The brash, confident sophomore, who far surpassed his modest goals last season, is now a team leader and making a difference.
By ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published December 10, 2003
GAINESVILLE - When he arrived on the Florida campus last year, Matt Walsh hoped he might get just enough playing time to help the basketball team in some significant way. A few minutes here, a few there. Maybe by the end of the season, he thought, he might be coming off the bench and getting some significant playing time.
Turns out, Walsh has "helped out" in ways even he, with his brash demeanor and unlimited confidence, finds amazing. After making the All-SEC freshman team last season, he is the Gators leading scorer, averaging nearly 17 and six rebounds, including a season-high 27 over then-No. 3 Arizona.
Walsh, who turned 21 this month, has earned SEC and ESPN.com National Player of the Week and the season is three weeks old.
"Last year I didn't have any idea how anything was going to go," he said. "But this year was different. I had a good freshman year and I knew that my role was going to be different in terms of being more of a leader, guys were going to be looking to me to step up more. So I came in real confident that I was going to have a good season. But I have the same mentality that I'll do whatever coach (Billy) Donovan needs for the team's benefit."
When No. 1 Florida hosts Maryland at 7 tonight, it'll be a rematch with the team that defined Walsh last season for his coach and teammates. It was 15 minutes before tipoff of the Dec. 14 game at College Park and Walsh, playing in his ninth game, was suffering from tremendous pain in his right ankle.
"I just wanted to play," he said.
So he took a cortisone shot, played 29 minutes and hit 5 of 6 free throws in the final two minutes to help Florida to a 69-64 win.
"That gave me a totally different perspective on him," Donovan said. "I knew Matt was a tough kid, just in terms of he played with aches, pains and bumps and bruises, and I think he understands that that's the way you've got to play. You're never going to probably feel 100 percent most of the time. But when he got a shot in his foot, and he did that to play, he did not want anything to do with having to sit on the bench and sit out. You get a different appreciation for somebody when you see a (12-inch) needle going into a guy's foot. It's painful and he's cringing there on the table and it's 15 minutes before tipoff. I think it gives you perspective of how much the kid loves to play."
It's that love of the game that drives Walsh. A preseason Wooden All-America candidate, he spent the offseason working on dropping his body fat and honing his game. He's shooting 50 percent from the field this season.
"Matt's doing a really good job this year, so far," junior forward David Lee said. "Sometimes that's hard when you have such a great freshman year to come back and still be hungry and to improve as much as he has since last year and continue to have success. He's done that well. Defenses have adjusted to concentrate more on him, but he's just a heck of a shooter and he's such a student of the game that he finds ways to make himself better and to get his points as well as make the other guys around him better."
Walsh has become a media darling with his quick wit, dirty-blond curls flopping over a headband just above his eyebrows, his uncanny 3-point shooting and his no-holds-barred approach to the game. But it's his fearless playing that has endeared him to Donovan.
"Matt has absolutely no regard for his body," Donovan said. "He's a great, great competitor from a physical standpoint. He'll do just about anything to come up with a loose basketball: take a charge or go in there and rebound and lay his body on somebody. He finds little ways to make an impact in a game and that's the sign of a great player."
Donovan's approach to coaching is what has endeared him to Walsh.
"Coach is always talking about have fun, so that's what I try to do," Walsh said. "If I have that kind of style (street ball), that's how I've always played. Sometimes Coach would probably like me to tone it down a little more than I do. I'm trying to do that, but that's just how I play. He knows I'm going to play as hard as I can because I want to win more than anyone."
If things had worked out just a little bit differently, Walsh might be on the visitor's side of the O'Connell Center tonight. A native of Pennsylvania, he was recruited by Maryland and had his choices narrowed to Florida and the Terrapins.
"I have a ton of respect for their program," he said. "Gary Williams does a great job there. I actually took three or four visits there and was close to going there, too. They were my leader for a while. ... They are a great program. I couldn't have gone wrong if I went there, but I think I made the right choice coming here."
TONIGHT: NO. 1 UF VS. MARYLANDWHEN/WHERE: 7; Stephen C. O'Connell Center, Gainesville.
NOTES: Florida plays for the first time this season as the No. 1 team in the nation, hosting storied Maryland for the first time in history. The Gators have a 40-game home winning streak against nonconference opponents on the line. Last season, Florida snapped Maryland's 87-game nonconference home winning streak. Gators hold a 2-0 lead. Florida has a 5-0 start for the first time since the 1998-99 season. A victory would mark the best start under Donovan's reign; the coach is 8-3 vs ACC opponents. Four Florida players are shooting better than 50 percent from the field.