GAINESVILLE -- Florida went 18-3 to begin the 2007-08 basketball season but didn't make the NCAA Tournament. That's tough to do, especially for a two-time defending national champ. Watching from afar, UF freshman guard Ray Shipman knew exactly what the Gators lacked -- toughness.
The Miami Monsignor Pace guard says he committed to UF coach Billy Donovan because Shipman knew he possessed something in his game last season's Gators desperately needed, an athletic perimeter defender who can shut down opposing scoring threats.
"That's a big reason why I chose to come here," Shipman said. "I felt what I could offer to the table was lacking a little bit."
In his first few months on campus, Shipman has done just that. The 6-5 swingman appears to have found a niche. UF coach Billy Donovan said on Wednesday that Shipman is already one of the Gators' best perimeter defender. Shipman and Florida's basketball team begin preseason practice on Friday.
If Shipman's intensity level remains high and he continues to improve, don't be surprised if the freshman is used this season as a defensive specialist against some of the SEC's best scorers.
"Ray comes in here a lot further along than most freshman defensively," Donovan said. "I think he has a good understanding of what we're trying to do."
Florida had one of the worst defenses in the Southeastern Conference last season. The Gators ranked 11th in field-goal defense (47.5 percent) and 10th in three-point defense (37.2 percent). Ray Shipman credits Miami Monsignor Pace coach Mark Lieberman for preparing him to be an immediate asset when Shipman arrived in Gainesville. Shipman says Lieberman forced him to become a quality defender and convinced Shipman that defense was his key to early playing time at UF.
"[Lieberman] used to get on me because I didn't play enough defense in high school and he used to say that with your body and your quickness you can be a real great defender," Shipman said. "He told me, 'If you want to get on the floor when you go to Florida, defense is what is going to get you out there."
At 6-5, Shipman is just as quick and fast as UF 5-9 sophomore point guard Jai Lucas. In a shuttle run competition held on Tuesday, Shipman clocked a 3.1 seconds while Lucas ran the team's second best time at 3.2 seconds. At Miami Monsignor Pace, Shipman was named the state of Florida's "Mr. Basketball" in 2008 after leading his team to a Class 4A state championship. Pace beat Lakeland Kathleen 80-76 in the title game and Shipman had 17 points and eight rebounds.
"[Shipman] has played well and I think there's no question Ray is going to be someone who is going to give us some size, some athleticism and I think there's no question that right now he is one of our better defenders on the perimeter," Donovan said. "And we desperately need that -- a physical wing type of player who can play defense and I think Ray can provide that type of value to our team."