GAINESVILLE - The time has come for David Lee to step up like never before in his Florida basketball career.
His coaches know it. His teammates know it. And most of all, Lee finally realizes it, too.
Three days after he scored just four and grabbed two rebounds in a loss to Florida State, was benched for the final 12 minutes and was publicly chastised afterward by coach Billy Donovan, the senior forward said he understands he must change some things to be more effective.
"I'm not going to always have a great game, but I think more than anything if I wasn't touching the ball or if I was, I need to find a way to rebound and contribute in other ways," he said.
For two seasons, he was the solid sidekick to other standouts. Last year, he was the steady complement to shooting guards Matt Walsh and Anthony Roberson.
Things are different now.
As unranked Florida prepares to open the SEC season today against Arkansas, the Gators need Lee, a former McDonald's All-American, more than ever. Walsh, the team's leading scorer, is out four to six weeks with a severe high ankle sprain and torn ligaments. Junior forward Adrian Moss is playing limited minutes because of back problems. That leaves Lee and Roberson, both All-SEC selections last season; five freshmen; and two sophomores to carry the load.
"Sometimes I'm a victim of trying to be too unselfish and finding other guys shots," Lee said. "With Matt out now, this isn't my cue to be Allen Iverson all of the sudden, but at the same time I need to realize that I am a senior and I need to step up. Sometimes I've just got to go with the flow instead of trying to take over the game."
Through 11 games, Lee is averaging 12.5 points and 6.5 rebounds. But he has yet to establish consistency and struggles in that gray area between being a dominant post player or a big man who can shoot. In the loss to FSU, Lee attempted one shot in the first half, and his teammates didn't get the ball inside to him.
After spending much of the offseason losing weight (about 12 pounds) and working on his midrange shot, Lee admits he expected a lot this season.
"I'm still confident about my game," he said. "I thought I had a very poor performance against Florida State, and that set me back a notch. The biggest thing is moving on and just doing whatever I need to do to help the team win."
What Florida needs from Lee, Donovan said, is more consistent rebounding, and hopefully the scoring will come as a bonus.
"He has the capability, as a senior with his athleticism, that if he gets 25 to 30 minutes a night, he should be anywhere between 11 to 15 rebounds every single game," Donovan said. "We need him to do that for us on a consistent basis."
What he doesn't want is for Lee to feel he has to carry the team alone.
"I don't think one player or one guy, changing one guy's minutes, is a solution to losing one of the best players in the league and a guy that is an emotional leader," Donovan said.
His teammates agree, saying the solution to their current dilemma is simple: Suck it up and play.
"We've just got to play ball," Moss said. "That's what it comes down to, us playing as a team, executing, playing defense and doing the things we need to do. It's a team game. It's not about me, it's not just about Matt. It's about the Florida Gators coming together and playing ball as a team."
That won't be easy in SEC play, starting with today's opponent. After two tumultuous seasons, Arkansas coach Stan Heath has the Razorbacks on track again. They have won eight consecutive games and at 13-1 already have more wins than last season. Florida will face the freshmen frontcourt of 7-foot Steven Hill, Darian Townes (6-10) and Charles Thomas (6-7). Add 6-7 sophomore guard Ronnie Brewer, who leads the team in scoring with 16.2 points per game, and guards Eric Ferguson (11.4 points) and Jonathon Modica (9.6) and it's trouble for opposing teams, especially in the post.
"It opens things and we become a little bit better 3-point shooting team because teams have to respect our inside a lot more than they have in the past," Heath said.
Lee welcomes the challenge.
"We've had a few injuries, but I still see us having a great team and a great chance to do very good things," he said. "We're just going to take it one game at a time. The biggest thing for me is to do whatever it takes to help my team to win."