The whistle long ago had sounded, the post-game interviews concluded, and the lights dimmed in the O’Connell Center, and I asked myself a question:
“Are they really this good?”
Stifling man-to-man pressure, timely presence in the paint to dissuade shots, and a Florida Gators squad determined to prove a (defensive) point against Texas A&M on Saturday broke records and turned heads. Florida held their SEC opponent to the lowest point total since 1950, and finished with a 57-27 rebounding advantage. Add in a breakout day for Michael Frazier II with 21 points (9 from behind the 3-point arc), and the result was a 69-36 blowout win. Has this team finally congealed, or are they just inconsistent – sluggish on the road and stellar at home?
It’s clear that this team feeds off the Rowdy Reptiles and the energy at home. They remind me of the 2006 National Championship team in that respect. This squad is clearly the toast of the conference in terms of defending home court and playing lights out defense. However, there are questions about their consistency in road games (it still puzzles me how the 2006 team lost to three unranked opponents in LSU, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee in a span of two weeks).
When Florida is firing on all cylinders, they can play with anyone – Dick Vitale has said it, Bob Knight has said it, and Billy Donovan has said as much. The key is finding that missing link to keep it all together. I think that key comes in the form of a young man named Chris Walker, who makes his debut when Florida hosts the Missouri Tigers on Tuesday at 9:00 p.m. ET.
The highly touted McDonald’s All-American sat out 12 games following a lengthy NCAA review of improper benefits he received during his recruitment. Due to that, Walker has not played a game since last March’s McDonald’s All American Game (where he also won the slam dunk competition). So, we’d all be foolish to make him out to be the “cure-all quick fix” for a trip to the Final Four.
However, it’s fair to say that Walker is probably one of (if not the) most highly touted recruits Florida fans have seen in quite some time. It’s also fair to say that Coach Billy Donovan has a rigid and regimented system in place; and that system works. Three straight Elite Eights, 26 consecutive home wins, and having four seniors on the No. 3 team in the country (in a world of “one and done’s”) prove that point. The defining moment and or turning point, depending on how you look at things, will be how Walker fits into Donovan’s system.
Does he give the Gators that extra step up to get past the Elite Eight? He certainly presents a commanding presence in the post, and adds a layer of depth beyond Patric Young. Or, does he become a kink in the system and throw this otherwise magical season off-balance?
The fact that Donovan said, “I know he’s anxious, I know he’s excited but I don’t think Chris Walker’s expectations tomorrow are to walk out there, play 30 minutes and start,” says a lot to me. If he works, then the team has a gem to get over the Elite Eight hump. If he doesn’t, you still have a talented core that has muscled their way atop the SEC (for the moment) and you move on.
Either way, it’s a win-win for Florida. From all that I’ve read, Walker comes across as coachable and ready to do whatever it takes for the team to succeed – which is a great deal more than so many other athletes. As much as the 2013-14 squad is as vexing as the 2006-07 squad, I think there is a good case to be made that it could quite possibly end up cutting down the nets after the Big Dance has concluded – much like its forebearer.