In the last two weeks, the Florida men's basketball program has landed verbal commitments from talented in-state prospects Nick Calathes, Gary Clark and Marreese Speights. All three players are important gets in their own right, but landing prospects from within Florida's borders is a new trend for the SEC program and could be the extra push Billy Donovan needs to get the Gators to the next level.
When Donovan took the head coaching job at Florida in 1996, he went right to work on the recruiting trail. The young and energetic super recruiter signed star players from lesser known basketball recruiting areas like South Dakota, New Hampshire and Denmark. Donovan left no stone unturned as he was able to land McDonald's All-Americans from Missouri and Michigan.
There was one place, however, that the Gators did not recruit well, Florida.
Prior to 2005, the Gators did not tap into their homegrown talent pool. From 1998-2004, only nine of the 27 players Florida signed hailed from the Sunshine State, including four of the 17 from 2000-04.
The trend changed with the Class of 2005 and the early start to the Class of 2007. Calathes, a 6-foot-5, 170-pound guard from Lake Howell High School, said the Florida staff is pitching the idea of playing for pride within the borders of the state.
"He said it would be great if we stayed close to home and won a national championship for our own state, for the people that have always supported us here (in Florida)," Calathes said. "I can see why guys want to do that."
The skinny on the newest Gators
Calathes, a 6-foot-5, 170-pound guard from Lake Howell High School is one of the emerging stars in the class of 2007. He received a scholarship offer from Donovan just before the busy April travel season and two weeks later, Calathes announced his intention to stay home to play for the SEC school.
Clark, another class of 2007 standout, and Speights, an emerging star in the class of 2006, joined Calathes in Gainesville for a local AAU tournament held on the campus of Florida over the weekend. After the tournament concluded, both Clark and Speights committed to Donovan and his staff.
In just a short amount of time, Calathes has proven that he knows how to win basketball games. He was the anchor for a young and talented Lake Howell team during the high school season. In the short AAU season, Calathes has bounced between the 17 and 16 and under squads for Team Florida and pushed the program to several key victories. He finds a way to win and rallies those around him along the way.
A strong shooter, Calathes will light it up from the perimeter and much like Matt Walsh, the 6-foot-5 guard is a "jack of all trades but master of none" kind of a player. Calathes is a strong passer that knows how to work well in the half court all the while a deadly threat from deep. He must improve his lateral quickness on defense and ball-handling to create for himself on the offensive end but with the addition of guys like Clark, Calathes will shine with better athletes around him.
Speights, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound power forward from Admiral Farragut High School in St. Petersburg, may be one of the hidden gems in the country. He uses his size incredibly well around the bucket for scores and rebounds, but the big man can also step out and shoot the ball to the three-point line. Even with his size, Speights is very agile around the basket and finishes strong. The strong rebounder does a nice job of getting the ball up the floor with his outlet pass.
Speights still needs to refine conditioning and improve his body. Because he's still not in tip top shape, Speights does tend to not play hard all the time. A year spent at Hargrave Military in Chatham, Va., next season should help.
Clark is an excellent shooter from beyond the three point line and he's developed his mid-range game during the course of the spring. A very good athlete, Clark loves to push the ball and run the floor and should fit well into Florida's up-tempo offense.
In order to be a major impact guy at the next level, Clark must improve his already solid ball-handling skills. Like most players with two years left in high school, Clark needs to get stronger and improve his footwork on the defensive end.
Florida striking early and often
When Calathes and Clark both committed as sophomores, it marked the first time Florida has received a pair of commitments from players that young. Together, the two should compliment each other well in their college careers.
Playing against each other for years, Calathes and Clark are both excited about the prospects of playing together in college. The two had a chance to strengthen their bond last weekend at the tournament. Calathes said he's ready to lace them up with Clark.
"I've been friends with him for three years now. It's going to be great for me and him to play together. We're both good combo guards but both really different. It's going to be fun."
Florida's success in the class of 2007 isn't surprising to Matt Ramker, a coach for the always-loaded Tallahassee Wildcats program.
"They've started to evaluate guys at a much younger age and they've done a good job of projecting where they will be in a couple of years," Ramker said. "In the past, guys have slipped through their hands like Rashad Anderson (UConn), Darius Washington (Memphis) and Alonzo Gee (Alabama). Now they are doing a good job of preventing other schools from taking these guys from the state."
Ramker's Wildcats have sent a player to Gainesville for the last three seasons. With the addition of Speights and Clark, the streak extends to five years. Jimmie Sutton (2005), Taurean Green (2004) and Chris Richard (2003) all played for the Wildcats prior to their college days. Two -sport start Corneilus Ingram was a walk-on for Florida last year. The quarterback spent his high school summers with the Wildcats program. Orien Greene, a 2000 Florida signee, also played for the Wildcats.
Who is next?
Arlington Country Day School in Jacksonville has already been good to the Gators. Huertas will graduate from the school in a couple of weeks. Looming in the class of 2006 is 7-foot-2 center Jason Bennett. The improving pivot man says he's holding an offer from Florida. They are one of the top schools on his list. Other players to watch include forwards A.J. Tyler of Palm Harbor, Zach Peacock of Miami, Luis Colon of Montverde Prep and Dwayne Collins of Miami. Guards Jonathan Hall of Miami and Josue Soto, who plays at Arlington Country Day with Bennett and Huertas.
Florida does have some stiff competition within it's own borders. Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton has proven that he can recruit with anybody. Uche Echefu, a four-star recruit from the class of 2005, picked the Seminoles over North Carolina on Monday. The 'Noles are involved with some of the top in-state talent from the class of 2006, most notably Aaron Holmes.
Since Frank Haith took over the job at Miami, he has started to build a steel curtain around South Beach evident by his signing of Adrian Thomas and landing a huge commitment from Edwin Rios, the best player in the state from the class of 2007. Haith was Rivals.com's 2004 Recruiter of the Year while an assistant on Rick Barnes' staff at Texas.
Both programs will not be easy to beat for the state's best but they do know that the Gators will be hitting the hot Florida pavement a lot harder in the next couple of years.