Notebook: Walker’s big game

The Gators have been waiting for a game like Chris Walker produced on Tuesday in Tuscaloosa. The challenge now comes down to replicating it.

When the Gators struggled to get points from leading scorers Dorian Finney-Smith and Michael Frazier on Tuesday at Alabama, points came from an unlikely candidate. Chris Walker’s 12 points, one shy of his career high, four rebounds and two blocks gave the Gators a boost off the bench.

It was the closest the former five-star recruit has come to living up to his billing, but it wasn’t a coincidence. Florida coach Billy Donovan has seen him improve in practice before the big game.

“I’ve seen great growth with Chris,” Donovan said. “Chris has really grown, he’s gotten better. I think sometimes it’s hard for people, when you have an expectation level that’s so high and he’s not at that level, it’s very, very easy to be critical of him. But when you expect a guy to be something that maybe he’s not, it’s easy to look at him and be critical, but Chris has gotten better.”

The breakout game in Tuscaloosa was important for Walker’s confidence, but if he wants to sustain that type of output, he needs to keep improving the same areas Donovan has harped on since the beginning of the season. It just comes down to working hard consistently.

There have been days where Walker is obviously not ready to practice and doesn’t have the energy to do it. Donovan has emphasized eating right and getting enough rest, but it’s still yet to completely sink in for Walker.

“My biggest challenge with Chris has been his consistent work ethic,” Donovan said. “At this level he’s going against more people his size, going against a lot of people that are physically stronger, he’s having to learn and figure things out. He’s been really coachable. He’s trying to get better. The only thing that’s going to hold him back is going to be his work ethic and just a consistent work ethic.

“He’s had some days where he’s been really, really good in that area and he’s had some days where he’s been really, really poor and that’s the thing that he really has to learn and get better at. His work ethic today is better than it was when he first got here, but it still needs to be better.”

Adding strength will also help Walker, but that comes with continuing to work hard off the floor and in the weight room. When he faces more physical players around the rim, he struggles to find ways for his athleticism to make an impact. That is starting to change.

“His problem, calling it like it is, is when there’s a lot of physical contact, there’s times where he isn’t physically strong enough to finish and make some of those plays where there’s a lot of contact,” Donovan said. “He’s getting better at it. When it’s jammed up in the half court and there are bodies on top of him, sometimes he can get physically overwhelmed. He’s learning how to use his athleticism and his speed in a way in short spaces where he can be a little more effective for us.”

CHIOZZA IMPROVING: When the game was close on Tuesday, it was freshman point guard Chris Chiozza in the game. Kasey Hill checked out with 9:07 remaining and never returned. Donovan stood up for his sophomore point guard on Monday morning and said that there wouldn’t be a change to the startling lineup because Chiozza wasn’t playing much better.

But on Tuesday, that changed. Chiozza scored three points with two rebounds and three assists, but it wasn’t his statistics that caught Donovan’s eye. He was playing with energy and putting teammates in the right spots.

“I think Chris has a good feel for how to play. I think he can see the floor very, very well,” Donovan said. “I think he can see what defenses are doing and how they’re rotating. The thing that I’m trying to get he and Kasey [Hill] to do much more consistently is push the ball on a regular basis and I thought Chris did a good job of applying pressure in the second half.

The Gators are in a unique spot at the point guard position because Chiozza and Hill are both smaller point guards that can struggle on the defensive end. Donovan needs them to play with more energy.

“You have to play with an unbelievable motor and an incredible amount of intensity at that size. Both have the speed and quickness to do that. But they have to have to sustainability to do it over long stretches. This was a game where I thought Chris did do it. Coming out of the Ole Miss game, he didn’t do it. He didn’t do it at all. This was a game where he did really provide a lot of energy for us on both ends of the floor. I’ve always felt like he has a good understanding and feel how to play.”

FRAZIER FINE: Michael Frazier was impacted by a hip injury on Tuesday, but he was prepared to practice on Thursday when the Gators took the floor. Donovan said he wasn’t concern about anything impacting his status for Saturday against Arkansas (TV: CBS, 1 p.m.)

“He played in the game,” Donovan said. “He wasn’t a hundred percent. If it was anything more significant, I’d know.”

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