Already hailed as a Final Four contender and the favorite to win the SEC, Florida is about to get even stronger.
The No. 3 Gators will soon gain the services of their most decorated freshman.
Chris Walker, a 6-foot-10 McDonald's All-American forward, will be eligible to make his Florida debut Tuesday when the Gators host Missouri, the NCAA announced Wednesday afternoon. Walker was admitted at Florida in mid-December after taking several classes during fall semester to meet minimum academic eligibility standards, but the NCAA did not clear him to play because it was still investigating whether he accepted extra benefits while he was still in high school.
What the NCAA ruled Wednesday was that Walker had to sit 12 games after enrolling at Florida because of preferential treatment he received from five people, including two agents. Florida and the NCAA both acknowledge Walker accepted free cell phones, airfare, lodging meals and apparel and that individuals close to Walker received free airfare and lodging for nine different trips.
Before he can play again next Tuesday, Walker must donate the $270 he received from the agents to a charity of his choice. He'll also have to serve 80 hours of community service as penalty for the remaining benefits he received.
Now that we know how much Walker allegedly took, what's more important is what he can offer. Can he strengthen an already formidable Florida team that has won 11 straight games and built a one-game lead over second-place Ole Miss in the SEC?
Though Florida coach Billy Donovan has tried to temper expectations for Walker and has repeatedly noted that he hasn't played a meaningful game since February, there's still reason to believe he can be an asset.
Walker isn't the most polished big man, but his shot-blocking, freakish athleticism and dazzling ability to finish at the rim would add another dimension to Florida's frontcourt. He also has practiced with the Gators since mid-December, meaning he should have an understanding of what Florida wants to run and what his role will be. Add Walker to a interior corps that includes Patric Young, Will Yeguete and Dorian Finney-Smith, and the Gators would boast one of the deepest frontcourts in the nation.
The one concern that the clearance of Walker inspires is whether he could disrupt the chemistry Florida has built. It's possible other guys will not be pleased at surrendering playing time to Walker when the team has been winning without him, but that's a risk the Gators should be willing to take.
They were already one of the nation's elite teams without Walker. Now they figure to get even better.