BASKETBALL: Time for freshmen to step up

It's much too early to be counting the Florida Gators (8-3, 0-0 in the SEC) down for the count in basketball. Three early season losses aren't exactly a knockout punch, but with Matt Walsh out for an extended period of time and the Gators as up and down as your typical day on the NASDAQ, there is cause for concern at noon today when the Gators open their Southeastern Conference schedule against the Arkansas Razorbacks at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center.

Coach Billy Donovan's team is 8-3 and two of the three losses (Miami and Louisville) were winnable games at home. Last Sunday's loss to Florida State in Tallahassee, the Gators first game without Walsh, who sustained extended ligament damage in his ankle, got ugly in a hurry. Florida got pounded on the backboards and the Seminoles played tough enough defense that senior power forward David Lee got off only two shots.

With Walsh out of the lineup and only Anthony Roberson a dependable outside scorer, the Gators can expect every team they face to make an attempt to choke off Lee inside and force Roberson into taking bad shots from the outside. If they can succeed, it will force younger, more inexperienced players to step up their games and prove that they can carry the scoring load.

Walsh's spot in the lineup will be initially taken by Lee Humphrey, a fine shooter from behind the arc, but four inches shorter and not quick enough to create his own shots. For Humphrey to have a good game, Roberson is going to have to be as much a distributor as he is a scorer, and with Walsh out of the game, every point Roberson can get is critical.

That means that Lee is going to have to demand the basketball. He's quick enough to abuse young players, and the Razorbacks have a front court filled with youngsters. He's also agile enough to create foul shot opportunities if he is willing to take the ball to the rack.

Lee is 6-9, 240 and blessed with tremendous athletic skills. He's a fine leaper and an extraordinary dunker on the fast break. What he's never done, however, is showed a determination to take over a game offensively.

It's said that old dogs can't be taught new tricks, but perhaps this is a time when one old dog --- Lee, a senior --- is going to have to prove that old adage wrong. If he will demand the ball down low, then take it to the hoop, he can open scoring opportunities for Roberson, plus it will allow Humphrey a chance to spot up. Roberson doesn't mind passing up a shot if he's got a wide open teammate. Humphrey has that ability to drift around the arc where he can find cracks and crevices in a defense. If the ball goes into Lee as often as possible in the low blocks, Humphrey will have his chances to score.

Then there is the role of the freshmen, Taurean Green, Corey Brewer, Cornelius Ingram, Al Horford and Joakim Noah. They have all five shown spurts of ability, but now with Walsh going down, it's time for them to begin to step up their games but they've not shown the ability to be consistent against quality opponents. It's one thing to produce when the opponent is Florida Atlantic or Florida A&M, another thing altogether when the opponent is from the SEC. The problem with the five

Of the freshmen, Green's presence in the lineup allows Roberson to move to the shooting guard where he's comfortable, but for this move to be effective, Green must prove he is quick enough to stay with opposing point guards on the defensive end, and he must be just enough of a threat offensively to prevent his defender from cheating over toward Roberson.

Horford and Noah have the ability to take the pressure off Lee down low if they can somehow manage to stay out of foul trouble. Noah, in particular, has a real scorer's mentality, plus he's very good at getting to the foul line. Unfortunately, he's also hit or miss from the line, capable of drilling all his free throws one night, missing them all the next. Horford has big hands and is a very strong offensive rebounder who can get points on stickbacks.

If the freshmen don't produce and either Lee or Roberson is off, then this and all the SEC games until Walsh returns could be ugly. Donovan's raved about his freshmen one night, lamented their inconsistencies the next. Starting Saturday, he's got to hope that they can grow up fast.

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