GAINESVILLE -- For the fourth time since 2006, Florida and UCLA will battle in the NCAA Tournament.
The top-seeded Gators (33-2) and fourth-seeded Bruins (28-8) will square off Thursday (9;45 p.m., CBS) in the South Regional Semifinals in Memphis, Tenn. (FedEx Forum) with a chance to advance to the Elite Eight.
UCLA -- Pac-12 Tournament champions -- demolished 12th-seeded Stephen F. Austin 77-60 on Sunday night, advancing to its first regional semifinals since 2008.
But Florida has been nothing but heartbreak for college basketball's most historic program.
The Gators, winners of a nation's-best 28 straight, trumped the Bruins in all three tournament match-ups -- highlighted by Florida's back-to-back wins in the 2006 NCAA Championship game (73-57) and 2007 Final Four (77-66).
Florida also topped UCLA 73-65 in the Round of 32 in 2011.
The Bruins are led by first-year coach Steve Alford, who bolted New Mexico to replace the fired Ben Howland during the offseason.
UCLA is an electric offensive team (81.7 points per game, No. 12 AdjO according to KenPom.com) powered by sensational sophomores Jordan Adams (17.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 2.7 spg) and Kyle Anderson (14.7 ppg, 6.6 apg), but the Bruins must hope the fourth time's a charm to finally top No. 1 Florida and its ferocious defense.
More tomorrow, but first the clip teased in the headline.
(Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young | Courtesy AP Photo/John Raoux)
ORLANDO -- The top-seeded Gators waved farewell to the Sunshine State in style Saturday afternoon, smothering 9th-seeded Pittsburgh into submission for a 61-45 victory in front of a sellout, pro-Gators crowd inside the Amway Center.
“How sweet it is,” assistant coach Matt McCall shouted in the locker room.
Florida won its 28th straight game, punching its fourth consecutive ticket to the Sweet 16.
The Gators will face the winner of Sunday’s game between 4th-seed UCLA and 12th-seed Stephen F. Austin on Thursday in Memphis, Tenn.
Here's some notable quotes from the locker room.
"We weren't going to let them to play harder than us.”
-- Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who paced Florida with a game-high 21 points.
“At this point I’m happy to get out this gym. That’s the name of the game though. Some shots are going to go in. Some aren’t. I took good shots tonight. I can’t control whether the ball goes in or not because if I could every shot would go in.”
-- Sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II, on shooting just 4-for-15 in two games at Amway Arena
“When you have a guy like that you just give him the ball and move out of his way. ... He was hot. He gave us an offensive boost. We needed it.”
-- Frazier, on Wilbekin's big night.
"I thought our defense in particular, both halves it was good, but I thought in the second half it really, really was good, and these guys did a really terrific job from start to finish."
-- Gators coach Billy Dononvan, on UF's splendid defensive effort.
"The three they hit was one of those things that could've easily been prevented if he would've executed what coach (Jamie Dixon) wanted. Coach wanted us to foul him before he could get close to taking a shot."
-- Panthers forward Michael Young, on Wilbekin's running, halftime buzzer-beater.
"Florida is the most physical team we've play all year. They beat us on the glass and beat us to loose balls. We have to give them credit."
-- Panthers head coach Jamie Dixon, on UF's hustle.
"If we would’ve brought [UF's relentless hustle] to the first game would’ve been drastically different. Our mindset, effort, focus on the defensive end was just unprecedented. That’s how we want to be every single night."
-- Florida center Patric Young, on UF's relentless hustle
ORLANDO -- Michael Frazier II provides instant offense for the top-seeded Gators and opponents have taken note – aggravatingly so for Florida’s prolific outside shooter.
UF’s sophomore sniper, averaging 12.6 points and three treys a game, was mostly a frustrated decoy Thursday afternoon, as Albany clamped down on the nation’s ninth-best three-point shooter (45 percent).
The Great Danes held Frazier to just 1-of-5 from the field, blanketing the sophomore with multiple defenders by utilizing a triangle-and-two defense to freeze out Florida’s lone consistent long distance threat.
Three years ago, former Butler coach Brad Stevens employed a similar strategy when his Bulldogs shocked the Gators in overtime in the Elite Eight, but Florida actually took advantage of the space in the paint on Thursday.
“I think the greatest sign of respect for me as a coach is when somebody says to a player, we're going to take that player out of the game,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
“It was a game where because of the way they guarded Frazier, because of the way they guarded [Scottie] Wilbekin, there were a lot of other things open, especially inside and around the basket that I thought we took advantage of.”
Although Frazier was visibly upset after the lackluster victory, Donovan cooled the sophomore’s temperature with an anecdote that resonated with the entire team.
“Coach [Donovan] talked to the team after the game and told a story about when he was a player a Providence and they were playing Georgetown,” UF assistant Matt McCall explained.
“Going into the year, Coach was leading the NCAA Tournament in scoring, getting like 30 [points] a game, and Georgetown said, 'Hey we're going to take Billy Donovan out of the game.' They did and he only took two shots but [Providence] won by 18. So you take it as a sign of a team having respect for you. And if they're going to take that much focus on you and take you out of the game, other things for other guys are going to open up.”
Florida was forced to turn to other options, and Kasey Hill, Dorian Finney-Smith and others carried the load but Frazier may have a chance to get back on track against Pitt.
While the Panthers play a stingy, tenacious half-court defense, they’re not particularly adept at guarding the three-point line (No. 100 nationally in three-point defense) -- something coach Jamie Dixon is openly concerned about.
"If [Frazier] makes of couple of shots he can break a game open," Dixon said.
"He's their best shooter, best perimeter threat and shoots a high percentage from 3.”
Frazier drilled three early treys against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament title game, pacing the Gators early. But while the sophomore wants “his,” he’s more concerned with winning.
“[Albany] was determined to not to let [me] beat them, so it opened up things for other guys,” he said. “[Pittsburgh’s] defense is different, so we'll have some open looks in other areas.”
Pitt smoked Colorado on Thursday, drubbing the Buffalos by 29-points in its most dominant (and complete) performance this season. Meanwhile, the Gators struggled for 35 minutes against overmatched Albany.
Will the two teams deviate towards their norm tomorrow?
The Panthers have competed well against ranked teams (three losses by a combined 10 points), but they simply haven’t beaten many (1-4 record).
Despite a 2-15 all-time record against the No. 1 team in the country, they remain confident they can pull off the upset.
“We're playing good basketball right now,” said forward Lamar Patterson, Pitt’s leading scorer at 17.4 points per game.
“We'll know if we're playing our best basketball on Saturday. … Right now is the perfect time to be making strides toward the best you can possibly be, and I feel like that's what we're doing as a team.”
“In the South, okay, football is the passion. It's never changing. It's just the way it is. Okay, and I've done nothing since I've been at Florida but try to embrace that because I really believe in the fall there's not a greater place to be than on our campus when there's a football game going on. That being said, I do think that there is an incredible affinity in the state and nationally for the University of Florida, and I always look at, right now, one, the support administratively, the support by fans, what our building is like, what the commitment has been, and I think our commitment and our support has been as good as anywhere in the country, and I think there's a lot of people that are involved with that.”
-- Donovan, on Florida as a football school vs. a basketball school
THIS & THAT
Pitt holds a plus-6.3 rebounding margin, tops in the ACC. … The Panthers, who rarely faced an aggressive press in the ACC, also led the conference in assists per game (15.6) and Donovan called them, “An outstanding passing team.” … After shooting just 50 percent from the charity stripe in the SEC Tournament, Florida was 14-for-18 (77.8 percent) against Albany. … Donovan said freshman point guard Kasey Hill, who scored 10 points in his first-career NCAA Tournament game, is “fine” and has no lingering issues with his toe injury. … Florida’s four seniors are just one win away from setting the school-record for most wins by a single class. … Pitt topped Albany 58-46 earlier this season, allowing just 18 points in the first half. However, the Panthers’ 12-point margin was the same as Florida’s final margin against the Great Danes.
ORLANDO -- Billy Donovan is happy in Gainesville, very happy in fact, but No. 1 Florida's coach acknowledged the next logical step on the coaching ladder still "intrigues" him.
“To me the NBA part of it for me is ‑‑ it's all basketball,” Donovan explained.
“I got into coaching because of the basketball piece of it, and there is an intrigue as it relates to that. One of the things that I think I've learned, when you try to project where your future is, where you're going to be, and you don't know because I don't have a crystal ball, all I can say is I am happy here at Florida. I love being here.”
A trip to Orlando has spurred memories of when Donovan spurned the Magic in 2007. Florida's coach agreed on a contract, only to change his mind and later walk away.
Donovan has remained at UF ever since -- 18 seasons since first accepting the job in 1996.
“It was just something internally I felt like this was where I needed to be,” said Donovan, remarking on his change of heart in 2007.
“Who knows where I'd be right now. I don't know. Maybe TV, maybe sitting on a beach somewhere? I don't know. I'm excited that I'm still at Florida and still having a chance to coach, and I'm happy that making that decision there's been a lot of things that I've had a chance to experience.”
Although Donovan wouldn’t commit to staying with the Gators forever, he was adamant he’s quite content -- for now.
“When you say a lifer, that means to me I'm never, every going to go anywhere and be there,” Donovan said.
“Who knows? They may get sick of me at Florida and want me to move on. But I don't like coming out making bold predictions or statements. I would say right now I'm extremely happy with my life right now at the University of Florida.”
ORLANDO -- It was supposed to be easy, but it wasn’t.
Top-seeded Florida dispatched a scrappy 16-seeded Albany 67-55 Thursday afternoon in the Amway Center, avoiding a monumental upset as its road to the Final Four started out much rockier than anticipated.
The Southeastern Conference Champions -- winners of a school-record 27 straight games and top-overall seed in the NCAA Tournament -- survived a scare from the American East Champions, but you wouldn’t have known it postgame.
Florida’s locker room felt like a funeral, and a despondent group acknowledged they must play better.
"I think we should look at this game as a blessing,” senior center Patric Young said.
“We can't have this same type of energy going into the next game, this same type of mindset or focus, whatever it was. We have to flush that and just remember that we have to be somebody we have been the whole year going into the next game. Hopefully learning from this game will help us do that next game.”
Florida was “out of sync” all afternoon, as senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said the team lacked energy, focus and connectivity from the start.
Coach Billy Donovan told the team afterwards they “were lucky to get one more.”
“He said if we play like we did tonight then that will be the last one we get,” Wilbekin explained.
“We just got to flush this game and get ready for Pittsburgh.”
Sophomore sniper Michael Frazier, Florida's third-leading scorer, hit a trey for the 18th straight game, but the prolific shooter struggled to generate many looks from behind the arc (1-for-4).
The Gators, bottled up by the Great Danes’ stingy (ever-changing) zone defenses, hit just 3-of-13 three-pointers -- their fewest treys since Feb. 15 at Kentucky.
“We played a lot of junk defenses,” Albany coach Will Brown said. “The triangle-and-two, diamand-and-one, matchup zone, we just wanted to know where [Frazier] was at all times.
“We had all sorts of names for him: Ray Allen, Jesus Shuttlesworth. He has the smoothest stroke since Ray Allen. We were determined not to let him get a free look.”
ERVING WALKER 2.0?
The Great Danes had their own Mighty Mouse and he nearly sparked the upset.
DJ Evans -- Albany’s 5-foot-9 point guard -- scored a game-high 21 points (6-for-12, 2-of-5 from behind the arc) while taking a beating in the process.
Evans, who had ice wrapped on his elbow postgame, took a knee the head at one point and later crashed to the floor following a nifty shot-fake.
It was a valiant effort by a tough little guy.
“I have a lot of bumps and bruises,” Evans said. “It was a dog-fight. I just didn’t want to let my teammates down.”
“You see the size of Patric Young? If he couldn’t make it in the NBA he’s going to have a shot in the NFL. If he doesn’t go to the NFL, he’ll be in the WWE. If he doesn’t go there, maybe UCF. I mean, that guy is enormous.”
-- Brown, on Florida’s size and athleticism
THIS & THAT
Young added 10 points and 10 rebounds, finishing with his first double-double in 45 games and 11th of his career. … The Gators had five scorers in double figures: Casey Prather (16), Young (10), Wilbekin (10), Kasey Hill (10) and Dorian Finney-Smith (16). Prather also added three blocks (tying a career-high) and two steals. … Donovan was named one of five finalists for the Naismith Coach of the Year award, given to the nation’s top head coach.
For more, a notebook, checkout all the latest action from the NCAA Tournament: Today's gamer on Florida's too-close-for-comfort victory, a sidebar on two reserves playing key roles and a column outling UF's chase for greatness.
ORLANDO -- Freshman point guard Kasey Hill will be a game-time decision for Florida’s tournament opener against 16-seed Albany (4:10 p.m., TBS), the school announced Wednesday.
Hill, who is averaging 5.9 points and 3.1 assists as Scottie Wilbekin’s backup, is battling turf toe and will be re-evaluated Thursday morning during Florida’s team shoot-around.
The Umatilla native participated in Wednesday’s open practice and displayed no visible limp during the workout, but the McDonald’s All-American did miss seven games this season with various injuries (ankle, groin).
Orlando is a homecoming of sorts for several Gators, including fan-favorite walk-on Jake “The Snake” Kurtz.
Kurtz, who starred at Hagerty under Josh Kone, said the return to Orlando is “really cool.”
“I grew up a Magic fan, 15-minutes away from here. This is a thrill,” he said.
Kurtz’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament wasn’t so pleasant though.
In 2011, when the Gators faced Virginia (and later Norfolk State) in Omaha, Nebraska, Kurtz didn’t have a seat on the bench.
Tomorrow he may have a chance to play.
“The seats get cut down in the NCAA Tournament,” Kurtz explained, acknowledging the situation was “a bummer.” “I wasn’t able to sit [with the team]. That was the first experience I had with the tournament. … I’d love to play. Everyone wants to play, but I wouldn’t say it’s a bad thing if we win, and I don’t. I’m ok as long as we keep moving on.”
MASTER AND HIS PUPIL(S)
While fans across the country are upset with Louisville's seeding, coach Rick Pitino is frustrated with his team's opponent.
Pitnio criticized the NCAA selection committee for pitting his Cardinals against Manhattan, coached by protégée and longtime friend Steve Masiello.
But while Louisville's Hall of Fame coach is upset about facing off against Masiello, Pitino effusively sang the praises of another former star pupil also in Orlando: Florida coach Billy Donovan.
“Billy the Kid to me is one of the most special people in my life. I’ve said this, [former Cardinals point guard] Peyton Siva and Donovan were two of the most special people I’ve ever coached. I could never find a character flaw in them,” Pitino said.
Then the eulogizing continued.
“There’s no finer person I’ve met in my life,” he said. “He’s just the most special human being I’ve ever encountered in my lifetime. He never changed. Success hasn’t changed him. Adversity hasn’t changed him.”
Donovan, who’s built his own expansive coaching tree including Shaka Smart (VCU), Anthony Grant (Alabama), Donnie Jones (UCF) and Larry Shyatt (Wyoming), boasted on Pitino’s ability to develop assistants into quality head coaches.
“When I was 24 years old, I was forced to scout. I was forced to coach. I was forced to teach. I was forced to break down film,” Donovan explained. “I was forced to make decisions. There was not any area of coaching when I was with Coach Pitino that I was not exposed to, and it was challenging, it was demanding, and it made me better. I really felt even though I was 28-years-old and took over at Marshall, I didn't feel like I was unprepared, or geez, this is overwhelming. Not at all, and I think that had everything to do with Coach Pitino in terms of preparing us, and I hope in some way what he did for me I can do the same thing for my guys that are assistant coaches and move on to head coaching positions, is to get them prepared as much as I can.”
"It seems like a long time ago. I've got great respect for the Magic and for this organization, for the people running it. I'm excited to be at Florida. When I went back, I knew we were going to have to rebuild. We lost a lot of personnel, and it's been challenging, it's been rewarding. There's been peaks and valleys. There's been ups and downs. But I'm proud of what our team has done to get to this point. We're happy that we can certainly stay here in the state of Florida and the city of Orlando to play in the tournament. But for me, I think that's over and done with, and I've kind of moved on from it."
--- Donovan, on returning to Orlando for the first time since renegging on Magic job in 2007.
GAINESVILLE -- The top-ranked Gators -- media darlings to win to 2014 NCAA Tournament -- have aced nearly every test this season, but Billy Donovan's senior-laden squad does have a scarlet-shortcoming that could torpedo its title hopes.
No. 1 Florida (32-2), which opens the second-round Thursday in Orlando (4:10 p.m., TBS) against play-in winner Albany, ranks as the nation's No. 289 team in free throw shooting at 66. 1 percent -- ninth-worst in the tournament’s field of 68.
While the cure-all for Florida's habitual slow starts has seemingly amounted to a halftime-dousing of Michael Jordan's "Secret Stuff," Donovan has found no remedy for UF's woes at the charity stripe.
"We’ve got to do a better job there," Donovan acknowledged.
"We were doing really, really well for a while there. One of the things that happened is we did work on it some, but we’ve got to spend more time on that. That has to be an emphasis and focal point for us. We’ve shown the ability and the potential to shoot the ball well. There’s been numerous games where we come down the stretch of games and gone 10-for-11, we’ve made 16 out of 18. There’s been some good stretches."
But others have been wretched.
The Gators shot a woeful 50 percent (27 of 54) over three games in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, nearly coughing up a championship with a 7-for-17 performance against Kentucky in the finals.
"We just going to have to put in more work," said forward Dorian Finney-Smith, who missed the front-end of a one-and-one with 20 seconds remaining against the Wildcats as Florida clung to its one-point lead.
"I didn't even notice we missed that many free throws, but now that I know the stats we got to do a lot better than that."
Florida -- which proved capable at the charity stripe during a stretch in mid-February, shooting 79-percent in four games decided by single-digits -- must buck history if it’s going to capture its third national championship since 2006.
The last NCAA team to shoot under 70 percent and win a national championship was Florida in 2006-07, joining 2004 Connecticut as just the second school over the past decade (2004-2013) to do so.
"It's an area we’ve got to get better," Donovan said. "Certainly that three-game stretch from us was not a great stretch at all."
The Gators have just two players -- senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (72.6 percent) and sophomore swingman Michael Frazier II (83.6 percent) -- who shoot north of 67 percent but Wilbekin was just 1-for-6 at the line during the SEC Tournament.
“Obviously we want to make those free throws, but we did a good job focusing on the next play,” he said.
Florida may run out of “next plays” in the NCAA Tournament though.
GAINESVILLE -- Florida football kicks-off spring camp this afternoon, opening the first of nine practices at 3:35 p.m. inside the Sanders Fields.
The Gators -- who will practice 15 times between today and April 12th’s Orange & Blue Debut -- hope to slowly start to wash away the stains from their abominable 2013 campaign and the worst season (4-8) in Gainesville in 35 years.
Naturally, it’s a big spring for embattled coach Will Muschamp -- who’s stink has been Febreze’d a bit thanks to the success of Florida’s top-ranked hoops team.
But can Muschamp maintain his (newfound) fresh fragrance? We’ll see.
The Gators (seriously) boast one of the nation’s most talented teams but question marks remain abound. From sorting out jumbled positions to answering key concerns for an irritated fan base, it’s an important month for Florida football.
*************** SIX STORYLINES TO FOLLOW ***************
1. Can new coordinator Kurt Roper’s rebuild UF’s offense? [BONUS Q’S] How fast will Florida’s players grasp the new system, and what will Roper’s tempo-attack look like with (under-developed) four- and-five-star players?
The Gators ranked No. 113 nationally in total offense last year, replacing two offensive coaches 24-hours into the offseason. Roper’s success (or lack their of) will likely determine Muschamp’s future at Florida -- so no pressure on Duke’s former quarterbacks guru. While spring practice won’t ultimately determine Florida’s 2014 fate, quality work would certainly be advantageous.
2. Will Jeff Driskel sink or swim?
Florida pushed back spring practice specifically so its redshirt junior quarterback would be fully recovered from his broken leg. The Gators’ enigmatic signal caller is working under his third offensive coordinator -- and third different system -- in four years, but Roper’s no-huddle spread is specifically tailored to Driskel skill-set. With a pair of talented freshmen waiting in the wings, it’s put up or shut-up time for JD.
3. Who -- if anyone -- will emerge along the offensive line and at wide receiver and tight end?
Driskel needs help, lots of help. Florida’s offensive line was a disaster last year, as the Gators shuffled the deck more than a Jumbotron hat game. Injuries were a major factor, but a lack of development (see: Humphries, D.J.) and positional fit (see: Moore, Tyler) were key issues as well. At wideout, (the forever uninspiring) Quinton Dunbar returns as the team’s leading receiver, but the rest of the group is largely unknown, high on potential yet low on progress. Meanwhile, Florida has a dearth of talent at tight end, problematic considering the way Roper likes to utilize the position in the passing game.
4. What will the Gators’ secondary look like?
Florida must replace four (sometimes) valuable contributors from its vaunted defensive backfield. Although Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson underwhelmed last season, the duo still made plays, as did the much-steadier performing Jaylen Watkins. Adding Cody Rigss’ transfer to Notre Dame, UF has a pair of openings at safety for the second straight spring. Marcus Maye, Keanu Neal and Jabari Gorman will compete for playing time, while Marcell Harris could be in the mix as well. Meanwhile, five-star early enrollee Jaylen Tabor is expected to fight for a starting job at cornerback opposite Florida’s top overall returning player: Vernon Hargreaves III.
5. Who will star (and will they have any staying-power?)
It’s a yearly tradition at Florida: spring stars = fall frauds. Over the past several seasons, Demarcus Robinson, Jabari Gorman (two years ago), Quinton Dunbar, Latroy Pittman, Gideon Ajagbe (on defense) and many, many others have shined in spring camp only to disappear (for a multitude of reasons) when the games actually count. Obviously this question cannot be answered in a month, but if guys like Adam Lane, Alvin Bailey or Jay-nard Bostwick go off in March, it’s best to temper all future expectations.
6. How hungry are these Gators?
The entire program was embarrassed about its first losing season since 1979. The pervasive truth last fall was that the team succumbed to a “woe is me” mentality, Florida’s very own Krokodil. Have attitudes changed? Muschamp says his players should never forget last season, using their failures to fuel the fire. Undoubtedly, the players will say all the right things this spring, but it’s their actions during practice that will tell a better story.
GAINESVILLE -- Confession: I was not at Florida's 2014 Pro Day on a soggy and cold Monday morning in Gainesville.
Sleep deprived after arriving home from the Southeastern Conference tournament in the wee hours Monday, I missed the annual event (traditionally) held in The Swamp.
But fear not, others were there to document a rainy day full of NFL personnel and a dozen former Florida players working out, highlighted by its three ballyhooed cornerbacks -- Marcus Roberson, Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins -- and former No. 1 overall recruit DE/LB Ronald Powell.
Without further adieu, Florida's Pro Day as told on Twitter.
AN OMINOUS START...
YET SOLID ATTENDANCE...
BUT MOSTLY JOKES...
SOME PROSPECTS SHINED...
WHILE OTHERS DID NOT...
STILL, NO EXCUSES...
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT. FLORIDA'S 2014 PRO DAY -- OR SOMETHING...
GAINESVILLE -- Florida -- the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament -- finished the regular season as the top-ranked team in the Associated Press poll for the first time in school history, collecting several additional awards in the process.
The Gators (32-2) have never opened the tournament as the nation's No. 1 ranked team, but they will do so Thursday (4 p.m., TBS) when they take on the winner of Tuesday's play-in game between Mount St. Mary's (16-16) and Albany (18-14).
"We got a number one seed. Now that the seeding is set, the only thing that matters is playing well and putting yourself in a position to win and advance,” coach Billy Donovan said Monday.
“We’re excited to be in the tournament. We’re excited for another opportunity to play but the number one seed, the overall seed, whatever it is, it’s great. But that’s a reflection of what’s happened from November all the way to here in March. Once the brackets are out and you’re playing, seedings and things like that, players aren’t thinking about that. They’re thinking about playing and competing and playing to the best of their ability.”
Meanwhile, senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year and Donovan was named the SEC Coach of the Year for the second straight season, the AP announced Monday.
"I’m sure maybe when we lose, I get maybe too much blame and when we win I probably get maybe too much praise," Donovan said.
"But the thing that I’ve always looked at is whether or not I get credit, what kind of impact I have made in those guys’ lives?"
Donovan led the Gators to the greatest season in SEC history, capping a 21-0 run through league play with a dramatic tournament title over rival Kentucky.
Wilbekin, who was named the MVP of the SEC Tournament after averaging 13.3 points, 3.0 assists and 3.3 steals over three games, was a unanimous All-SEC first-team selection and was joined by Gators forward Casey Prather.
Senior center Patric Young was an All-SEC second-team honoree.
Last week, SEC coaches named Wilbekin the player of the year and Donovan the league's coach of the year.
Eight days after No. 1 Florida walloped Kentucky in Gainesville -- UF's largest winning-margin (19 points) in series history -- John Calipari's youthful Wildcats look (and feel) like a new team.
Engineered by Calipari's much-publicized "tweaks," Kentucky trounced LSU in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals before dispatching Georgia to advance to the league's title game.
"We're not the same team we were two, three weeks ago," Calipari said.
"They're just starting to come together. It took time. We're starting five freshmen, folks. Five freshmen trying to do something unique and special. This team, they're starting to come together. We're now one of those teams that you would hope we would have been two months ago, but so what. It took time. I'm good with it. ...This team just needed something to get them over the hump and they're doing it now."
The upset-minded 'Cats look to end Florida's school-record 25-game winning streak today at 3:15 on ESPN. Meanwhile, the Gators hope to become the first team since Tennessee in 1978-79 to beat UK three times in one season.
While UK's boisterous freshmen openly relish the opporunity to play the nation's top-ranked team for a third time, Calipari -- in his most Lou Holtz-ian hyperbolic state -- does not.
"I've had enough of Florida. For four years I've seen the same guys," Calipari siad. "What a great team. What a great story. What a great coaching job. You're talking about a team that it's almost an honor to play a team like that. I understand when this game is close, they will not give you the game, and if you don't fight like heck, they're taking it from you. That's who they are and that's who they have been all year. I don't see it changing.
"Now, that means when we go against them, you're going to have to take it. They will not give it to you. As you're trying to take it, they're trying to take it from you. So they absolutely bashed us down there. We weren't even in the game. Then we make a 15-0 run and get it close, and then they bash us again. My players can all say what they want. I'm not looking forward to playing Florida again. But you know what? We are here, I don't think they're going to let us leave, so we're going to go play this game and see what happens."
The Gators drained 12-of-21 shots from beyond the arc, shooting a better percentage (57 percent) from downtown than the charity stripe (50 percent, 10-for-20). ... Freshman forward Chris Walker, who chipped in four points off the bench, remained non-committal postgame on whether he will return for his sophomore season. ... The Gators' aggressive press forced 14 turnovers, six by Mizzou point guard Jordan Clarkson. ... Kasey Hill finished with seven points, five assists and five rebounds off the bench.
Debose missed the entire 2013 season after sustaining a season-ending ACL injury in early August. Florida's shifty receiver/kick return specialist redshirted his freshman season due to a hamstring injury.
GAINESVILLE -- No. 1 Florida was perfect during the 2014 Southeastern Conference regular season (18-0) and it resulted in nearly a sweep of the league's end-of-season awards.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was named the SEC Player of the Year, while coach Billy Donovan collected his second straight SEC Coach of the Year honor, the league announced Tuesday.
“I was happy. My parents were really happy," said Wilbekin, who is averaging 12.9 points, 3.6 assists and 1.5 steals per game for the top-ranked Gators.
"I’m just more happy for our team to see all the other people who got rewards on our team. I think it’s a reflection of how good this team is and how good we played during the regular season to see this many of us get awards. … I definitely couldn’t have done it without my teammates, Coach D believing in me and Jeremy Foley giving me a second chance."
But the awards didn't stop there.
Senior center Patric Young was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and became the league's first three-time recipient of the Scholar-Athlete of the Year award.
"I’m grateful to my teammates for playing such terrible defense so I could pick up the slack," Young quipped.
"It’s just nice to be recognized for doing the right things by all the coaches on the committee and the people that voted me to win this award.”
Added Donovan: "I think [Young] represents, in my opinion, what college athletics is all about. His education is very, very important to him; going to class is very important to him; he's very active on campus; he's very active in the community. He's got a great personality. I think he, maybe more so than anybody that's ever been in this program, has taken full advantage of everything on this campus and what it has to offer."
Meanwhile, sophomore transfer Dorian Finney-Smith was named the SEC Sixth Man of the Year in his first season with the Gators.
Finney-Smith is averaging a team-high 6.9 rebounds per game to go along with 9.4 points per contest.
Not to be forgotten, UF's leading scorer (1.46 ppg) senior swingman Casey Prather was named an All-SEC first-team performer. Wilbekin (first-team) and Young (second-team) were also All-SEC selections.
"We come together as a team and do what we need to do each and every night," Prather said. "As far as little things, hustle plays, rebounding, it’s a collective effort between us and not just like individuals.”
The Gators' five (of six) year-end awards is a school record for Florida, with Wilbekin joining Chandler Parsons (2011) as UF's only other SEC Player of the Year recepient.
"I mentioned this to our guys, and I really, really think this, any individual honor to me is just a reflection on your team," Donovan said Monday. "And whatever awards are given out or whatever honors are given out to any of our guys, I think they would be the first one to say, 'Without my teammates this would not have been possible.'"
Donovan, a two-time national champion (2006, 2007), collected his third coach of the year award in four seasons, but Florida's stoic leader pointed the honor back towards his team.
"I don't think those awards would happen if I had a bunch of bad players on my team," he said.
********** SEC AWARDS **********
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Scottie Wilbekin (Florida)
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Patric Young (Florida)
SIXTH-MAN OF THE YEAR: Dorian Finney-Smith (Florida)
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR: Julius Randle (Kentucky)
COACH OF THE YEAR: Billy Donovan (Florida)
SCHOLAR-ATHLETE OF THE YEAR: Patric Young (Florida)
ALL-SEC FIRST TEAM: Prather, Wilbekin (Florida); Trevor Releford (Alabama); Randle (Kentucky); Johnny O’Bryant III (LSU); Jabari Brown (Missouri); Jordan McRae, Jarnell Stokes (Tennessee).
ALL-SEC SECOND TEAM: Young (Florida); Bobby Portis (Arkansas); Chris Denson (Auburn); Charles Mann (Georgia); James Young (Kentucky); Jordan Mickey (LSU); Marshal Henderson, Jarvis Summers (Ole Miss); Jordan Clarkson (Missouri); Rod Odom (Vanderbilt).
GAINESVILLE -- Gators coach Will Muschamp met with the media Tuesday to preview Florida's spring practice, starting March 19 (open to the public).
Muschamp dished on a number of topics including a laundry list of injury updates, some notable positional changes and his preference for a traditional Orange & Blue Debut.
GAME (BACK) ON?
Last spring, Florida was forced to hold a glorified open practice during its annual Orange & Blue Debut due to so many offensive line injuries.
It turned out to be a damning omen for the upcoming season.
Muschamp hopes this spring is different (in more ways than one), and preliminary plans are to hold a traditional scrimmage on April 12.
"I want to have a spring game every year," he said.
"Last year I just didn't feel like it was fair with six offensive linemen healthy to put those guys through that. … I have all plans to have a spring game every year. I think it's important for those guys to get out in front of that crowd, the coaches off the field, and make them make calls and communicate and produce. There's no question. I want to have a spring game every year.”
Florida was railroaded by injuries during its 2013 campaign and the team isn't totally healthy heading into spring camp.
Muschamp did deliver some positive news on tailback Matt Jones, who continues to recover well from a torn meniscus.
Jones -- who had multiple knee surgeries to repair the ligament in his left knee -- will miss all of spring practice, but Muschamp said the junior running back will be fully cleared on May 1.
"He will not go through spring. He will not go through non-contact," Muschamp explained. "Matt will rehab there in the pit during practice, but extremely pleased with his progress and where he is."
May 1 is a D-Day of sorts for multiple UF players, as linebackers Matt Rolin (ACL) and Alex Anzalone (shoulder surgery) and senior defensive tackle Leon Orr (fractured wrist) will be cleared after missing camp.
Special teams ace/linebacker Jeremi Powell is expected to be cleared a month later (June 1), after sustaining a torn ACL during the 2013 season.
Senior wideout Andre Debose, who missed the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL suffered in August, will be cleared March 28 but will not have any contact this spring.
The 23-year-old former five-star prospect is expected to receive his sixth-year medical hardship wavier from the NCAA sometime in the near future.
True freshman tailback Brandon Powell, an early enrollee, is expected to be cleared for non-contact work "in the latter part" of spring practice after having offseason surgery to repair a pre-existing foot fracture from high school.
"We decided in February to go ahead and have surgery and put a pin in that," Muschamp said.
"To that point in January, had done an outstanding job in our conditioning drills. Great change of direction and speed. We're really excited about. He's one of the guys we're really excited about. It's unfortunate that something like that happened from high school."
Meanwhile, the news was not so good for redshirt sophomore tight end Colin Thompson (foot) and freshman offensive guard Nolan Kelleher (back).
Thompson, plagued by foot injuries during his three years in Gainesville, will miss spring practice and his future playing career appears uncertain.
"The last opinion we got is that he needed to shut it down completely," Muschamp said. "We'll have another opinion when spring is over, but he will not partake in spring practice."
Kelleher, an early enrollee, is dealing with a lingering back injury from high school and has not been cleared for camp.
Muschamp didn't release UF's spring depth chart -- citing the team's need to finish its offseason conditioning program first -- but he did tease multiple impact changes including Max Garcia's (trial) shift to center.
Garcia, a senior offensive lineman, started 12 games at left guard in 2013 and was one of Florida's more reliable linemen on an underachieving unit.
Tyler Moore, UF's presumptive center heading into camp, will move permanently to guard after struggling mightily as the Gators' right tackle last season.
Cameron Dillard (redshirt freshman) and Trip Thurman will also split time at center, while Trenton Brown will work at both tackle and guard.
D.J. Humphries remains Florida's left tackle, but the junior notably eclipsed the 290-pound mark -- consistently -- for the first time in his career.
Defensively, sophomore end Joey Ivie will see work at both end and defensive tackle, similarly to Jon Bullard in 2013.
The Gators' secondary, full of talent and inexperience, will see lots of moving parts this spring as roles are locked down.
“This isn’t Canadian ball, I mean, what’s legal?”
-- Muschamp, totally out of context, on college football’s failed 10-second rule.
Florida, winners of a school-record 23 straight games, finished the regular season ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll, a first in school history.
After becoming the first team ever in the Southeastern Conference to go 18-0 in league play, Billy Donovan gave his players a well-deserved two days off (Sunday, Monday) before the team resumes practice Tuesday and travels to Atlanta for the SEC tournament Thursday.
The Gators (29-2) will open play Friday at 1 p.m. against the winner of Missouri (21-10) and Texas A&M (17-14).
Florida partied hard following its throttling of No. 25 Kentucky on Saturday, celebrating Senior Day and UF's historic victory with a postgame net-cutting ceremony.
Donovan, who said the Gators will focus on themselves this week and not a what-if opponent, is hopeful his players can put their triumphs in the past.
"The biggest area for us is to get emotionally, mentally and psychologically past what happened on Saturday," he explained. "We’ve got to get past that. That starts this afternoon, getting past that and moving on and focusing on the next thing in front of us.”
BILLY SAY WHAT?
Unlike John Calipari or Roy Williams, Florida's coach has normally remained diplomatic when discussing conference tournaments.
While Donovan acknowledged he "likes playing the conference tournament" and "thinks it gets you ready for postseason play," he quickly addressed his major issue with the event's annual setup.
"The one thing the NCAA has to look at is any conference that's playing their conference tournament and it goes into Sunday, those teams, in my opinion, should not play in the NCAA tournament until Friday," Donovan said bluntly.
"You have to go up there and you have to have a mandatory opening practice on a Wednesday if you're playing Thursday, that's not right for those kind of teams, where you've got a team that all of sudden does a heck of a job, they get all the way to Sunday, they win a championship, maybe they miss Selection Sunday, they've got to travel back, they get back on campus on Sunday, they've got to try to recuperate after playing three straight games and they're on a plane Tuesday night going into a place, Wednesday practice, Thursday playing … that's a lot in my opinion. … And I think our league should look at it, too. Are we better off backing up our conference tournament and ending it on Saturday? Just end it on Saturday and give everybody Sunday off and figure out who's in the tournament and who's not and move from there."
Florida, a lock for a No. 1 seed, could face Donovan's exact scenario should the Gators reach Sunday's SEC Championship (3:15 p.m.).
UF is nearly assured of opening the NCAA Tournament in Orlando, with the games slated for Thursday and Saturday. According to stat guru Ken Pomeroy, Florida is nearly a coin-flip (49.2 percent) to win the tournament.
FRAZIER II HONORED
Florida's 6-foot-4 sophomore guard drained a conference-record 11 3-pointers against South Carolina last Tuesday, finishing with 37 points. Frazier II, averaging 12.9 points per game this season, added nine points on three treys in Florida's beatdown of Kentucky on Saturday afternoon.
Casey Prather is Florida's leading scorer, averaging 14.6 points per game and shooting 62.5 percent from the field.
GAINESVILLE -- No. 1 Florida is chasing perfection -- and history -- Saturday at noon against No. 25 Kentucky, but a pregame ceremony honoring its decorated senior class will serve as an appropriate appetizer on an emotionally charged afternoon.
The Gators, winners of a school-record 23 straight, will pay homage to a special (and rare) group of four seniors -- Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young -- who have played over 500 games together and share the discernible scars from three consecutive Elite Eight exits.
It’s a weathered, warted but invested quartet, discovering enviable (and possibly record) successes despite navigating through cobblestone-esque roads.
Each player’s story is different, and while chemistry and experience are cliché characterizations of UF’s four seniors, overcoming adversity is what seems to truly define them.
Four years ago, a hotshot prospect (Young), a kid (Wilbekin), a project (Yeguete) and a wide-eyed winger (Prather) came together. On Saturday, they stand as the greatest senior class in UF’s history.
It wasn’t always pretty, and was rarely easy, but Florida’s quartet -- forged by toughness, patience and poise -- is exactly how the whole can be better than the sum of its parts.
The seniors, none stud nor slouch, have combined for three Southeastern Conference titles, nine NCAA Tournament wins and stand just a single victory away from becoming the first team in league history to go 18-0 in conference play.
Florida’s special class is the perfect storm of madness meets good fortune. Young is a former McDonald’s All-American who gradually found consistency, but never developed fast enough to see his lottery projection fulfilled. Wilbekin is a former local high school product thrust into adulthood too soon, yet newfound maturity (via multiple suspensions) saw him transform into UF’s best and most indispensable player.
Prather is a dynamic slasher who wanted to be a prolific shooter, but wasn’t. After flirting with transferring, he decided to stay in Gainesville and blossomed into the team’s top scorer.
Finally, Yeguete is and has always been the heart and soul of the group. The glue-guy who’s body has been undone by multiple injuries, the fauxhawked forward remains a key-cog in UF’s championship run as its energy, heartbeat and intangible force.
Together, the four seniors have accomplished great things, and while they’re hardly ready to commemorate their careers, each player was able to reflect on their journey and what tomorrow’s final home game means.
Below is a compilation of quotes, including a nugget from coach Billy Donovan.
On how the group deserves to be remembered:
"I think first and foremost great kids, great people, people of substance, of character. None of them are perfect. They've all made mistakes. They've all been through their ups and downs, but I think at the heart of who they are, they're really great kids. The other think the other thing that I would say is that this institution means an enormous amount to them personally. Them putting on a Florida uniform, them playing here, has meant a lot to them and something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. And then I think the other part of it is their teammates have been equally important to them as the institution has been. I think they're kids that worked really, really hard and tried each and every day to do the best that they can."
On how the seniors will be remembered:
“I think we all have our own personal story. I think we all went through a couple things in our four years here. Me and my injury. Casey wasn't playing a lot first few years and now he's having a great year. Pat kind of being up and down a little bit. Scottie being in trouble. I think guys are just staying in the moment, just staying with the process. We fought through a lot of adversity we had and just staying connected. That's pretty much how we'll be remembered.”
On the group’s special bond:
"We knew how close we are and how much we could accomplish as a group. We had a lot of fun here, especially with this group this year, and we're just excited for what's next and we know there's more out there for us."
On tomorrow’s atmosphere:
“Yeah, I’ve thought about it quite a bit. It definitely brings back some memories of just how long I’ve been here. But I just want to end it the right way, just playing hard and giving it my all for this last home game."
On not relishing the moment until it’s over:
“That’s how I want it to be. Obviously I want to make the most out of it, but I can’t let whatever moment it is, and the rest of the guys can’t let whatever moment it is be bigger than the big game we have to play. That’s what we’ve been trying to focus on.”
On the class’ accomplishments:
"Hopefully, the greatest thing hasn't come yet. But as of now, this class has gone through a lot, from guys thinking about transferring to staying in school, to not playing games with injuries, all those things, this team, this senior class, has persevered, stuck together and won."
On his attitude this season:
“I knew this was my last chance to do something great here. I just really wanted to give it my best shot by putting in the work during the offseason. I’ve been focused on doing whatever I can to be more connected to my teammates, being a better teammate and trying to improve myself mentally for the ups and downs that come during the season and focus in on working harder each day.”
On the quartet’s relationship:
“We’re so close. Even from the first day we met we just clicked. I don’t know what it was about it, but we clicked instantly. Since then we’ve just improved our relationship on and off the court.”
On his bond with Donovan:
“It’s grown quite a bit because he knows some of the obstacles I came through from earlier experiences in high school. He’s been a great guy and great mentor who has prepared me for the games and for the future.”
GAINESVILLE -- Florida's disastrous 2013 campaign served as open season on the (lack of) coaching competency exemplified by Will Muschamp, but UF's 2014 has been dominated by change including newfound transparency.
In a (savvy) move to reconnect with a disgruntled fan base, the Gators will open eight spring practices -- nine counting their annual Orange & Blue Debut -- the school announced Tuesday.
Florida's inaugural practice on March 19 will be open to the public, as fans will have a chance to see new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and his up-tempo scheme, injured quarterback Jeff Driskel back in action, nine early enrollees and Vernon Hargreaves III intercepting all the passes more.
UF's new open practice schedule represents a dramatic shift from Muschamp's bunker mentality, as the Gators have held just four total open practices (not counting the spring game) the previous two spring camps.
The Gators also announced an additional practice open exclusively to season ticket-holders at an unknown date.
GAINESVILLE -- Gators head coach Will Muschamp will speak at the Broward County Gator Club on May 1, the school announced Tuesday.
Muschamp's spring speaking tour -- a collaborative effort by the UF Alumni Association, Gators Boosters and the University Athletic Association -- includes eight stops across the state starting with an April 8 appearance -- four days prior to UF's annual Orange & Blue Debut -- at the Gainesville Quarterback Club.
According to Adam Silverstein of OnlyGators.com, Muschamp's stop in Broward County will be the coach's first speaking engagement since 2011 at a Gator Club south of Palm Beach County.
Although dates and times are to be determined, offensive coordinator Kurt Roper (Ocala), offensive line coach Mike Summers (Tallahassee, Pensacola) and special teams coordinator Coleman Hutlzer (Daytona Beach) will also speak on the tour.
Muschamp's complete tour schedule...
April 8 - Gainesville Quarterback Club (Gainesville)
April 17 - Gator Club of Jacksonville (Jacksonville)
May 1 - Broward County Gator Club (Fort Lauderdale)
May 5 - Tampa/Pinellas County Gator Clubs (Tampa)
May 7 - Polk County Gator Club (Lakeland)
May 13 - Central Florida Gator Club (Orlando)
May 20 - Titletown Gator Club (Gainesville)
May 22 - Fightin' Gator Touchdown Club (Gainesville)
According to Gatorzone.com, visit www.ufalumni.ufl.edu for more information including tickets, future appearances and more.
GAINESVILLE -- No. 1 Florida clinched the Southeastern Conference league title before February ended -- its third outright championship in four years -- but these Gators' goals are far from complete.
They're striving for greatness.
Florida is in the midst of a 20-game winning streak and UF coach Billy Donovan's thematic message has been received, absorbed and echoed like a pirate's parrot.
Not even Jay-Z and LeBron talk about greatness as much as Florida's players.
"We’re trying to chase greatness," sophomore shooting guard Michael Frazier II said. "We’re not settling for this. We still have a game tomorrow, and that’s what we’re focusing on. It’s great to have [SEC league title] honor. But we still have a lot of things to accomplish. We still have a lot of goals."
Added forward Dorian Finney-Smith: "Every play, moment by moment, every possession you've got to strive for greatness. Take care of the ball, just do everything right. … We're just trying to strive for greatness. We're thinking about bigger things."
Earlier in the week, Donovan downplayed his team's No. 1 ranking and on Friday he acknowledged -- despite the league title -- UF's quest for a national championship is just getting started.
"I’m really, really proud of them, but I still think there’s more out there in front of us that we have a chance and opportunity to go out and try to chase," Donovan said.
“The league is not over. We still have three games remaining. We’re playing against a very, very talented, very good team in LSU tomorrow afternoon. I think our guys certainly set out to compete for an SEC championship in early January but at the same point, the season’s not over. We’ve got three games left to be played. Our guys have done a good job up to this point in time of staying focused and going through the process of getting prepared for each game and I don’t think this game is any different for us in terms of you want to continue playing well. … In a week or maybe a little bit longer the SEC Tournament will start, the post season will start, so this is something where we’re playing against some good teams and we have an opportunity to keep moving in that direction. I still think there is a lot out there in front of our team.”
The Gators host the Tigers on Saturday at 4 p.m. on CBS.
GAINESVILLE -- There's plenty of nourishment for everyone.
THANK YOU SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?
The nation's top ranked men's basketball team clinched the Southeastern Conference regular season title without even taking the court Thursday evening.
No. 1 Florida earned a share of the SEC title following its win at Vanderbilt on Tuesday, but with No. 17 Kentucky falling at home to Arkansas the Gators won their third outright league championship (2011, 2013, 2014) in the past four seasons.
By virtue of winning the league title, Billy Donovan's team will be a No. 1 seed in the SEC Tournament, have a double-bye and open the quarterfinal round Friday afternoon (March 14; 1 p.m.) in Atlanta (Georgia Dome).
The Gators host the LSU Tigers this Saturday (4 p.m., CBS) with a chance to extend its 20-game winning streak and cut down the nets in front of their home crowd.
According to Florida's resident in-house wordsmith…
We should have more on Hill's status later this afternoon after meeting with Donovan.
BRACKETOLOGY No. 391,736.0
Couple updated mock brackets… The Gators are No. 1 seed in the South Region (Orlando) in Jerry Palm's latest field of 68. Florida also remains the top seed in the South Region in Joe Lunardi's updated bracket.
FREEBIE FLAWS PERSIST
Florida had a nice four-game stretch at the charity stripe before a dreadful performance at the line nearly cost the Gators in Nashville.
UF's 12 attempts against Vandy were a season-low, while shooting 58 percent (7-of-12) from the stripe was its second-worst effort at the line this season.
The Gators, thanks in large part to senior center Patric Young's dramatic improvement at the free throw line, had coupled four-straight games -- including three close road tilts -- over 77 percent.
(at) Tennessee - 77.3 % (17-of-22)
(at) Kentucky 78.8 % (22-of-28)
Auburn 82.1 % (23-of-28)
(at) Ole Miss 78.9 % (15-of-19)
Young, a career 57 percent free throw shooter, is 26 for his last 34 (76 percent) at the charity stripe.
FOOTBALL SCHEDULE UPDATES
Florida and Florida State officially renewed their annual series through 2018, UF announced Thursday.
The two state rivals have played annually since 1958 and their current contract was set to expire after the 2014 season. The Gators will host the Seminoles in 2015 and 2017, while they will travel to Tallahassee in 2016 and 2018.
Meanwhile, Florida also announced an addition to its 2015 schedule, adding a September 12 home game against East Carolina. This made a former Gator Clause blogger quite happy.
* The Curious Case of DFS - Late last week I called Finney-Smith UF's X-factor and following a dismal month he responded with a terrific (and game-saving) effort against the Commodores. DFS (19 points) outscored Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Michael Frazier II combined (18 points).
GAINESVILLE -- While former Gators cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy garnered attention in draft gurus Todd McShay and Mel Kiper's initial first round mocks, it was Florida's most consistent -- and versatile -- defensive back last season who impressed during the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Jaylen Watkins, an unheralded three-year starter with experience at safety, cornerback and nickel, ran a blistering 4.41 seconds official 40-yard dash, the fourth-fastest time among players at his position. Watkins also bench pressed 225 pounds 22 times, tied for tops among his positional peers.
Watkins' 52 tackles in 2013 were third-most on Florida and Tuesday's solid workout further highlighted his talent in the eyes of NFL scouts. Following his impressive workout, he tweeted...
Meanwhile, Roberson and Purifoy both saw their stocks dip following poor performances in Indianapolis.
Purifoy, touted as an exceptional athlete and workout wonder, ran a stunningly-average 4.61 seconds 40-yard dash and managed just six reps on the bench press, fewest among all defensive backs. Roberson, who measured well (6'0", 191 lbs), also ran poorly (4.61) but did display solid leaping ability (37.5 inch vertical jump) and a nice 20-yard shuttle (4.08 seconds).
Both prospects will have a chance to redeem themselves at Florida's Pro Day on March 17, but with injury concerns (Roberson), off-the-field question marks (Purifoy), inconsistent tape (both prospects) and popular performances by other top defensive backs (see: Justin Gilbert, Jason Verrett, Bradley Roby), they could slip into the draft's middle rounds.
In all, eight former Florida players participated in the combine, including linebacker/defensive end Ronald Powell and tight end/h-back Trey Burton. Defensive tackle Dominique Easley attended the combine for measurements and interviews but did not workout as he continues to recover from a torn ACL.
Burton ran well, posting a 4.62 seconds 40-yard dash (fourth fastest at TE) and a 7.14 seconds 3-cone drill (second fastest), but complete athleticism and positional concerns continue to be a uphill climb for UF's former Swiss Army Knife.
Payton is the third 2015 prospect -- and second wide receiver -- to verbally commit to Florida in the past four days, who held its annual Junior Day over the weekend.
The 6-foot-1, 180-pound First Coast wideout is largely an unknown, holding a recent offer from UF despite not carrying a single star ranking at multiple recruiting services (Rivals, ESPN).
Payton is Florida's fourth commit -- and third Jacksonville prospect -- in its 2015 class, joining Trinity Christian defensive back Deontai Williams, Bishop Kenny offensive tackle Tyler Jordan as well as Lake Nona receiver Deondre Farrier.
For the first time since 2007, Florida, winners of 19 straight games, was voted No. 1 in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll.
The Gators (25-2, 14-0 Southeastern Conference) earned 47 of 65 first-place votes, sliding into the top spot thanks to a pair of losses by Syracuse.
Unbeaten Wichita State (29-0) received 14 first-place votes and Arizona (25-2) earned the remaining four votes, prompting UF coach Billy Donovan to say, "On any given night there are a number of teams that could look like the No. 1 team in the country."
Florida hasn't reigned as the nation's top-ranked team during the regular season since February 2007, when a weekend shellacking (83-70) at Vanderbilt ended the eventual national champs' 17-game winning streak and No. 1 status.
Coincidentally, Florida travels to Vanderbilt on Tuesday with a chance to clinch a share of the 2013-14 SEC title.
GAINESVILLE -- Florida, hosting its annual Junior Day extravaganza, picked up a pair of verbal commitments for its 2015 class over the weekend.
Three-star wide receiver Deondre Farrier (Lake Nona) and three-star offensive lineman Tyler Jordan (Bishop Kenny) both pledged their commitments to the Gators, according to multiple recruiting reports.
Later, Jordan officially announced his decision on Twitter.
Jordan, a 6-foot-4, 270-pound tackle, held offers from Georgia, Stanford, Ohio State and others, while Farrier, a 6-foot-1, 173-pound speedster, chose the Gators over South Florida, Kentucky, Miami and others.
The two prospects became UF's second and third commitments in its 2015 class.
FACT: No. 2 Florida would not have beaten then-No. 13 Kansas, No. 15 Memphis or a juiced Arkansas team without the contributions of Dorian Finney-Smith.
FICTION: Finney-Smith is the college reincarnate of Detroit's Josh Smith.
He's more maddening.
DFS has absolutely murdered UF's (otherwise) efficient field goal percentage during conference play.
His mind-numbing shooting slump extends from the 3-point line to the rim, as the redshirt sophomore is shooting a disastrous 35 percent (37-for-105) from the field in 13 conference games.
DFS is also an are-you-kidding-me 11-for-47 from downtown in SEC play. The underclassman has obviously never heard of the red light district.
FACT: Finney-Smith was touted as a versatile, playmaking point-forward with freakish rebounding skills and a player some said to be the most dominant Gator in practices over the summer.
FICTION: DSF has a nasty shot-fake.
What's it worth if you can't finish?
FACT OR FICTION: Florida can win the national title without improved play from its enigmatic forward?
Finney-Smith, UF's 6-foot-8 super sub, is a tantalizing talent.
He may well win the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year Award this season, but too often -- especially over the last month-plus -- DFS has teased solid performances with way too many eye-gouging nights.
Ostensibly, Finney-Smith helps Florida space the floor and is an assertive offensive playmaker, but the redshirt sophomore hasn't made a trey in February (0-for-18) and is 0-for-21 since his last made 3-pointer.
Finney-Smith has also showcased as an inconsistent facilitator and finisher -- two of his most ballyhooed attributes at the start of 2013-14 -- currently touting the same number assists (46) as turnovers (46) this season.
Following consecutive solid performances against Arkansas and Georgia (22 and 14 points, respectively), Finney-Smith has tallied just a single game in double-digits (11 points, Texas A&M) over UF's last 10 victories.
Yet despite all the ups-and-downs: Finney-Smith stands as Florida's biggest X-factor heading into March Madness.
WIth Chris Walker predictably still in the diaper stage of his career and Will Yeguete practically useless on the offensive end, the Gators need DFS to emerge -- on a nightly basis -- as the frontcourt force that dominated minutes in the wins over Kansas, Memphis and even Tennessee (at home).
Earlier this season, Billy Donovan routinely ran iso-plays for Finney-Smith, now he's routinely yanking the forward for shody shot selection.
On the surface, a stat line of 9.1 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game and 1.9 assists per game is superb for a role player, but DFS is more than that. He is a glorified starter (see: minutes played, closing out games) and an integral player in UF's motion offense and 1-3-1 defense.
I don't know if the Gators can win a title if Finney-Smith can't rediscover his offensive potential, and it's a question worth pondering with just five games until the madness begins.
GAINESVILLE -- For nearly 40 minutes, a heavyweight bout between David and Goliath broke out in the O'Connell Center.
Fortunately for No. 2 Florida, Auburn -- 17-point underdogs entering Wednesday's showdown -- eventually ran out of stones.
The Gators (24-2, 13-0 Southeastern Conference) won their 18th straight, as senior center Patric Young delivered a monster second half to stave off AU's upset bid en route to a 71-66 victory.
Young sank a pair of clutch free throws with 19.4 seconds remaining, as Auburn Auburn'd down the stretch while the Gators rallied late facing (mounting) pressure.
Young was (un)intentionally fouled by center Asauhn Dixon-Tatum after AU guard Chris Denson missed the possible go-ahead free throw.
"I just told myself, 'Be great. Strive to be great right now,'" Young said.
The Tigers (12-12, 4-9 SEC) threw away the ensuing impounds pass, capping a sudden imposition following a fearless effort most of the night.
"We beat ourselves in those waning moments," AU coach Tony Barbee said. "But they didn't beat themselves, so give them credit."
Young, dealing with chronic knee pain, wasn't even expected to play Wednesday and his first half effort looked like he'd made the wrong choice to suit up.
But the senior responded with a Herculean effort after halftime, scoring all 17 of his points in the second half, adding seven rebounds and three assists.
"I thought Pat was just phenomenal," UF coach Billy Donovan said.
But for most of the game, the Gators were anything but.
Florida trailed by eight at halftime (38-30), its largest home deficit this season. Following two tough road battles last week, the Gators -- visibly mentally and physically fatigued -- played like they were running on fumes.
"I thought Auburn outplayed us," Donovan said. "No question we're going to get everyone's best shot, but 'Are we going to give them our best shot?' I didn't think we did that today."
Florida struggled defensively, especially guarding the three-point line, as the Tigers drained 10 treys -- six in the first half.
Freshman guard Tahj Shamsid-Deen tied a career-high, scoring 17 points with five 3-pointers.
"We didn't play very well in the first half, but we never gave up," senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said.
The Gators opened the second half on an 11-3 run but the game settled into a rowdy see-saw affair until Wilbekin (15 points, four assists), Prather (16 points, nine rebounds) and Young made the necessary plays late.
Florida finished the win on an 8-1 run, holding the Tigers scoreless from the field over the final three minutes of the game.
"We only got motivated because the game was in doubt," Donovan said. "I am very glad we won and I thought our guys showed resiliency."
THIS & THAT
Sophomore sniper-shooter Michael Frazier drilled a go-ahead triple with 41 seconds left in the game, sending the crowd into a frenzy. Frazier briefly exited the win with an apparent left hand injury, but Donovan said the sophomore is "fine." … The Gators shot 82 percent from the charity stripe (23-of-28), their best mark in conference play this season. … UF extended its school-record home winning streak to 30 games. … Dorian Finney-Smith was 0-for-4 from downtown. The redshirt sophomore has missed his last 21 attempts since Jan. 30.
Florida climbed to No. 2 in both national polls Monday, receiving a single first place vote in the Associated Press Top 25. The Gators appear destined for a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament and are (almost) assured of playing in Orlando for the second/third rounds.
Meanwhile, point guard Kasey Hill is doubtful for tomorrow's game against Auburn after injurying his groin in the win over Kentucky.
Head coach Billy Donovan said Monday, "I would not anticipate him playing Wednesday."
NEW FOOTBALL HIRE?
Jeremy Darveau, formerly the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Division II Southwest Minnesota State, tweeted Tuesday he has joined Florida's football staff.
FootballScoop.com first reported Darveau's move, but UF has yet to confirm the news.
Will Muschamp's staff is full (all 10 spots filled), so Darveau's position is unknown. The former Louisville offensive tackle could be assigned quality control responsibilities or come on as a graduate assistant.
Darveau played two seasons with the Cardinals under UF's new offensive line coach Mike Summers.
Miami Belen Jesuit placekicker Jorge Powell will walk-on at Florida, according to the Miami Herald's own Safid Deen.
Powell was originally slated to attend Penn State, but will instead compete against Austin Hardin, UF's lone scholarship kicker who suffered through a dreadful redshirt freshman campaign, walk-on Frankie Velez (6-of-8 field goals) and former Virginia Tech kickoff specialist Brooks Abbott.
According to The Gainesville Sun, Powell's father attended Florida and the placekicker wanted to play closer to home.
JACKSON'S CAREER OVER?
On Feb. 4, The Moultrie Observer published a piece on Florida redshirt freshman Octavius Jackson and the offensive lineman's persistent, but failing battle with multiple shoulder injuries.
Muschamp touted Jackson as one of UF's most promising linemen throughout the fall, but it appears the Colquitt County High standout will never play for the Gators following career-ending surgery.
Jackson also addressed the situation on Instagram.
ESPN.com announced last week Florida agreed to participate in a unique "barnstorming event" in December 2018.
The Gators, along with Michigan State, North Carolina and Texas, will play three games in eight days, one each in New York City (Madison Square Garden), Chicago (United Center) and Los Angeles (Staples Center).
According to ESPN.com, the teams will all travel together on a single charted airplane. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis, an innovator in creative college basketball events including the first aircraft carrier game, is the brainchild for the non-conference showcase tour.
STAT OF THE DAY
Gators point guard Scottie Wilbekin tallied 44 points (21 at Tennessee, 23 at UK), eight assists and zero turnovers in Florida two major road wins last week. Monday, UF's senior leader was named the SEC Player of the Week and one of 23 finalists for the Cousy Award, given to the nation's top college point guard.
GAINESVILLE -- From the wonderful wisdom of Ice-T: "Pimpin' ain't easy, but some somebody gotta do it."
No. 3 Florida won in Lexington for the first time since 2007, downing the talented Wildcats 69-59 for a significant victory.
The Gators extended their winning streak to 17 games and for all intents and purposes (likely) locked up the Southeastern Conference regular season title.
Comparisons (however faulty and careless) to the Oh-Fours are already trickling out, but the one definitive trait the two groups have/had in common: An obsession -- and joy -- in winning.
Florida's victory at Tennessee on Tuesday night was nice and full of fortunate happenstances, but Patric Young's Herculean-save exemplified this team's horror of losing.
Casey Prather's Superman snatch Saturday night was no different.
Saturday's victory in Rupp Arena was an efficient, fastidious evisceration over perhaps "the most talented team in the country."
Although "youth versus experience" became the anti-narrative leading up to the marquee matchup, the game played out as initially presumed.
UF freshman roadrunner Kasey Hill logged the fewest minutes of his collegiate career, as Donovan basically rotated six guys -- the four seniors plus sophomores Michael Frazier and Dorian Finney-Smith -- the majority of the game.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin was fantastic, finishing with a career-high 23 points, zero turnovers and all the poise. The (potential) frontrunner for SEC POY was also 11-of-12 from the charity stripe in the face of a hostile crowd -- only missing his final attempt.
How did the Gators win in Rupp Arena shooting just 44 percent from the field -- including 3-for-13 from downtown -- and getting gashed (comparatively speaking) defensively in the first half?
Execution. Experience. Effort.
* Florida scored an insane 2.21 points per possession over the final 10+ minutes of the game. UF's efficient offense -- led by Wilbekin's weaving penetration -- ultimately won the game for the Gators.
* The Gators shot a season-high (in conference play) 78.6 percent from the free throw line (22-of-28), drilling 15 of their last 17 attempts.
* Florida outscored UK 22-11 following John Calipari's (rather mysterious) technical foul.
* The Gators had just five turnovers -- two from a pair of role players who combined for less than 20 minutes of action.
* For the all the talk of UK's dominance on the offensive glass, the Gators actually out-rebounded the Wildcats 10-9 -- the dagger Prather's board with 1:25 remaining in a five-point game.
Florida's 17th straight win Saturday night didn't change the team's ceiling or alter any attitudes for those intimately aware of UF's consistent crunch-time coolness thisseason.
Instead, "Wrangled at Rupp" simply confirmed what many already knew: Florida is a damn fine team -- and seemingly getting better -- with a legitimate shot at bringing Billy Donovan his third national title.
The Gators -- dangerous and hungry -- have played like a championship-caliber team for nearly two months, and although their primetime win at No. 14 Kentucky suddenly vaulted them into the title discourse for the national press, they should've been the talk of college hoops already.
GAINESVILLE -- In advance of Saturday’s marquee matchup, No. 3 Florida coach Billy Donovan called No. 14 Kentucky “top to bottom the most talented team in the country.”
The Gators -- the lone undefeated team in Southeastern Conference play -- take on the Wildcats in Rupp Arena tomorrow night in primetime (9 p.m., ESPN College GameDay).
Kentucky starts five of the top nine freshmen in ESPN’s 2013 prospect rankings, led by double-double machine Julius Randle (15.8 ppg, 9.9 rebs) and the Harrison twins (Aaron, Andrew).
Florida’s coach downplayed the youth versus experience (UF starts four seniors) angle though, saying, “Those guys have played a lot of basketball against a lot of good players. Right now, everybody’s got about 24-25 games under their belt. Those guys certainly, all their guys have logged an enormous amount of minutes. They’ve grown, too. I don’t look at it like that. Maybe it’s different at the first game of the year. Right now at this point in time, you’ve got a very experienced team in terms of roles, responsibilities and what they’re going through.”
The Gators have dropped eight of 10 against John Calipari’s McDonald’s All-American factory Wildcats and haven’t won in (rowdy) Rupp Arena since 2007.
UF senior center Patric Young admitted, “We let one slip out of our hands last year (61-57). It would be really special to finally get one and not go my whole career not winning there.”
While expounding on Kentucky's talent, Donovan also acknowledged he is wary of UK’s size and rebounding prowess, calling it the “ultimate test” and “extremely important in the outcome in the game.”
“It’s an impressive stat. They get it back a little bit more than 41% of their missed shots,” Donovan said. “They do a great job on the glass. … Kentucky’s depth in terms of two guys on the bench with the same level of length and size and physical strength, it makes them a good rebounding team.”
Florida, in the midst of a 16-game winning streak and just one victory shy of matching a school record, hopes its staunch defense (No. 1 scoring defense) can contain Kentucky’s explosive offense (No. 2 in scoring). A win (very likely) wraps up the SEC regular-season title for the Gators and keeps them in line for a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
GAINESVILLE -- No. 3 Florida upended Tennessee 67-58 Tuesday night in Thompson-Boling Arena.
Despite another hard-fought battle in Knoxville, the Gators (22-2, 11-0 Southeastern Conference) won their 16th straight game thanks to effort, equanimity and a continued pursuit of excellence.
The Volunteers (15-9, 6-5 SEC) were red-hot from the field in the first half, but the Gators managed to weather UT's shooting storm and play spoiler as Tennessee teased a national audience once again.
While Florida tightened up its interior defense in the second half and made critical plays (Michael Frazier, Scottie Wilbekin treys; Patric Young hustle rebound) when necessary, a (potentially) overlooked factor in Tuesday's victory was the improvement in UF's normally-middling free throw shooting.
The Gators shot 77 percent (17-22) from the charity stripe, easily its top mark in conference play all year.
For Florida fans, the hope is that its free throw percentage -- 66 percent for the season -- continues to improve. If not, it could doom UF's chances to win a national title.
I've purposely buried the lede here, but the last NCAA team to shoot under 70 percent and win a national championship: The 2006-07 Florida Gators.
Take a peak of the last decade, and only two teams have shot under 70 percent and won a title.
FREE THROW %
The 2013-14 Gators dominate both traditional (field-goal percentage, scoring, etc.) and advanced (see: kenpom.com) analytics -- with the notable exception of team free throwing shooting.
Coach Billy Donovan is certainly aware of the issue, as Florida ranks No. 292 nationally.
The Gators are on a roll and appear to be the nation's most complete (and underrated) team. They're experienced, talented, deep, measured and hungry, but even a lone scarlet weakness could torpedo the entire season come March.
GAINESVILLE -- Two weeks ago, No. 3 Florida smothered Tennessee 67-41, as the Gators defended possessed and frustrated UT's top scorer Jordan McRae all afternoon.
The Volunteers were a frightening 1-of-19 from downtown and held 34 points below their season average.
Florida has been dominant defensively this season, especially inside the comfortable confines of the O'Connell Center, but Tennessee's Thompson-Boling Arena has been a house of horrors for the Gators for nearly a decade.
UF has dropped seven of eight in Knoxville, last winning 81-75 in 2011.
"It's going to be a different game. I can feel it," senior forward Will Yeguete said. "We know McRae's not going to come in and go 1-for-15 in their place."
The Vols have won four straight at home, averaging nearly 80 points per game with seven made 3-pointers.
"If you look at their numbers at home from the three-point line, they’re pretty incredible," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "They’re not going to shoot that kind of percentage like they did (here). They are a very, very dangerous three-point shooting team and if you look at their home stats, when they’re at home, they are shooting a very high percentage from the three.”
Starting with tonight (7 p.m., ESPN), Florida (21-2, 10-0 SEC) plays four of its next five games on the road, all against the SEC's upper echelon.
Can the Gators extend their 15-game winning streak? Which team is more likely to snap Florida's undefeated record in conference play: Tennessee or No. 12 Kentucky on Saturday?
GAINESVILLE -- The Master continues to dominate his Protégé.
Billy Donovan moved to 8-0 all-time against good friend and former lead assistant Anthony Grant, as No. 3 Florida stayed perfect in Southeastern Conference play with a 78-69 win over Alabama on Saturday afternoon.
Senior guard Scottie Wilbekin scored 16 points, leading all five UF starters in double figures. Sophomore swingman Michael Frazier added 14 points, while seniors Will Yeguete (12), Casey Prather (15) and Patric Young (11) all chipped in double-figures too.
Florida (21-2, 10-0 SEC) shredded Alabama's (9-14, 3-7 SEC) zone defense, finishing with a season-high 22 assists and 48 points in the paint.
Despite a lackluster defensive performance, the Gators topped the Crimson Tide for the second time in 16 days, extending two winning streaks (15th straight overall, 29th consecutive victory at home) in the process.
The Gators, who entered the contest holding their last seven opponents to 35.6 percent shooting and 51.3 points per game, sprinted to an 8-0 lead before the Crimson Tide ever crossed half-court. They hit their first seven shots and the rout appeared on.
Alabama managed to weather the early storm and actually jumped to a 20-18 lead after its own 16-4 run. Fueled by a trapping zone defense and senior guard Trevor Releford's ridiculous shot-making, the Tide frustrated the Gators into a seven minute scoreless stretch.
"We got off to a really good start," Donovan said. "But then we just turned the ball over and made some really poor decisions in open-floor situations."
Alabama was red-hot from the field in the first half, shooting 61 percent with 14 made baskets.
“Our defense was bad the whole game,” Donovan said. “It’s an everyday grind to be really, really good and we were not where we were supposed to be. Thank God we had some offense that helped us today.”
Florida eventually solved Grant's pressure-zone, scoring on nine of its final 10 possessions in the first half.
With the score knotted at 36-all, the Gators opened the second half on a 14-5 run, spending the rest of the afternoon fouling and slowly watering its lead.
Releford finished with a game-high 25 points, but the Tide eventually ran out of gas, as the Gators' tempo was too much.
Despite the win, Donovan was displeased with UF's trademark suffocating defense struggling against a below-average offense. Alabama shot 55 percent from the field, hitting six treys. Florida forced 16 turnovers, but kept UA in the game with lots of free throws and too many wide open looks.
"We just fouled way too much," Donovan said. "We're about to play some games where if you play defense like we did tonight, you're not going to win."
Florida's 15-point second-half lead was enough to overcome its sloppy play, as Alabama never trailed by less than seven following UF's run out of halftime. The Gators' 21-2 start is the second-best in school history, but Donovan was more concerned with the future.
"That's just a record of what has happened in the past," he said. "I'm not overly joyous we're 10-0 in the SEC. We've played most of our games against the bottom-half of our league."
The Gators hit the road for four of their next five games, starting with Tennessee on Tuesday night (7 p.m., ESPN).
GAINESVILLE -- Florida coach Will Muschamp delivered multiple zingers during his 30-minute press conference Wednesday, but none was more direct than his shot at Florida's putrid tight end production in 2013.
"It was a very offensive position when Jordan Reed was here," Muschamp quipped. "It was an offensive position last year."
Florida's tight ends -- Tevin Westbrook, Clay Burton and Clay Thompson (briefly) -- combined for just four receptions last season, as Muschamp publicly challenged the group throughout the year.
The Gators wasted little time addressing the position this offseason, signing three tight ends in their 2014 recruiting class, headlined by converted-receiver and four-star Taylor County standout Moral Stephens.
Three-stars C'yontai Lewis and DeAndre Goolsby also signed with Florida, with both prospects targeted early in the process. While Lewis and Gooslby project as developmental players, all three freshmen are expected to compete for immediate playing time come fall.
“I felt like we needed to athletically improve ourselves at tight end. And I think we took some steps there,” Muschamp said. “Those guys need to step forward, probably have some young guys help us out there to be able to take the next step.”
During Kurt Roper's introductory press conference last month, Florida's new offensive coordinator never mentioned how he prefers (or plans) to use tight ends in his spread offense, but the stats suggest he schemes for tight ends to be involved … quite a bit.
In 2013, Braxton Deaver, Duke's junior tight end, was the team's second-leading receiver.
Deaver posted nearly identical numbers -- 46 receptions, 600 yards, four touchdowns -- to Jordan Reed’s heralded 2012 campaign (45 catches, 559 yards three touchdowns).
The Blue Devils' second- and-third string tight ends actually caught more balls (five) than Florida's entire group last season.
In 2012, Duke's top two tight ends combined for 50 receptions and four touchdowns.
It remains to be seen how Florida will integrate three raw freshmen with a group of underachieving upperclassmen, but Muschamp is fond of the phrase “competition is the best motivator” and appears geninuly excited about infusing the position with fresh talent.
“Cyontai is a guy that we targeted. Brian White was actually watching another player practice last spring and just kept noticing this guy's athleticism. We challenged him to come to camp. He came to camp and had an outstanding camp, and a guy that showed all the athleticism and ball skills to be really, really good. … DeAndre Goolsby is another guy we targeted early on. [Position coach] Derrick Lewis went out and evaluated him in the last spring evaluation, really liked his movement skills, his growth potential, his toughness, his point of attack and those things, and excited to have him on campus and a guy that can do some different things for you. And then Moral Stephens is a guy that we didn't think we were going to have room for. He came to camp. He did an outstanding job in camp. We really liked him, and then when we had some attrition, it opened up a spot for him, and we're really happy to have him.”
GAINESVILLE -- The roller-coaster recruitment of Immokalee cornerback J.C. Jackson ended Wednesday morning when the four-star defensive back held firm in his commitment to Florida, rebuffing strong advances by in-state rivals Miami and Florida State.
Following weeks of speculation of a possible third flip, Jackson, once an FSU commit, was actually one of UF's first signees to officially fax in his National Letter of Intent.
The Under Armour All-American is purportedly close friends with former UF pledges Dalvin Cook and Ermon Lane, leading many to believe he too would decommit from the Gators.
Wednesday afternoon, Florida coach Will Muschamp discussed Jackson's recruiting saga and much of the "misinformation" on the Internet.
“It’s amazing, I don't really follow the Internet much, but there's so much hearsay and as much information there is out there, in my opinion, there's a lot of misinformation,” Muschamp said.
“I get tons of phone calls about, ‘Well, I heard this, I heard that.’ I mean I can't keep up with all the what‑I‑heard stuff. I have to go off fact, and I go off talking to Lisa, his mother, and Chris, his father, and J. C. I deal with the family and I talk to them. And certainly I don't think our season helped, but I think that he saw his best opportunity to come in and play corner at Florida. You know, seeing Marcus [Roberson] and Loucheiz [Purifoy] and Jaylen [Watkins], our three top corners leaving and moving on that were upper classmen, seeing his opportunity here to play here at Florida, it was something he was excited about.
“I know he looked at some other places, no different than a lot of kids do, and I encourage kids to do, to go make sure they're making the right decision, to go take a look at another place. And so, you know, again, I never ‑‑ we never felt it was that much in the balance, maybe as what a lot of people seemed to think. We never felt that way. And you never know till you get the facts in. Any coach that tells you they know what was going to happen, they can't say that.”
Jackson, at 5-foot-10, 175-pounds, projects as an immediate contributor in Florida's depleted secondary and/or as a play-making returner.
GAINESVILLE -- Time for coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.
First, Florida flipped its eighth prospect on the eve of National Sigining Day, landing the committment of offensive tackle Andrew Mike (Tucson, Az.). The three-star prospect was formally pledged to Vanderbilt, but his commitment late Tuesday night likely means the Gators will miss on five-star tackle Damian Prince.
CONFIRMED LOIs (not including nine early enrollees)
WR Ryan Sousa
DB Quincy Wilson
DB J.C. Jackson
DT Khairi Clark
TE C'yontai Lewis
TE Moral Stephens
ATH Deiondre Porter
DL Justus Reed
DL Gerald Willis III
DT Thomas Holley
OL Andrew Mike
OL Travaris Dorsey
OL David Sharpe
QB Treon Harris
WR C.J. Worton
--- UF has received the LOIs from all 24 members of its 2014 class.
FLORIDA'S BIG BOARD (with announcement times)
DB J.C. Jackson (Immokalee) **** (8 a.m.) - CONFIRMED UF PLEDGE
GAINESVILLE -- Freshman forward Chris 'Sky' Walker took flight Tuesday evening, but it was No. 3 Florida's brilliant backcourt that dominated the Missouri Tigers in UF's 14th straight win.
Backed by Scottie Wilbekin's 19 points, including shooting 13-of-16 from the charity stripe, Michael Frazier's 14 points and Kasey Hill's six assists, UF scooted past Mizzou 68-58 for its 28th consecutive victory at home.
Florida (20-2, 9-0 SEC) held Missouri (16-6, 4-5 SEC) to its lowest scoring output since its last trip to the O'Connell Center on Jan. 2013, frustrating the Tigers into 12 turnovers and 39 percent shooting Tuesday night.
“We know since we're the top team in the SEC, we’re going to get everyone’s best shot,” said senior center Patric Young, who finished the evening with 13 points and six rebounds.
“We don’t want any letdowns. We have to bring our A-game every night, and we know it."
The Gators again struggled to score in the half-court in the first half (just 1-of-11 from downtown), but Florida shot the ball from the perimeter much better after halftime -- mainly Frazier.
The sophomore sniper drilled three treys in two minutes, busting a close game wide open late in the second half.
"This was a really hard game for us, " UF coach Billy Donovan said. "It was a struggle all the way through. Nothing was easy."
The Gators everntually sprinted to a 15-3 run to put away a pesky Tigers team, as Donovan acknowledged UF’s ability to play inside-out allowed them to slowly exploit Mizzou's zone defense.
But while Florida's win was the ultimately entree on the evening, Walker's highly-anticipated debut was a delicious desert for UF fans.
The five-star freshman, who sat out 12 games after the NCAA ruled he received impermissible benefits from five different people, entered the game to a raucous standing ovation with 11:28 remaining in the first half.
The 6-foot-10 McDonald's All American immediately made his presence felt, delivering a vicious block and a silly two-handed slam off a lob from former AAU teammate Hill in a three minute span.
"It was nice," Walker said. "I kept a positive mind and just kept working."
"I just looked in [Hill's] eyes and it brought back flashbacks," Walker said.
Later, Florida's freshmen duo connected again, sending a packed O'Dome into a frenzy.
With seconds remaining in the first half, Walker flushed another thunderous alley-oop on a sweet feed from Hill. The scintillating slam was soured a bit, however, as Jabari Brown drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
In all though, it was a solid debut for a tantalizing talent. Walker finished with four points, two blocks, two fouls and a rebound in just seven minutes. He missed a couple defensive rotations, displaying some brief (and expected) confusion, but he played with the energy, effort and swagger teased for weeks.
"I really had no idea what to expect," Donovan said. "I thought he contributed very positively."
While Embattled coach Will Muschamp struggled to win football games in 2013, his proficiency to flip star recruits (seven already) and build another stellar recruiting class (nine early enrollees) has dominated headlines since the calendar changed.
But how will UF finish tomorrow?
Early indications are a tad troubling (see below), but first...
QB Treon Harris (Booker T. Washington) **** (9 a.m.)
OT Damian Prince (Bishop McNamara, Md.) ***** (10:20 a.m., ESPNU)
OT Derrick Kelly (East Gadsden) *** (1 p.m.)
ATH Adoree' Jackson (Junipero Serra, Ca.) ***** (2:10 p.m., ESPNU)
DE Lorenzo Carter (Norcross, Ga.) ***** (3 p.m., ESPNU)
According to reports from both Rivals & 247sports, UF appears to be losing steam with Prince and Carter, while McKenzie and Kelly are also unlikely to commit to Florida.
However, J.C. Jackson is considered (relatively) firm in his pledge to UF.
Ultimately, Florida's white whale remains Adoree' Jackson, but at this date not even Nostradamus has a clue where's he's going.
Which leads me to…
THREE NSD QUESTIONS
1. Can UF snag its must-have playmaker?
Jackson is a major need for UF and despite Florida building an-already nice class (No. 7 overall, per Rivals), some may view NSD as disappointing if the Gators don't reel in the five-star athlete.
2. How will UF finish in SoFla?
The decommitments of Dalvin Cook and Ermon Lane stung (sharply), but many will still consider it a nice haul if Florida manages to poach J.C. Jackson, Worton and Harris from Miami's backyard (and a Florida State stronghold).
3. Paging Mr. Prince?
The Gators lost the last time they went head-to-head with the hometown Terps, and while Prince isn't the catch Stefon Diggs was (in terms of need), he'd still be a marquee player in UF's 2014 class.
As always, stay tuned.
Check back tommorrow for frequent updates on blog.
GAINESVILLE -- No. 3 Florida destroyed Texas A&M 69-36 on Saturday, coasting to its 13th straight win following another defensive masterpiece.
The Gators continue to make a mockery of the Southeastern Conference, rolling through the cupcake-riddled league like a hot knife through butter.
At one point Saturday, Texas A&M trailed by more points (38) than it ultimately scored overall, as the Gators limited the Aggies to their lowest point total on the year.
Led by Michael Frazier II's 22 points and Dorian Finney-Smith 11 points and nine rebounds, the Gators breezed past a woeful Aggies bunch, who dropped their fifth-straight game.
"We're not the No. 3 team in the country for no reason," senior center Patric Young said.
Added Fraizer II: "It's scary because that I think there are still a lot of things we can get better at."
In front of another sellout crowd, Florida (19-2, 8-0 SEC) extended its school-record winning streak at home to 27 games.
Behind a dominating rebounding advantage (57-27) and a quick-closing permitter defense (A&M shot a woeful 20 percent from downtown), the Gators tied their school record for the fewest points allowed in conference play since 1950 -- matching last season's performance against South Carolina.
Florida didn't shoot the ball particularly well either -- just 41 percent -- but 25 second chance points (17 offensive rebounds) and a 20-point advantage in the paint erased the team's streaky long-range shooting.
Young, who played with relentless intensity all afternoon, capped his 22nd birthday with a near double-double (nine points, career-high 13 rebounds) but fell just short after missing his final three free throws.
The senior's ridiculous follow-up jam was one of the few highlights in an otherwise ho-hum win.
"I thought Patric played exceptionally well today," coach Billy Donovan said. "I thought his energy was really, really good. I told him that I would tell him everyday was his birthday so he would play like that all the time."
Florida has won its first four SEC games inside the O'Dome by an average of 24.3 points.
Young said the Gators "dont really care" about the SEC's perception as a weak-hoops conference, before adding, "Our league is not the best but it's still a good league."
GAINESVILLE -- No. 3 Florida coach Billy Donovan said he was unaware of the exact findings in Wednesday's NCAA report outlining freshman forward Chris Walker’s 12-game suspension for receiving impermissible benefits.
After missing 40 percent of the season, the 6-foot-10 McDonald’s All-American will make his collegiate debut Tuesday when the Gators host Missouri (9 p.m., ESPN).
On Friday, Donovan defended Walker’s role in the violations -- the NCAA report stated Walker received free cell phones, airfare, lodging, meals and apparel, among other things -- suggesting the freshman’s naivety of NCAA rules played a key role.
“Chris is a really, really good kid. I think one of the things that is very difficult in these situations is really whether they know the rules or not,” Donovan said.
“I’m sure Chris didn’t know a lot of those things. I think obviously if Chris knew some of those things were a problem, I would believe he wouldn’t have done those things.”
Florida’s coach also refused to fault Walker’s guardian, Jeneen Campbell, or blanket blame on all third parties.
Donovan highlighted the NCAA’s trouble educating prep prospects, acknowledging the governing agency is likely in over its head and cannot properly police all AAU programs.
“What exactly is the obligation of the institution or the NCAA?,” Donovan asked.
“I know the NCAA tries. They try at All-American events, summer events try to talk to the kids and explain things to them, but it’s very, very difficult in a lot of ways. … The hard part right now, what goes on in the summer time, I think it’s really difficult for the NCAA to police all of that stuff, and I would imagine in some way there are a lot of kids out there right now that don’t know that this is not allowed, that you can’t do this, that this is an extra added benefit.”
***** MORE DONOVAN UNPLUGGED *****
On third parties in college basketball...
“Everybody is involved with third parties. Everybody is involved. It’s everybody’s issue. It’s just kind of the way of the world. I think some of the rules to come out with third party and some of those things, like I said earlier, it’s impossible to police it all. Some of these guys that are involved with these kids in a lot of sense do a really good job with kids. They really, really help out a lot of kids. That’s probably where the argument comes in where is it allowed, is it not allowed? How long is the relationship? Those are all things you have to uncover in those situations. Jeneen Campbell, she’s a great lady. She’s done the very, very best job she can to help Chris. She doesn’t know the rules. She was kind enough to help out Chris at a time when he was growing up to give him a home and place to grow up and I really, really respect her a lot. Obviously, I think for her she’s probably looking at it like, ‘Why didn’t I know more?’”
On his reaction to the NCAA’s report…
“I haven’t even read the it. I didn’t even, to me it’s, I’ve just kind moved forward with it. I didn’t even go through the report. As I told you guys, there was stuff that I was not informed on because a lot of those meetings were closed meetings between Chris and the NCAA. It had really nothing to do with us and our recruiting of Chris. It had to do with obviously his AAU program, what happened in high school and those kind of things. I’m just happy for him that the NCAA has allowed him to at least play here relatively soon.”
On possibly improving rules awareness for prep athletes…
“I don’t know. I think for certain things there’s people that say, ‘What’s the big deal? Come on, give me a break. It’s not a recruiting situation where an institution is giving something to a kid. This is something that was going on.’ … I don’t know what we could do to try and help more kids, but it’s a tough thing because I do think in a lot of ways there’s a lot of kids out there, but Chris just happened to be one of those guys that got put to the forefront. Again, I think Chris in a certain standpoint probably was maybe a little bit taken back that some of those things were an issue. But there are kids out there that could potentially be in harm’s way, too. You don’t want to see anybody have to go through what Chris went through. I think it’s been a trying time for him. Like I said, I’m just happy that he’s moving forward. We tried to let the NCAA do their job and let the school handle it. We just tried to get prepared and ready to play games. I’m just happy he’s cleared and he’s able to play."
Florida hosts Texas A&M tomorrow at 4 p.m. on SECTV.
GAINESVILLE -- Chris 'Sky' Walker is finally free to soar.
No. 3 Florida's 6-foot-10 McDonald's All-American forward -- cleared Wednesday by the NCAA -- will make his collegiate debut Feb. 4 in primetime when UF hosts Missouri (9 p.m., ESPN).
“We’re glad there’s a resolution for everyone involved, especially Chris,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said in a news release.
“We appreciate everyone’s participation in this process and are ready to move forward.”
ESPN’s Jeff Goodman first reported Walker’s reinstatement, with the NCAA and university quickly confirming the sourced report.
According to a release by the NCAA, Walker received a 12-game suspension -- or 40 percent of the season -- for accepting impermissible benefits from five people, including two agents.
The report states Walker received “free cell phones and service, airfare, lodging, meals and apparel.”
Additionally, “individuals close to Walker received free airfare and lodging for nine different trips, including eight associated with Walker’s non-scholastic [AAU] basketball team competitions.”
The five-star forward is required to donate the $270 he received from agents to a charity of his choice and perform 80 hours of community service.
“I appreciate all the support from UF, Coach Donovan and my teammates,” Walker said in a statement. “I’m looking forward to helping the team any way I can.”
He later tweeted...
The report states Walker was declared ineligible by the NCAA [at an unspecified date] and then Florida filed for Walker’s reinstatement Jan. 21. The two parties “worked to finalize the facts” until Wednesday’s decision.
“The NCAA membership has expressed continued concern about how third-party influence, improper agent involvement and the role of non-scholastic basketball impact student-athletes and prospects,” Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs, said in the statement.
“Out of concern for student-athletes’ wellbeing, our members have created rules that limit the involvement of these individuals. The 12 games Mr. Walker was required to sit out reflect the significance of these violations.”
Walker, a freak finisher and shot-blocker as prep prospect, didn’t enroll at Florida until Dec. 14 after failing to qualify academically last summer. The Bonifay native, who led Holmes County to the 1A state finals, spent the fall getting his academics in order, eventually completing the necessary requirements to enroll for the spring semester.
Florida confirms Goodman's report, saying Walker has been cleared and will debut against Mizzou.
In a statement, coach Billy Donovan said, "We're glad there's a resolution for everyone involved, especially Chris. We appreciate everyone's participation in this process and are ready to move forward."
Walker, a five-star forward expected to bolster UF's frontcourt, added, "I appreciate all the support from UF, coach Donovan and my teammates. I'm looking forward to helping the team any way I can."
Meanwhile, the NCAA released a report on Walker's reinstatement, explaining the 12-game suspension.
According to the NCAA, Walker accepted $270 in benefits and is required to donate the same amount to a charity of his choice.
Walker must also serve 80 hours of community service for "the remaining benefits received."
More to come...
GAINESVILLE -- From the best source to date...
If true, the long nightmare for the 2013 McDonald's All-American would be over.
According to Goodman, Walker will be (officially) eligible to play on Tuesday (Feb. 4) when No. 3 Florida hosts Missouri in a nationally televised showcase (9 p.m., ESPN).
The university has yet to confirm Goodman's report or issue any sort of statement.
First things first, Florida jumped to No. 3 in the Associated Press Top 25 poll, its highest ranking since last February.
UF (17-2, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) leapfrogged unbeaten Wichita State and is no longer flying under the radar riding its 11-game winning streak.
Last season, No. 2 Florida was throttled on the road at Arkansas, and coach Billy Donovan acknowledged uncertainty with how this year’s team would respond to its newfound hype.
The Gators travel to Starkville to play Mississippi State on Thursday (7 p.m., ESPN2).
“You always want to go into every game on edge and understanding that in any competitive situation, anything can happen. Hopefully, our guys will respond to that,” Donovan said. “It really doesn’t make a difference about anything that’s happened in the past."
A week after being held scoreless at Auburn, sophomore swingman Michael Frazier II was named the SEC’s player of the week following a pair of shining performances in wins over Alabama and Tennessee.
UF’s guard -- one of the premier shooters in the country -- scored 35 points while connecting on eight treys (8-for-19) in the two games.
Frazier also chipped in five assists and six rebounds and called the honor “great,” adding, “Just shows how hard work pays off.”
For the season, the sophomore is averaging 12.3 points per game and shooting 46 percent from behind the arc.
#FREESKYWALKER HAPPENING SOON?
Just last week, Donovan said he was done talking about freshman forward Chris Walker, who remains ineligible awaiting NCAA clearance.
Not so fast.
With a report suggesting the NCAA could clear Walker sometime this week, Donovan addressed the McDonald’s All-American’s status and again tempered expectations.
Donovan said Walker would definitely play if/when eligible, later espousing his lengthy concern for fans’ prospects for the 6-foot-10 forward whenever Walker does see the court.
“My biggest fear for Chris is you have a highly exposed player and sometimes when a guy isn’t playing the ‘legend of Chris Walker’ grows greater than who he really is,” Donovan explained. “You know, it was the same thing with [Dorian Finney-Smith] last year. He’s sitting out and everyone is talking about this guy like he’s Magic Johnson. And Chris Walker now is, ‘Oh my, this guy is going to end up being Kevin Garnett,’ and he’s not that. And I think whenever he gets able to play if that’s their expectation of Chris Walker they’re going to be very, very disappointed because he’s not that. And my biggest fear for him is there is a level of anticipation and excitement of whenever he gets cleared to play, but I hope there is at least a level of understanding in terms of how much he’s missed in terms of coming in to where he’s coming in, and if anybody is expecting him to be savior it would really be unfair. He’s got a lot of growing to do. He’s got a lot of physical growing, mental growing, he’s got to understand the college game a lot more. There’s so much that’s in front of him to get better at and I just hope people will not look at it and say, ‘wow. I was expecting something different.’”
According to Donovan, Walker has maintained a positive attitude during the whole ordeal and has gained 10 pounds, improving his strength and conditioning over the past six weeks.
HARRIS MAKING PROGRESS
Suspended center Damontre Harris is slowly working his way back into Donovan’s good graces, but Florida’s coach confirmed the former South Carolina transfer has no chance to play this season.
“I think it would completely devalue what our team values are here in terms of what we’re trying to do each and every day,” Donovan said. “He had every opportunity back in November to do those things and he elected not to. You know I said, ‘we’re parting ways, he’s going to move on.’ Then obviously he reached out. But you have too many guys like Patric Young and [Will] Yeguete and [Casey] Prather and those guys that have been committed for years and really working to do the right things. For him to all of sudden just get injected back in there because he may help our team, I mean I think we’ve done fine without him. He’ll have to work to get better and improve but we’re not going to play him this year.”
Harris was suspended indefinitely to start the 2013-14 season and was eventually kicked off the team in late December. But over the holidays, the redshirt junior had a change of heart and pleaded with Donovan for an opportunity to rejoin the team.
Although Harris was granted his request, it came with major restrictions and expectations including never playing a game this season or sitting courtside on the bench.
GAINESVILLE -- No. 6 Florida entered Saturday’s showdown against Tennessee red-hot, winners of nine straight games including back-to-back road victories in Southeastern Conference play.
And yet, coach Billy Donovan was frustrated, believing his Gators were “winning the battles but losing the war.”
Following consecutive lackluster performances -- especially defensively -- at Auburn and Alabama, Donovan implored his team to play desperate.
“It’s a gift,” Donovan said. “A gift.”
Florida (17-2, 6-0 SEC) curb-stomped its recent Achilles heel, dominating Tennessee 67-41 for its 26th straight victory inside the O’Connell Center.
Saturday’s good ole fashion whippin’ was punctuated by alley-oop dunks, fastbreak layups and Michael Frazier 3-pointers, as the Gators avenged a three-game skid against the Volunteers.
But Florida’s win -- in Donovan’s 600th career game -- was ignited by a relentlessly suffocating -- and desperate -- defense.
“Coach [Donovan] had a reoccurring theme of being desperate -- desperate as if this was the national championship game,” senior center Patric Young said. “Every possession is the championship possession. We were locked in and focused on whatever it took to win. When you can hold Jordan McRae to five points and he gets frustrated, your team did something right. I think we did something right tonight."
The Gators -- led by senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin -- defended possessed and feasted on the Volunteers’ inability to shoot, pass or dribble.
“We had a chip on our shoulder,” Young said. “They kicked our butts the last three times [we played them].
Said UT coach Cuonzo Martin: "Florida did a great job defending. Really. They turned us over, sped us up with the press. … We just couldn't make shots.”
Florida held Tennessee (12-7, 3-3 SEC) to a season-low 41 points -- 34 points below its season average, pressing Young to say afterwards, “I can't see an offense we can’t stop.”
The Volunteers were an abysmal 1-of-19 from 3-point range and committed 13 turnovers.
McRae, who averages 19.1 points per game, scored his lowest out-put of the season (five points), finishing with a stat-line (1-of-15, 1-for-6 from 3-point range, zero assists or steals) that would scare even the most fervent American Horror Story fans.
“I thought most all his shots were challenged,” Donovan said. “We made it really difficult.”
But before Florida wiped out UT, Saturday’s first half was a grind-it-out game.
Despite an 11-2 run -- which included the first of two highlight jams by Young -- Florida led just 26-19 at halftime as it was held scoreless for more than three minutes to end the period.
But an increase in intensity, coupled with an electric crowd and improved shot-making turned the back-and-forth affair into a rout.
“To be down seven at the half -- shooting like 20 percent -- we felt pretty good about ourselves,” UT senior center Jeronne Maymon said. “But we came out and they turned it up another notch and we kind of stayed where we were.”
The Gators opened the second half on a 21-5 run and later smothered the Vols into a five-minute scoreless drought. Junior center Jarnell Stokes (16 points, 10 rebounds) was UT’s lone bright spot, as the rest of the team combined to shoot an astonishing 19.1 percent.
Frazier paced the Gators with 17 points, also assisting on both of Young’s dunks including a lob for a ridiculous one-handed jam surely to be seen on SportsCenter.
THIS & THAT
Casey Prather topped double-figures (12 points) for the 17th straight game, while Wilbekin and Young added 13 and 10 points, respectively. ... UF was out-rebounded 40-35, including 16-7 on the offensive glass. ... Florida shot 51 percent in the second half.
"We'll see. I don't know if ESPN likes putting the Gators in the Top 10 all that much."
-- Young, on if his dunk would be featured on SportsCenter.