McDonald's All-American Chris Walker's college debut would have intrigued fans in Gainesville had it come back in mid- November, so it's no surprise delaying it almost three months only increased the buzz.
Students donned "Free Chris Walker" T-shirts for the occasion. Fans screamed for Walker when he came out of the tunnel for pregame warm-ups, when he entered the game in the first half and when he touched the ball for the first time in the post. And when Walker scored his first basket for Florida on a two-handed alley-oop slam, the O'Connell Center crowd got as loud as it has at any point this season.
Florida coach Billy Donovan only played Walker sparingly in Florida's 68-58 victory over Missouri on Tuesday night, but the 6-foot-10 forward showed enough promise in seven minutes to justify the crowd's over-the-top reaction. Not only did he score four points on two late first-half dunks off lob passes from fellow freshman Kasey Hill, he also grabbed a pair of rebounds and swatted away two first-half shots by Missouri's Earnest Ross.
Walker had to wait until Tuesday night to make his college debut because of a series of eligibility issues.
He was unable to enroll at Florida until mid-December because he had to pass a handful of classes to meet the NCAA's minimum academic eligibility requirements. He has practiced with Florida since then, but he had to sit out another six weeks because he violated NCAA rules by accepting extra benefits before he arriving at Florida.
The good news for Walker is he's stepping into an ideal situation with a Florida team that has won 14 in a row to rise to No. 3 in the nation. The Gators don't need a savior. They just need him to bolster their post depth and provide a spark off the bench.
What Walker showed Tuesday night against Missouri is exactly what he can bring as his role expands once he becomes more comfortable and earns Billy Donovan's trust.
Walker isn't a polished back-to-the-basket scorer, but his dazzling athleticism enables him to block shots, rebound and finish above the rim. Add that to a group that already includes Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith, and the Gators now boast one of the deepest frontcourts in the nation.
Can Walker play his way into Florida's starting five or become one of the team's mainstays by March? That's unlikely given how late his debut is coming and how accomplished the guys ahead of him in the rotation are.
But for right now, none of that matters. Florida fans are simply elated to finally have him in uniform for the first time.