For 51 days, Chris Walker has practiced with the Gators basketball team, attended classes, and tried his best to feel as much a part of the program as he could — without ever setting foot on the court during a game.
Tonight, that all changes.
When the No. 3 Gators host Missouri at 9 at the O'Dome, the freshman All-American will make his highly-anticipated debut. Walker missed an NCAA-mandated 12 games for impermissible benefits he received before arriving at Florida. He was cleared last week to begin play tonight.
"I think he's extremely excited," senior C Patric Young said Monday. "… Just think about everything he's gone through to get to now, (and) it's finally here as far as school, things he had to do over the summer, missing the first semester, finally here and going through practice and then not hearing from the NCAA. It's probably a 15 on a scale of 1-10 how excited he is right now."
So, too, is the fan base, which has been clamoring for Walker since he was admitted in December. Which is why coach Billy Donovan has done everything short of taking out billboards in Gainesville to remind fans of two things: Walker is a freshman and he's never played a collegiate game. Donovan's biggest goal now is figuring out how to insert Walker into a lineup and rotation that is operating at a very high level. That, and getting the attention away from Walker.
"I think there was a lot of attention on Chris because he was not a part of our team," Donovan said. "He was separated from our team and there was a lot of attention given to the fact of when he was going to be cleared to play. Right now there should be no attention to Chris because it's about our team. He's now a part of our team. He needs to be in a role with our team that however he can contribute and help our team that's the most important thing.
"He's a humble kid. He understands that coming in he has to do whatever he can to help —whether that's three minutes, two minutes, 10 minutes or 20 minutes. It's all going to be predicated on how he's doing and what he's doing to help our team with foul trouble, fatigue and those things.
"I'm happy for him that he can now put a uniform on and go out there and play and all this stuff is behind him. As it relates to anything else, he's part of our team. It's not our team and Chris Walker's suspension, he's part of our team."
The players have embraced Walker, but realize there are bigger things at stake for this team.
"He's a great player," F Dorian Finney-Smith said. "He has a lot of energy, he's athletic. He can jump out the gym. I'm happy for him, he gets to play. But we've got a game to win."
SEC HONORS: Freshman Ronni Williams was named SEC women's co-freshman of the week Monday for the second time this season. Williams started two games last week, averaging 11 points, five rebounds and three assists. She shot 56.3 percent.
FOOTBALL, ONCE MORE: National signing day is Wednesday and the Gators remain in the hunt for a few key players. UF had an official visit last weekend from 6-foot-5, 292-pound OT Damian Prince of Forestville, Md., who is ranked No. 20 in the Rivals 100. Florida could still be in the mix for FSU QB commit Treon Harris, and three-star WR C.J. Worton is reportedly down to the Gators and West Virginia. Florida begins spring practice on March 19.
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter@TBTimes_Gators.