OKLAHOMA CITY — The recruiting race to win the favor of Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest point guard Brandon Knight became a sprint for Florida coach Billy Donovan on Friday.
Donovan and the Florida Gators lost to Brigham Young University 99-92 on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Oklahoma City. Florida’s weakness was obvious. The Gators, who committed 21 turnovers, lacked depth and skill at the point-guard position. With the season now over, Donovan and his assistants will make their final recruiting push to land Knight, the nation’s top recruit, in an attempt to shore up the Gators’ backcourt. College basketball's signing period begins on April 14.
“I’ve got to do a better job, you know, providing a little bit more depth to our team,” Donovan said on Thursday. “That’s definitely something we need. We need depth in our backcourt.”
Florida began the season with one point guard, sophomore Erving Walker, after former Gators freshman Jai Lucas transferred to Texas. Walker was erratic throughout the season and on Thursday struggled in his first appearance in the NCAA Tournament, committing seven turnovers and making just four of his 16 field-goal attempts.
Walker was thoroughly out played by BYU guards Jimmer Fredette, who scored 37 points, and Michael Loyd Jr., who had 26 points. Florida freshman guard Kenny Boynton Jr. scored 27 points, including 5 of 10 from three-point range, but fouled out with four minutes to play in double overtime.
“It’s hard to ask those guys to shoot the ball at the level you need them to,” Donovan said. “Where a guy like Fredette is resting and they’re using some of the other guys to really play defense. That’s what makes them a good team. They have a lot of depth.”
The Gators only lose one player (senior forward Dan Werner) from this season’s team but Walker, Boynton and sophomore Ray Shipman are the only guards expected to return next season. Adding Knight would make the Gators a contender to win the Southeastern Conference in 2011 but landing him will be difficult.
Florida has recruited Knight for several seasons but the Miami native, who grew up in Coral Springs, has given no indication that he is favoring the Gators. He is expected to choose between Florida, Kentucky, Duke, Kansas, Connecticut and Syracuse.
“I look at making this decision as one of the most important decisions I’ll make in my life,” Boynton recently wrote in SLAM magazine. “As a result, I am being very patient so I will make the right decision and go to a place that will best benefit me as a person, student and athlete.”
Florida’s top competitor in the Knight Sweepstakes appears to be Kentucky. With his dribble-drive offense, Wildcats coach John Calipari has a reputation for preparing point guards for the NBA. Losing Knight to Kentucky would be considered yet another recruiting defeat for Florida and Donovan, who has gone head-to-head with two Kentucky head coaches in recent years for some of the nation’s best players and lost.
In 2007, a few months after Florida won its second national title, Donovan failed to sign West Virginia prep star Patrick Patterson, who instead chose Kentucky and former UK coach Billy Gillispie. Donovan again watched another top recruit sign with Kentucky instead of Florida in 2009 when Alabama native Eric Bledsoe signed with Calipari. Bledsoe made eight three-pointers on Thursday in Kentucky’s first-round NCAA Tournament win against East Tennessee State.
“I did not know what to expect this year coming in with basically a freshman point guard in Walker, because he never played there before, and Boynton as a freshman two-guard and having no subs for those guys and really not another handler,” Donovan said.