It’s not very often that the No. 3 team in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll gets to add a former 5-star recruit in the middle of the college basketball season, but that is exactly what the Florida Gators did against Missouri.
Freshman Chris Walker took the floor for the first time in the 2013-14 campaign against the Tigers and helped Billy Donovan’s Gators improve their SEC record to 9-0 with a 68-58 victory. Florida has a two-game lead on the Kentucky Wildcats in the loss column and holds the inside track to an SEC championship now that Walker is in the fold.
Adding Walker only cements the Gators as the heavy favorites to take home the conference title and potentially earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Walker did not play significant minutes in his debut contest against Missouri, but he made the most of his court time with four points and two rebounds. He shot 2-of-2 from the field, but his impact was felt more on the defensive end where he swatted two shots and challenged a handful of other attempts.
Mark Long, an AP writer covering Florida, noted how Walker impacted the game in a number of ways from the get-go:
Gators F Chris Walker with solid couple of minutes off bench: two blocks, a foul, a rebound and some defensive confusion— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) February 5, 2014
Walker also announced his arrival to the college basketball world by finishing off an alley-oop dunk, much to the delight of the home crowd.
Who wins the SEC this year?
Walker did not make his debut until the ninth game of the SEC schedule because of a suspension for accepting impermissible benefits that included free cell phones and service, airfare, lodging, meals and apparel.
Donovan defended his freshman during the suspension to Edgar Thompson of the Orlando Sentinel:
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. I think obviously if Chris knew some of those things were a problem, I would believe he wouldn't have done those things.
With all that behind him, Walker is ready to make one of the country’s best teams even better.
He is incredibly athletic for his size, has no issue running the floor and uses his explosiveness to block shots, attack the glass and beat defenders on the block. From a pure talent basis, Walker’s ceiling is certainly the NBA, but the Gators are more interested in winning an SEC title and challenging for the Final Four.
When Walker gets his legs underneath him, he and Patric Young will make up one of the most formidable one-two punches on the inside. Young is a solid rebounder and shot blocker of his own and will have even more space to operate down low if Walker is pulling the attention of interior defenders away.
Donovan also has the likes of Casey Prather, Michael Frazier III, Will Yeguete, Scottie Wilbekin, Kasey Hill and Dorian Finney-Smith at his disposal, meaning Walker simply adds another option to an already deep squad.
Myron Medcalf of ESPN sums it up nicely:
Frazier stepping up. Florida has so many weapons. So many.— Myron Medcalf (@MedcalfByESPN) February 5, 2014
The SEC is weak from top-to-bottom, and the only real threat to Florida now for the conference crown is Kentucky.
The Wildcats are clearly loaded with talent but have played at an inconsistent level this season. They have lost three times on the road already, and, as long as the Gators can secure at least a split in the head-to-head matchups, Kentucky will have to make up two games elsewhere with less than 10 games remaining.
That's not going to happen in the SEC.
With so much talent across the board, Walker providing more depth in the frontcourt and a multi-game cushion already in place, the Gators will be the No. 1 seed in the SEC tournament and possibly even earn one of the four top seeds in the NCAA tournament.
Walker’s suspension will seem like ancient history by then.
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