When Chris Walker steps on to the court of the Stephen C. O'Connell Center for the first time wearing a Florida Gators uniform, the crowd will erupt.
"I think he's going to get a big ovation the second he comes out," said Florida basketball fan Rafael Rodriguez, 19.
Walker will make his highly-anticipated season debut during the Gators' game against the Missouri Tigers on Tuesday night.
Fans have been looking forward to seeing Walker play since the season began. One of the most coveted basketball players coming out of high school, Walker was forced to sit out the fall semester due to academic issues. He was admitted to UF in mid-December when he met the NCAA's minimum academic eligibility requirements, but was forced to sit out an extra 12 games, punishment for accepting "free cell phones and service, airfare, lodging, meals and apparel," during his recruitment, according to a NCAA press release.
The extended wait to see Walker in a Gators jersey has not dulled the hype around the 6-foot-10 athlete from Bonifay. During his suspension, fans pleaded with the NCAA to let Walker play by using the hashtag #FreeChrisWalker on Twitter. When it was announced last Wednesday that that he would soon be eligible, the hashtag changed — to #FreedChrisWalker.
UF student and basketball fan Ricardo Remis, 18, said that much of the anticipation surrounding Walker comes from his distinction as a McDonald's All-American and from the numerous highlight reels on YouTube that display his athleticism.
The success of the team in general also plays a factor in the fanfare surrounding Walker, Remis said. The Gators, ranked third in the AP Top 25 as of Feb. 3, are 19-2 in the 2013-14 season, and on a 13-game winning streak.
The idea of a good team getting even better is appealing to Florida fans. Adding another player of Walker's potential to the team at this point in the year is equivalent to a professional team making a mid-season trade for a star player, Remis said.
Despite the excitement around Walker, Remis said he has tempered expectations for the newest addition to the Gators, a sentiment that has been echoed by UF head coach Billy Donovan several times since Walker joined the team. Missing so much time has hurt his development.
"If anybody is expecting him to be savior it would really be unfair," Donovan said in a press conference on Jan. 27, after saying similar things in December. "He's got a lot of growing to do. He's got a lot of physical growing, mental growing, he's got to understand the college game a lot more."
Jessica Ireland, 20, said she's planning on going to Walker's debut on Tuesday. She said that UF fans are excited to see a player who combines height and athleticism in a way that the Gators haven't had in the past few years.
However, she said that students and fans need to realize that he's not going to start right away just because his suspension's over.
"Obviously I'm not expecting him to win us national championships just because of him," she said. "Even though he's going to be on the team, it's still a team sport."
Ireland said that she thinks the team has gotten credit for the season they've already had, and she doesn't think the discussions about Walker have overshadowed the Gators' play. She also said that she wasn't angered by the NCAA's handling of the situation, which has received widespread criticism; if he violated the rules, he should serve the appropriate punishment.
But with Walker finally set to don the orange and blue Tuesday night, Ireland said she thinks he can become a leader for the team, and that she's excited to see how the fans will react when he enters the game for the first time.
"After spending these last games holding up signs saying ‘Free Chris Walker' and wearing shirts," she said, "I can't imagine what the reaction's going to be when he finally gets to play."
- Florida football recruiting, Weekend Wrap: On J.C. Jackson, Damian Prince, Adoree' Jackson
- Chomping at Bits: Percy Harvin, Dan Quinn dominate Super Bowl XLVIII
- Super Bowl XLVIII: How to watch, and the Gators fan's rooting guide
- Florida 69, Texas A&M 36: Gators obliterate another overmatched SEC foe
- Florida vs. Texas A&M, Game Thread: Gators welcome Ags to O'Dome for first SEC game