finished the game with 23 points on 8-10 shooting from the field and 7-7 from the foul line, plus he grabbed six rebounds, handed out a game-high seven assists and came up with four steals. Young scored 19 points with 6-8 from the field and 7-10 from the foul line to go with eight rebounds, a blocked shot and a steal. Hill, the freshman point guard, scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half. He also had three rebounds and three assists.
Donovan was particularly pleased with what he saw out of Young.
“I thought his conditioning was very good,” Donovan said. “I liked the way he played. I was very happy with Patric. We need that consistency out of him every game.”
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It was difficult for Donovan to make a full assessment of the Gators since they’ve had such limited five-on-five time in practice, which showed most on the defensive end.
“There are some things that have limited our development because of our numbers, because of guys injuries, because of sometimes only having six guys [to practice with],” Donovan said. “We are behind. We haven’t had enough time or the numbers to work on things at the level we would like to.”
The defensive problems showed up most on the three-point line. Florida Southern hit 13-30 from long distance, seven in the first half and six in the second. When the Moccasins began the second half, they hit their first three three-pointers and that disappointed Donovan.
“We’re a team right now that gave up 54 points a game last year,” Donovan said. “Eighty-eight points, that’s never happened to this group. It’s not so much our defense on the ball, it’s our defense off the ball. We put ourselves in very difficult situations. They made 13 threes, seven in the first half, six in the second. I think they started the second half – after talking about the three-point line – hitting three in a row.”