Chris Walker’s debut opens more questions for Florida Gators

The cardiac Florida Gators continued their trend of sluggish starts and strong finishes in strengthening their grip atop SEC standings. The 10-point victory over Missouri was certainly not as comfortable as it looks on paper, but as I’ve said before: a win is a win and the Gator Nation will take what they can get.

With the victory, Florida broke the school record for consecutive SEC wins (14), extended their overall (12) and home (27) winning streaks, and achieved their 16th consecutive 20-win season (fun fact: only Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, and now Billy Donovan have accomplished that feat). All great accolades for sure, but this win challenged Florida more than any in recent memory.

In the first half we heard shots clinking off the rim nearly as much as the Rowdy Reptiles cheering for Justin Timberlake to visit Gainesville. Overall, the offense was just not in tune, with only 44% field goal shots hitting the mark and a sluggish performance at the free throw line. But while Missouri held it close throughout the game with 8-of-21 three-pointers going down, they went cold just as Michael Frazier II became hot. Along with Scottie Wilbekin’s 19 points and Patric Young’s 13 points down the stretch, the team finally put together enough offensively in the second half to pull away.

Legendary ESPN basketball color commentator Dick Vitale said it best, “While you don’t see first round draft choices (for Florida), you see a group that has a hunger for something more for their team …” That could not have been more evident in this scrappy win; Florida truly earned it.

The biggest upside of the evening, though, was the long-awaited debut of Chris Walker. While his stat sheet may not be as exciting as some fans had hoped, his performance on the court brought the O’Connell Center to its feet. Though he only had two key blocks and four points, they were scored off (almost) unfair alley-oops that fans couldn’t get enough of (at least from what I saw on Facebook and Twitter).

Florida also held their opponent to its lowest point total for the fourth time this season. Save for some amazing long-range three point shots by Missouri, the total could have been even lower considering Florida’s timely zone reads – particularly in the second half. Factor in Young’s performance, and Wilbekin continually disrupting Missouri screens, and it would be tough to find a team that is equal, on a consistent basis, at the defensive end.

But moving forward, this Florida team has some serious red flags offensively. Shaky free throw shooting is an issue (over the past 6 games, Florida is 95-145 for a 65% average and ranked 11th out of 14 SEC teams in free-throw percentage). The team needs a consistent long-range threat outside of Frazier (they rank 6th in the SEC in three-point percentage). Above all, total scoring must improve (Florida ranks 9th in the SEC with a 71.1 points per game average).

“A serious concern facing this (Gator) squad is their inability to hit key-free throws,” said lead announcer for ESPN Brad Nessler.

Sadly, even with all their strengths, I have to agree. Florida was 24 of 33 at the free throw line. Those are missed points that can not be overlooked as tougher tests loom – namely road contests against Tennessee and Kentucky in the next week. This will become an Achilles heel for the team if they are not careful. With so few deficiencies, teams will hone in and force Florida to earn wins from the line, which aside from Wilbekin (13-of-16 against Missouri), is a dangerous and risky proposition.

Despite the team being frigid at the line and less than 50% in the paint, Walker’s debut was a rousing success. It presents a rare opportunity for an already strong team to get stronger as the NCAA tournament draws closer. The best news moving forward is that Walker is no longer the open question facing this team; he’s no longer a distraction in what’s shaping up to be a magical season for the Orange and Blue. Walker is officially a teammate, and I believe will be an “X” factor for other teams to try and defend.

Yes these Gators have concerns, and one would have to be naïve to ignore it. But the team resiliency, coaching experience, and halftime adjustments have proven to be a winning formula for Florida in 2014. Let us just hope the same storyline holds up throughout the season and into the tournament.