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Youth, inconsistency have Gators wobbling

The struggling team lacks an impact freshman or a strong bench and has yet to find an identity.

ANTONYA ENGLISH
Published February 3, 2004

GAINESVILLE - In the waning minutes of a crucial SEC road game Saturday, two Florida starters feuded on the sideline, another fouled out believing he had three fouls and a freshman was forced to attempt a winning shot.

Eighteen games into the season, and the Gators are struggling. They host No. 9 Kentucky tonight, and a loss would leave them with a .500 record in the SEC East.

At the midpoint of the SEC season, several factors are of concern.

Florida has the third-youngest team in the nation with nine of its 11 scholarship players freshmen or sophomores. At times, the Gators look unbeatable, as in their 38-point win over Tennessee two weeks ago.

Other times, as in the loss to Mississippi State, they look like an average team.

Last season, freshmen Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson made huge contributions. This season, the freshman class has struggled. In UF's three SEC losses, the freshmen have averaged 11.6 points and 5.3 rebounds. In Saturday's loss to Tennessee, Lee Humphrey was the only freshman to score (three points).

"I have been very fortunate and blessed here that I have not lived in the reality of what it is like to have most freshmen classes," Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

"Mike Miller, Brett Nelson, Donnell Harvey, Teddy Dupay, Udonis Haslem, Walsh and Roberson are all guys who made pretty significant impacts as freshmen.

"We don't have a significant impact freshman right now. That doesn't mean that these guys aren't going to be good players. I think all these guys will be good players, they are just like probably 90 percent of freshmen across the country.

"There is a process that they have got to go through right now and that is the biggest thing for those guys."

As they prepare to face a veteran-laden Kentucky team, the players said inexperience is no excuse.

"We have a chance to accomplish some good things this year and I think it would be an excuse for us to say that we have lost some of these games due to a lack of experience," Walsh said. "We have won some close games this year, so I don't think that it is fair to say that inexperience is why we didn't win some of these games."

Donovan does. He likens this season in many ways to the youth camps he runs during the summer: filled with youngsters he has to continually find a way to keep focused on the task at hand. Saturday's late altercation between sophomore Walsh and junior David Lee was a small example.

"That's part of the maturation process that I talk about with a young team," Donovan said. "How do you handle your emotions, how do you handle situations, how do you handle frustrations? That's so important."

Finding out what type of team the Gators want to be is another problem. Florida has had great success with its press, but without a strong bench, Donovan can't run players in and out and play that style like he wants to.

"That (an identity) is something we're lacking right now," Lee said. "When we're playing our best ball, it's that uptempo style of ball. But recently we haven't been playing as many guys as many minutes. The team's changing a little bit and we're trying to find our rhythm going into the last (part) of the SEC."

Florida's halfcourt defense has been arguably its most inconsistent area. Though the Gators lead the league in scoring offense (averaging 80.2 points), they are next to last in 3-point field goal defense and 10th in scoring and rebounding defense.

"My biggest thing with this team is our consistency level," Donovan said. "For the most part this year, I wouldn't say that we are a great rebounding team, but we have held our own against most teams in the league and most teams that we have played against."

Only one current Gator, senior Bonell Colas, has been on a team that defeated Kentucky. The Florida players wouldn't call it a must-win game, but its importance hasn't escaped them.

"They are the only team I've never beaten in this league and I'd like for that to change this year," Lee said. " ... We've got a three-game homestand coming up here and it would be great to get it started off with a win.

"Right now, it would be a tremendous confidence builder for this team."

A much-needed one.

TONIGHT: NO. 21 UF VS. NO. 9 KENTUCKY

WHEN/WHERE: 9; Stephen C. O'Connell Center, Gainesville.

TV/RADIO: ESPN; WHNZ-AM 1250.

RECORDS: Kentucky 14-3, 4-2 SEC; UF 13-5, 4-3.

COACHES: Kentucky - Tubby Smith (178-50, seventh season; 302-112 overall); UF - Billy Donovan (161-78, eighth season; 197-98).

KEY PLAYERS: Kentucky - Gerald Fitch, G, 6-3 Sr. (16.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg); Erik Daniels, F, 6-8 Sr. (15.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg); Chuck Hayes, F, 6-6 Jr. (11.5 ppg, 8.6 rpg). UF - David Lee, F, 6-9 Jr. (15.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg); Anthony Roberson, G, 6-1 So. (16.7 ppg, 3.9 apg); Matt Walsh, G, 6-6 So. (14.1 ppg, 5.2 rpg).

- Compiled by Antonya English.

TONIGHT: FSU VS. NO. 15 GEORGIA TECH

WHEN/WHERE: 7; Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center.

TV/RADIO: Sunshine; WTAN-AM 1340, WZHR-AM 1400, WDCF-AM 1350.

RECORDS: Georgia Tech 16-4, 4-3 ACC; Florida State 15-6, 3-4.

COACHES: Georgia Tech - Paul Hewitt (64-48, fourth season; 130-75 overall); Florida State - Leonard Hamilton (29-21, second season; 229-231).

KEY PLAYERS: Georgia Tech - B.J. Elder, G, 6-4 Jr. (15.4 ppg, 2.9 rpg); Jarrett Jack, PG, 6-3 So. (13.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg); Marvin Lewis, G, 6-4 Sr. (11.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg). Florida State - Tim Pickett, G, 6-4 Sr. (15.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.3 spg); Alexander Johnson, C, 6-10 Fr. (9.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg); Von Wafer, G, 6-5 Fr. (7.8 ppg, 2.1 rpg).

NOTES: The Seminoles end the first half of the ACC schedule with a critical home game. With a win, the Seminoles would move into a two-way tie for third in the league. Most important, it would bolster their NCAA Tournament chances. The Yellow Jackets, coming off a hard-fought 82-74 loss to visiting No. 1 Duke, feature one of the nation's deepest and deadliest stable of perimeter players in Elder, Jack, Lewis and former Arizona star Will Bynum (11.2 ppg). The Seminoles' forte is defense; they're second to Duke in the ACC, allowing 62.0 ppg. Georgia Tech begins a tough patch with four of its next five on the road. FSU leads the series 27-22 and holds a 14-8 advantage at home, including a 71-64 win Feb. 15.

- Compiled by Brian Landman.

TONIGHT: SOUTH FLORIDA VS. EAST CAROLINA

WHEN/WHERE: 7:06; Sun Dome, Tampa.

TV/RADIO: Fox Sports Net; WTBN-AM 570 and 910.

RECORDS: ECU 8-9, 0-7 Conference USA; USF 6-10, 0-5.

COACHES: ECU - Bill Herrion (56-74, fifth season; 223-145 overall); USF - Robert McCullum (first season; 50-55).

KEY PLAYERS: ECU - Derrick Wiley, G, 6-4 Sr. (14.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg); Erroyl Bing, F, 6-6 Sr. (9.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg); Moussa Badiane, C, 6-10 Jr. (6.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 3.1 bpg). USF - Terrence Leather, F, 6-9 Jr. (13.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg); Bradley Mosley, G, 6-2 Jr. (13.4 ppg, 2.8 apg); Brian Swift, PG, 5-10 Jr. (7.8 ppg, 3.8 apg).

NOTES: USF G James Holmes' left ankle, which he reinjured at practice Friday, has a fracture. He will wear a boot and be on crutches for two weeks. USF has six healthy scholarship players. The Bulls have dropped five in a row by an average of 25.4 points. USF and ECU are two of three league teams (Tulane) winless in C-USA play. The Pirates joined C-USA in 2001-02 and never have won a league road game. ECU is one of three C-USA "mirror" opponents for USF, which travels to Greenville, N.C., on Feb. 28. Houston and UAB are the other mirror teams. Bing is a Largo High graduate. He had 24 rebounds in 44 minutes in ECU's 68-62 overtime win over visiting USF last season. Leather had 22 points and 18 rebounds in Saturday's 65-53 loss to Houston. ECU lost senior forward and second-leading scorer Gabriel Mikulas (13.0 ppg) to a broken arm Jan. 14. The Pirates are 0-5 without him.

- Compiled by Pete Young.

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