Mar 20, 2014; Orlando, FL, USA; Florida Gators forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10) and guard Kasey Hill (0) talk during the second half of a men

NCAA: Florida Gators Hoping Chris Walker Steps Up

In the weeks and months leading up to the start of practices in October, we’ll take a look at some of the biggest teams, players and stories for the 2014-15 NCAA college basketball season. Each team has one burning question we’ll take a look at.

Coming off a year with only three losses to two teams, the Florida Gators have some work to be done for the 2014-15 season.

Billy Donovan‘s team is entering another potential rebuilding project after losing three of its top four scorers and four of its starting five. SEC Player of the Year Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Patric Young and Will Yeguete have exhausted their eligibility and are no longer at the Gators’ disposal. As a unit, those four players went into four-straight NCAA Tournaments and advanced to at least the Elite Eight every year, capping it off with a run to the Final Four last year.

In losing these four senior leaders, Florida also loses 61 percent of its scoring, 53 percent of its rebounding and most of its experience from that Final Four squad. The 2013-14 Gators finished with a 36-3 overall record, went 18-0 in the SEC, knocked off Kentucky three times and were arguably the best team in the nation for much of the year. Their only losses on the season came to fellow Final Four teams Wisconsin (on the road) and Connecticut twice (on the road on a Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater and again in the national semi-final).

Feb 8, 2014; Gainesville, FL, USA; Florida Gators forward Chris Walker (23) defends against the Alabama Crimson Tide during the first half at Stephen C. O

Despite the exits of Wilbekin, Prather, Young and Yeguete, Donovan knows that he can’t go through another stretch of rough seasons like he did from from 2008-2010. Coming off of two straight national championships, the losses of Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah were too much to endure in one shot. Florida missed the NCAA Tournament completely in 2008 and 2009 and lost to BYU in the first round of the 2010 tournament. After that stretch is when the run of four straight Elite Eight appearances began.

Florida’s turnaround will have to be quick, but they have the pieces to make something happen.

Perhaps the most important piece for the Gators in 2014-15 will be sophomore Chris Walker. After dealing with eligibility issues for most of last season, Walker didn’t see the floor until early February, playing in just 18 games. He cracked double-digit minutes played once last year, staying on the floor for 14 minutes in a blowout victory at home against LSU.

Walker entered last year ranked as the 12th overall prospect and the fourth-best power forward in the 2013 recruiting class, according to ESPN’s Recruiting Nation. He turned down offers from Kansas, Connecticut and Ohio State to play for the Gators. This season he’ll finally get that shot. He wasn’t able to show what he’s capable of last year because by the time Walker became eligible, Florida already had their rotation set and didn’t need him. They’ll need him this year.

Luckily, Walker won’t be going at it alone. He has help in two returning veterans. Michael Frazier II returns as the highest point scorer from last year’s team, scoring over 12 points per game while shooting nearly 45 percent from three-point range. Returning along with Frazier will be Dorian Finney-Smith, who put up 8.7 points per game last year and led the team with 6.7 rebounds per game. Their experience will be key components for the Gators.

Another returning name to watch will be Kasey Hill. A five-star point guard recruit in 2013, Hill struggled to find his way last year and eventually conceded the starting spot to Wilbekin when he went down with an injury early in the season. He was second on the team in assists last year (3.1 per game) but will need to find his confidence in scoring again, something that was lost rather early his freshman season. Without Wilbekin, Hill is the go-to point guard and must learn as he goes, but also do so quickly.

Potentially rounding out the starting five will be freshman Devin Robinson, a 6’8″ small forward. Robinson is an athletic big man who has a good head on his shoulders. He makes smart plays, doesn’t try to do too much and goes with the flow of the game. Combining him with Walker and Finney-Smith in the frontcourt makes for a nice trio of athletic bigs who complement each other. Robinson will have to step up even more now that DeVon Walker will likely miss the entire season due to an injury he suffered this summer.

Of these five potential starters, the most pressure to stand out and be a leader lies with Walker. Even with his lack of playing last year he was still projected by some to be a borderline first round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. He’s physically imposing as a 6’10″ forward/center with solid muscle on him. His skills haven’t been put on display yet and he’ll need to be the focal point to the Gators’ offensive attack this year. This is especially true considering what Florida lost in last year’s squad.

Mar 4, 2014; Columbia, SC, USA; Florida Gators guard Michael Frazier II (20) drives around South Carolina Gamecocks guard Brenton Williams (1) in the first half at The Colonial Life Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Scheduling in college basketball is crucial in projecting a team’s potential successes and failures and Florida did a very nice job with theirs this year. Their first three games should be easy wins and confidence boosters before entering the Battle 4 Atlantis the week of Thanksgiving. First up will be Georgetown, but the Hoyas aren’t the team they used to be. With a win there, the Gators potentially have another meeting with the Wisconsin Badgers waiting for them. Wisconsin will be the clear favorite to win the Big Ten and potentially reach the Final Four again.

Should they get passed the Badgers, Florida will (likely) face either North Carolina, UCLA or Oklahoma. Carolina would obviously be the headline game for the tournament title, but Oklahoma also has a solid team and wants to make a statement before entering Big-12 play. Even if the Gators lose against Wisconsin, they’ll face one of those teams in the consolation game, so it’s a test no matter how you swing it.

A week after this, the deadliest of early-season tournaments, Florida has a date with the Kansas Jayhawks on the road in early December. Both these teams will have similar looks as they try to replace the core of their team from last season with a combination of freshmen and experienced role players who will take larger roles this year. The final non-conference test will be a home game against Connecticut as Florida looks to avenge those two crushing losses to the Huskies last year.

One positive in this non-conference schedule is that it’s not too demanding but has enough tests to get them recognition and high-profile victories. The same cannot be said for their SEC schedule.

Only Kentucky will join Florida as SEC teams ranked before the season begins, and the Wildcats are going to be heavy favorites to win it all. Two dates with Kentucky are set right now, one in early February and the other in early March to finish off Florida’s regular season schedule. A third meeting could be seen should both teams make it to the SEC Tournament championship game as well. One or two victories over the vaunted Wildcats would be huge for the Gators.

It’s no secret the Florida is a measuring stick program in college basketball and Billy Donovan is one of the best coaches in the country. His teams have made it to four-straight Elite Eights for a reason, but this will be a big year for Donovan and the Gators.

The last time his core was lost resulted in two-straight years without NCAA Tournament games. Another letdown stretch this time won’t be acceptable for Florida. They have the pieces to have a very good year. Probably not a 36-3 year, but a good year nonetheless. Expectations will be slightly down but still high for the Gators.

As the only legitimate threat to Kentucky in the SEC, Florida can’t afford to have an off year.

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Tags: Billy Donovan Chris Walker College Basketball Florida Gators Ncaa

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