Notebook: Developing depth

No. 6 Florida has worked to a 15-2 record this season despite being without important players for key stretches. Suspensions held Dorian Finney-Smith and Scottie Wilbekin out of action early in the season, and injuries kept Kasey Hill and Casey Prather off the floor for multiple games. The one positive has been the development of bench pieces.

Florida coach Billy Donovan was prepared for this at the beginning of the season. He knew suspensions would keep his roster thin at the beginning of the season and injuries were inevitable at some point in the year.

He spent practice time pointing out to some of the role players that they would have an opportunity early in the season to prove their worth to the team and create a role once every player on the team was healthy. Donovan's message was that whether players were on the court for 12 or 25 minutes, they had to take advantage of their time on the court and prove they could handle a role.

"I think one of the things that's been good with our team is our team has recognized that when we've been down a man or have been short some personnel, we've had some other guys step into some roles," Donovan said.

The most obvious improvement came from DeVon Walker. As a freshman, Walker only got into the game during blowouts and played at a frantic pace, turning the ball over and taking bad shots. It didn't hurt the team because the game was already in hand. This year, that couldn't be the case if he wanted to play.

Walker has played shooting guard and small forward most of the time, even handling the ball as a point guard when the Gators needed one. His maturation has turned into a consistent role this season, averaging 16.8 minutes per game.

"He did a great job in our 1-3-1 there in the second half (against Arkansas)," Donovan said. "Those guys (off the bench) have handled themselves very, very well, where in some games they don't know how many minutes they're going to play and they've been ready to play, which is the most important thing."

Jacob Kurtz has served a similar role, playing 12.1 minutes per game and averaging 2.2 points. The former team manager saw most of his action early in the season, but whenever foul trouble changes the frontcourt rotation, the junior forward has proven to handle a role on the team.

"That's the one thing I admire about Jake. Early in the year, clearly he was in the rotation where he was playing 18 to 22 minutes a game," Donovan said. "We start to get some players back and some games he hasn't played, some games in foul trouble he has stepped in."

THREE-POINT DEFENSE: The Gators lead the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense, allowing just 59.7 points per game. However, Florida ranks just 12th in three-point percentage defense, allowing opponents to make 35.9 percent of three-pointers. It's the one element missing from Florida's defensive dominance this season.

It crept up on Saturday at Auburn and almost allowed the Tigers to win the game. Auburn came into the game with issues from behind the three-point line but started the game 7-7 from long range.

"I think it's been a little bit of defensive breakdowns," Donovan said. "We've come off help a little bit too much. We've fallen asleep on a couple of screening actions. The one thing that has been good is we haven't had that game where we've given up 10, 11, 12. The percentage has not been great, but I also think teams' average number of 3s that they're taking before they play us, that number is down; they're not taking as many against us, which is a good thing. We've got to do a better job against a guy like (KT) Harrell, against a guy like (Chris) Denson, where we're letting those guys get freed up in some key situations. We've got to do a better job there."

ACE IN THE HOLE: Florida's 1-3-1 zone defense hasn't been as prevalent in recent games, but it's always there when Donovan needs it the most. The Gators went to it when trailing at Arkansas on January 11 and it helped them get back into the game and send it to overtime. It was also used in the second half of the game against Auburn.

Donovan said he goes away from it at times because of the demands of the design. With Scottie Wilbekin designed to protect the baseline from sideline-to-sideline, he does a lot of running. Casey Prather stands at the top of the 1-3-1, having to start using his energy when the opponent crosses the midcourt line.

"It's a very physically demanding defense because when you're extending your defense in the half- court all the way out to half-court, you have a lot of floor to cover," Donovan said. "What ends up happening is you get some good possessions out of it, but then through fatigue you have to shift out of it then have to go back to it. It's not something we can stay in for a long period of time."

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