Gators' Growth To Be Tested
GAINESVILLE - Time is flying and the Florida Gators basketball team has no way to stop the clock. Heading into the heart of their Southeastern Conference schedule, the 18-3, 5-1 Gators are racing against themselves in an attempt to play their way back into the NCAA postseason. The team with 12 sophomores or freshmen has come far since the start of the season. Wednesday night's 26-point victory against Georgia puts them in a tie with Kentucky for the SEC Eastern Division lead. But there is no denying significant shortcomings, especially experience. Florida's first five substitutes are freshmen. Grow, babies, grow."I have had guys tell me after they've become sophomores, 'Coach, there is nothing anybody can do to prepare you for what it's like to be a freshman in college,'" Gators head coach Billy Donovan said. "There are better players. It's more competitive." The Gators have talent. Sophomore guard Nick Calathes, averaging more than 17 points and six assists per game, is capable of taking over a game. At times, 6-foot-8, 220-pound sophomore Alex Tyus is a force inside. Six-foot-9 sophomore Chandler Parsons has a knack for doing important things at necessary times. And, when 3-point shots are falling, the Gators can rain on anybody's parade. But Florida's reign has been frustratingly scattered. Take freshman Kenny Kadji. On several occasions, the 6-foot-10, 245-pound freshman from Cameroon has given the Gators strong play. He came off the bench to score 10 points and grab four rebounds in 23 minutes in a win against Arkansas. Against Georgia he scored two. "I think I am getting into better shape and I think my understanding of the game is improving," Kadji said. Except, Kadji's time must be now if the Gators are to return to the NCAA tournament field after falling short last year. The same is needed from fellow freshmen inside players Allan Chaney and Eloy Vargas. "Our frontcourt freshmen, they are strong, physical kids," Donovan said. "They will bang, they will put their bodies into play. But they have no threshold for fatigue. It's very difficult to keep any one of those guys in a game for long stretches. When they get the least bit tired, you have to get them out of there because everything could break down. They don't rotate. They don't get to the right spot. They don't screen on offense. They allow fatigue to overwhelm them." It's not physical conditioning. It's never having gone through it before. "Those guys are not out of shape," Donovan said. "It's impossible for them to be out of shape. The problem is when they get tired, they choose to make a decision sometimes where they are fatigued and take the path of least resistance: 'I'll deal with Coach getting on me' rather than, 'hey, I want to be a terrific player, so I'll fight through it.'" Florida's schedule from now to the SEC Tournament next month in Tampa gets progressively more difficult, the result of back-loading for television. February is a ratings month. In the next month Florida will play its strongest conference challengers, Kentucky and Tennessee, twice each. Florida is on the road at Tennessee on Saturday and goes to Kentucky on Tuesday Feb. 10. Both are 9 p.m. ESPN games. Last year the Gators started the season 18-3 and 5-1 in the SEC, but lost eight of their final 11 to miss the NCAA Tournament after having won back-to-back national titles. "Our toughness in practice every day helps prepare us," Calathes said. "Each of us is playing hard and willing to play together to win. We still have a lot to learn as a young team. But we're taking one game at a time."
Reporter Mick Elliott can be reached at (813) 281-2534.