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Who is Florida’s greatest men’s basketball player? Neal Walk Region, first round

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Picking the greatest Gators in history isn’t easy. But naming one of the giants of yesteryear a No. 1 seed wasn’t hard.

New York Knicks v Washington Bullets Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Yeah, I know content’s been scarce here at Alligator Army of late. I’ll explain more tomorrow.

When it became clear that the NCAA Tournament wasn’t going to happen — that the embattled Mike White’s 2019-20 Gators would not get a chance to finish their season with a signature March Madness run or another fatal swoon — some of the diehard basketball fans in the Florida fan base still wanted to find a way to celebrate the program.

And so the Florida Basketball Hour podcast and others, especially superfan Jason Lee — a longtime friend of the blog — put together a 64-man bracket of the greatest Florida Gators men’s basketball players in history, one that will be voted on in the coming days and weeks.

Today, it begins with first round action in the region named for one of the greatest Gators some of the program’s younger supporters may never have heard of: Neal Walk.

Neal Walk Region — First Round

No. 1 Neal Walk vs. No. 16 Livingston Chatman

If you’re a Florida fan under the age of 45, you won’t remember seeing Neal Walk play, either in Gainesville or in the NBA: He left the NBA after the 1975-76 season to finish up his pro career overseas, and he was drafted by the league in 1969 after three seasons in orange and blue. (Recall that freshmen were not allowed to play varsity college basketball in those long-gone days.)

But you may well remember his name, and you should certainly respect Walk’s stats, which jump off the page like he did after so many rebounds. In 1967-68, as a junior, he pulled down an astounding 19.8 rebounds per game to lead the NCAA while also scoring 26.5 points per game for the Gators. His senior season was slightly less impressive, but still saw averages of 24.0 points and 17.8 rebounds per contest, obviously titanic totals. That he did his work for Tommy Bartlett-coached teams that were merely good and not great — 15-10 in 1967-68, 18-9 in 1968-69, neither mark good enough to make what were 23- and 25-team NCAA Tournaments — may hurt him a bit when compared to Gators with stats and legendary achievements, but he’s the No. 1 seed in this region for obvious reasons, and should stomp through at least most of it.

Chatman, for his part, is an overqualified No. 16 seed. He’s 24th all-time in scoring for the Gators, having averaged 10 or more points per game in all four of his seasons in Gainesville, and he figured into Florida’s first SEC title in the 1988-89 season as a sophomore after earning AP Freshman All-American honors for his debut campaign. His 70 points in a three-game 1989 SEC Tournament stint still stands as a school record, and he was named the event’s MVP despite the Gators falling to Alabama in the final.

But he’s got no shot here.

The pick: Walk in a walk, with 80 percent or more of the votes.

My vote: Walk, obviously.

No. 2 Andrew Moten vs. No. 15 Canyon Barry

Here we begin with some of what will be the harder matchups in the first round: Old(er) school players against more recent ones well-known to the current fan base.

But while Barry is a frisky No. 15 seed — the College of Charleston graduate transfer and grandson of Basketball Hall of Famer Rick Barry was essentially a sixth starter for the 2016-17 Gators, and gave that group scoring, shooting, and an outsized presence on broadcasts before giving Gator Nation one of the great unsung plays in Florida athletics history with a chasedown block that preserved the Gators’ chances in the 2017 Sweet Sixteen just long enough for Chris Chiozza to work his magic — he shouldn’t be topping Moten.

A four-year starter at point guard, Moten was half of the backcourt engine — along with Vernon Maxwell — that drove Norm Sloan’s teams to the highest heights Florida had yet seen in the mid-1980s. Moten scored 16-plus points per game in each of his last three seasons and helped them get to the Sweet Sixteen in their first NCAA Tournament trip in 1987, shooting 45 percent from three in the first year of the three-point line in college basketball. He might be very slightly overseeded as a No. 2 — especially as he was arguably never the best player on his own team — but Moten’s career towers over most in Florida history: He’s No. 3 in points scored on Florida’s official list (the one without Mad Max) and might be the program’s assists leader if that stat had been kept at the time.

The pick: Moten, but by a closer margin than anyone expects. Maybe even 50s-40s.

My vote: Moten. Just because most remember Barry and his specific moments of greatness doesn’t mean Moten didn’t have more.

No. 3 Clifford (Cliff) Luyk vs. No. 14 Gene Shy

Cliff Luyk? Who!?, asked a couple of generations. Well, Cliff Luyk was a bad man.

Luyk — son of a Dutch father and a Swiss mother, which sounds familiar-ish — came to Florida in 1958 as a New York state star, then dominated in his three varsity years, helping Norm Sloan’s first Florida tenure get off to a strong start and capping his career with a senior season in which the 6’8” center averaged 21.3 points and 15.3 rebounds per game.

Luyk would go on to a prolific pro career in Spain, too — and that could be factored in here, as his Florida career alone might not best Shy’s on paper when you look at pure scoring numbers — the 6’6” forward of the early 1970s is still 10th on the Gators’ all-time scoring list, after all. But Shy shined for teams that bridged the Bartlett and John Lotz eras, only one of which finished the year with a winning record, and Luyk’s relatively small career totals owe something to his teams playing shorter schedules even than many contemporaries: Had he played 80 games, he might have been Florida’s 1,000-point, 1,000-rebound producer.

I will say that Shy as a No. 14 seed feels criminal.

The pick: Luyk.

My vote: Luyk.

No. 4 Stacey Poole vs. No. 13 Alex Tyus

Poole is one of the lost greats who served as a builting block for Florida without really winning big rings: He arrived in 1988 but sat the 1988-89 season as a medical redshirt and then was part of post-NCAA sanction squads coached by Lon Kruger that failed to make the NCAA Tournament themselves. The four-year stretch is the longest Florida has gone without making the NCAA Tournament since its first berth. Still, he’s seventh in all-time scoring and it’s hard to say Florida makes the 1994 Final Four if Kruger wasn’t able to show some progress with Poole’s outfits.

Tyus, likewise, came along during a rebuild: He was part of the teams that went to back-to-back NITs after Florida’s back-to-back titles, but he stuck around for all four years, morphing from mere high-flyer to a well-rounded big who scored efficiently, rebounded, and defended, and got rewarded with a trip to the Elite Eight in 2010-11. A nice pro career with multiple Maccabi Tel Aviv stops helps, too, but name recognition is the only reason Tyus would top Poole.

The pick: Poole, but this might be 60s-40s.

My vote: Poole. Tyus was never Florida’s best player in his career, whereas Poole might had three years of that.

No. 5 Patric Young vs. No. 12 Joe Lawrence

Here’s a matchup of career vs. season. Young’s four years as a Gator were among the best in program history, and while he never became the collegiate equivalent to Dwight Howard that some projected him to be, the finished product of Patric Young was about as easy to root for as any player in Florida history, as he looked like Adonis but worked like Hercules.

Lawrence is here because he made 64 of his 125 threes in 1986-87, the first season the three was part of college basketball, and thus owns the Florida career and single-season marks for three-point percentage. And that’s it, really: He averaged 10 points per game in just one of his four seasons, and it wasn’t 1986-87, so he’s a record-holder who was never a particularly great player apart from a great facet of a singular season.

The pick: Young, easy.

My vote: Young.

No. 6 Chip Williams vs. No. 11 Teddy Dupay

Chip Williams — his real first name is either Chip or lost to history, so far as I can tell — averaged a double-double for his career for some of the same teams Gene Shy (and Tony Miller, also in this bracket) was on, and he made an All-SEC team in each of his three seasons. Great. That’s neat.

Dupay, though, is the first player I’ll go to the mats for on style over substance. He was the insouciant scorer and shooter I pretended to be in my backyard when Billyball was at its apex, and a great scorer and shooter at volume while also serving as a primary ballhandler, firing in threes at about a 38 percent clip for his career despite hoisting more than five per contest. Dupay’s off-the-court issues are myriad and well-documented, but he also illustrated the scrappy, three-happy Gators of the turn of the century better than anyone else, and a full career would’ve given him some gaudy stat totals to match his status as an iconic player.

The pick: Dupay. That status, though, is enough for me here, and my guess is that it’ll be enough for the populace, too.

My vote: Dupay.

No. 7 Dan Cross vs. No. 10 Kenyan Weaks

With all due respect to Kenyan Weaks, he can’t win this one.

Weaks was a great shooter for the first Donovan teams, with a scintillating sophomore year — 50.8 percent from beyond the arc and nearly 13 points and five boards per game — that forecast even better years to finish his career. But Weaks — both a prototype for Lee Humphrey, Michael Frazier, and Noah Locke to follow and a better defender than any of the three and a prototype for Scottie Wilbekin as a player who began two seasons suspended — couldn’t quite become a true great with another evolutionary step, and though his list of accomplishments is long, he was never any of his teams’ primary option or best player.

Cross may not have been a best player, either, thanks to Andrew DeClercq, but he figured in slightly more NCAA Tournament success and did so more prominently, with his layup to beat James Madison in the 1994 NCAA Tournament (it’s about a minute in) ranking as perhaps Florida’s biggest single shot of the 20th century. Cross is also in Florida’s Athletic Hall of Fame; Weaks won’t get there, I don’t think.

The pick: Cross.

My vote: Cross.

No. 8 Vernon Delancy vs. No. 9 Gary Keller

Delancy had an odd career: He had one of the best freshman seasons by a Gator ever, scoring almost 18 points per game, but teammate Ronnie Williams had a better one, stealing many of the honors Delancy would have gotten, and then saw his scoring drop dramatically as Williams and Eugene McDowell became the fixtures of those early-’80s teams. Still, scoring just shy of 1,300 points is nothing to sneeze at.

Keller, meanwhile, was the best player on what was then the best team in school history in 1966-67 — no small feat, as Neal Walk was on that team — and helped Florida to a 21-4 mark that still didn’t get the Gators into the postseason. Is that a huge bonus here? NO.

The pick: Delancy.

My vote: Delancy.