GAINESVILLE — Before the season began, Florida coach Billy Donovan sat down with sophomore guard Erving Walker to prepare him for what was about to come.
Walker, who played in every game as a freshman last season, was about to take over the starting point guard job for the Gators. And Donovan was well aware that responsibility would bring some trials and tribulations through the course of the season.
"I told him before the season started this will be the hardest year of your life," Donovan said. "And I think he's starting to understand why this will be the hardest year of his life, playing, I don't mean in terms of the other things. But it's hard because he's got so much on his plate. He's still growing and learning and getting better as the season's going on. He's not a finished product. It's going to take him a little bit of time to figure some things out."
The Gators host No. 19 Tennessee tonight in a pivotal SEC East game, the winner gaining sole possession of third place and bolstering its postseason resume. How well Florida fares in the final four games of the regular season may well depend on how quickly Walker and the Gator backcourt work through their struggles.
Those struggles began during the Jan. 31 meeting between the Gators and Vols, a 61-60 Florida loss. Freshman guard Kenny Boynton went 2-of-11 and Walker 3-of-9 from the field.
Since that game, Walker and Boynton are a combined 40-of-126, 15-of-64 from 3-point range. Teams are playing Walker much more aggressively, Donovan said, and his assist to turnover ratio is 33-27 during that span. And though the Gators are 4-2 in that stretch, Florida's chances of winning are better with improved shooting from the two, particularly because the Gators are mostly relying on seven scholarship players.
"We have a lot of confidence in Kenny and Erv, and we know they are both great shooters," junior forward Alex Tyus said. "When their shots aren't falling, they can still do other things to help this team. And it's up to the rest of us to help out when they aren't having a great shooting night."
Boynton is 9-of-37 from beyond the arc in the past six games, but Donovan said there's a fine line between teaching and hampering a player.
"You want to teach and you want your kids to learn," he said. " … Sometimes the ball falls in guys' hands when they are wide open. When you're dealing with young players, you can't say, 'Never shoot, never shoot, stop shooting the ball.' Then all of a sudden they're sitting there wide open on a play and they think back about their coaches telling them not to shoot.
"I think Kenny understands where his shooting percentages have been better and the shots he does make, in relation to the shots that are ill-advised, and it is all part of a learning process. He is a streaky shooter. He could knock down six or seven in a game, and we'd like that because it would help our team win."
Walker, who admits he's frustrated, said it's a matter of keeping things in perspective and he's not overly concerned. At least, not yet.
"I have to keep playing, and I'm going to keep shooting," Walker said. "I've been getting good looks; the shots just aren't falling. I know that eventually my shots are going to fall. And in the meantime, I have to get the ball to my open teammates more and I have to just keep playing hard like I'm doing. I'm not going to change anything."