Walsh determined to be Gators' go-to player

Updated: November 29, 2003, 2:25 AM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- So, we saw what Florida sophomore Matt Walsh can do -- once again -- at the beginning of the season.

He can score. He can be a leader. He can make big-time shots in droves, just like he did last year to open the season when he lit up Louisiana Tech for 26 and Eastern Illinois for 20 in his first two games.

But can he really be a 27-point scorer, making five 3s and 10 of 18 shots throughout the whole season like he did in Florida's thrilling 78-77 victory over Arizona at the MassMutual Tipoff Classic Friday night?

Well, maybe that's asking too much, but Walsh is determined to make it through this season and prove that he can be a go-to player.

The reason he is so confident that he can be the Big Man on Campus in Gainesville for a potential Final Four team is this: he's got a secret to tell that he didn't share with too many people last season.

He was hurt a year ago, really hurt.

He was playing with a broken foot  for the whole year.

He said he's not making excuses, but that's one of the main reasons he physically broke down last season and went from averaging 20-plus points a game to start and then went south to 9.5 in the SEC and only 5.5 in two NCAA Tournament games.

"My body failed me last year,'' said Walsh. "I tried to take care of my body coming from high school to this level but I wasn't physically ready.''

Walsh said he had no clue what to expect in the SEC or in the NCAAs and by then he was spent.

"I got sick all the time, I had the flu and had no leg (stamina),'' Walsh said. "Plus, I had a broken foot that nobody really knows about. I played with the fractured foot all year and it was my right foot, the one I plant on. I was going to get surgery but instead I took two months off. I didn't want to make it public.''

Walsh said he was in so much pain that he took a "shot" prior to a game at Maryland on Dec. 14, 2002.

"I had to, because I couldn't walk or run on it,'' Walsh said. "The pressure just kept coming (on his foot). I'm not making excuses but I'm in so much better shape because I took care of my body. I'm eating better and doing things that make a difference.''

Florida coach Billy Donovan said Walsh was the one during the game that got his teammates going when there were a few lulls in the first and second half. Walsh made the big shots, like a run of three straight 3s that took Florida from down one to up three points midway through the second half.

"He is healthy now,'' said Donovan, who had to deal with health issues for his other two high-profile freshmen last season in Anthony Roberson and Christian Drejer. Roberson, who was suspended for two exhibition games and the opener against Montana State, looked rusty Friday night at times. Drejer, who battled an ankle injury and a resulting infection a year ago, looks physically fit for the first time since he arrived in Gainesville from Denmark. He dished out five assists and had four steals to combat a rough 3-for-10 night. But it was Drejer's inbound pass to Bonell Colas that set up the winning basket with 7.3 seconds remaining.

"Both Anthony and Matt told me that nothing they could have done last summer (before their freshmen seasons) could have prepared them for the experience they had,'' Donovan said. "Now those two and Drejer understand what it takes to go through a season.

"Matt's problems last year were his foot and his body got physically broken down,'' Donovan said. "But he has conditioned himself this season. Mentally he got tired in February. Remember, for the high school guys that is when their season is ending but for us we're just cranking it up. In his defense, the foot was a problem. He got those injections to play against Maryland so you know he's a tough kid.

"But he and Roberson have to prove that they can close out the year,'' Donovan said. "It's a great question (to see if they can do it).''

Walsh said he and Drejer were extremely excited that they could both actually go into the season knowing they were healthy. He said they never felt like they were the two wings, next to Roberson, like they were supposed to be last season. Now they feel like they'll be able to play up to their potential.

But to a player, they all felt like they got more out of this one-point win than anything they learned in a rout of Montana State.

The same was true in the Arizona locker room.

Sure, the Wildcats found out that there could be times when eight scholarship players isn't enough and there were a few anxious moments Friday night. Forward Isaiah Fox pulled a hamstring and played only six minutes. Point guard Mustafa Shakur fouled out in 25 minutes.

But that was softened by the biggest plus of the night for the Wildcats -- Chris Rodgers. The much-maligned point guard who was supposedly recruited over by Shakur was the offensive star. Rodgers cored 17 points off the bench, making 3 of 5 3s and all six free-throw attempts.

Arizona coach Lute Olson said Friday's game was the most confidence he has seen Rodgers play with in a game.

"He was a big-time scorer in high school,'' Olson said of Rodgers' 26.6 point average at Woodrow Wilson High. Rodgers averaged just 2.5 points as a freshman last season.

"He was a huge factor for us,'' Olson said.

Channing Frye, who said he has to be more aggressive inside, said having Rodgers as a scorer is a huge plus. Arizona assistant coach Jim Rosborough said Rodgers' end-of-summer trip overseas with a traveling team changed him. He said he returned a more mature person, a harder worker and more driven. The Arizona staff was pleased with his play but didn't understand why he did take one errant shot late in the second half.

"I'm confident every time I step on the court,'' Rodgers said. "I like that people say I'm the underdog. I'm showing what I can do. This game is going to help our confidence.''

The same thing was being said by Florida.

Two teams, brimming with confidence, even though the Gators squeaked out a win by one.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

ALSO SEE