GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Third-ranked Florida is about to get deeper and probably better.
The NCAA cleared highly touted freshman Chris Walker on Wednesday and said he will be eligible to play Tuesday night against Missouri.
A 6-foot-10 forward from Bonifay, Walker will have sat out 12 games, or 40 percent of the season, after the NCAA determined he ''received preferential treatment from five people, including two agents.'' The NCAA said Walker has to donate the $270 received from the agents to a charity of his choice and serve 80 hours of community service. The agents, meanwhile, have not been punished.
According to facts agreed upon by Florida and the NCAA, Walker accepted free cellphones and service, airfare, lodging, meals and apparel while he was a prospect. People close to Walker also received free airfare and lodging for nine different trips, including eight associated with Walker's non-scholastic basketball team competitions.
''The NCAA membership has expressed continued concern about how third-party influence, improper agent involvement and the role of non-scholastic basketball impact student-athletes and prospects,'' said Kevin Lennon, NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs. ''Out of concern for student-athletes' well-being, our members have created rules that limit the involvement of these individuals. The 12 games Mr. Walker was required to sit out reflect the significance of these violations.''
Walker failed to qualify academically last summer and spent the fall taking online classes to gain eligibility. He joined the team Dec. 14 and has been practicing since, but he missed 10 games while awaiting the NCAA's decision. He still has to sit out Thursday night's game at Mississippi State and Saturday's home contest against Texas A&M.
Walker is a talented shot-blocker, rebounder and finisher who won the dunk contest at the McDonald's All-American game last year. Since arriving on campus, he has gained about 10 pounds while learning coach Billy Donovan's complex offensive and defensive schemes.
Donovan said earlier this week he plans to play Walker immediately.
''We're glad there's a resolution for everyone involved, especially for Chris,'' Donovan said in a statement. ''We appreciate everyone's participation in this process and are ready to move forward.''
Walker's size and athleticism should boost the team's frontcourt depth and maybe improve the team's chances of making another deep run in the NCAA tournament. The Gators, who have lost in a regional final the past three years, have played all season without suspended forward Damontre Harris. Guards Eli Carter (leg) and Dillon Graham (hip) are sitting out the rest of the season with injuries.
''I appreciate all the support from UF, Coach Donovan and my teammates, and I'm looking forward to helping the team any way I can,'' Walker said.
Donovan also tried earlier this week to temper expectations for Walker.
''I think he's playing well and he's doing well,'' Donovan said. ''My biggest fear for Chris is you have a highly explosive player and sometimes when the guy's not playing, the legend of Chris Walker grows greater than who he really actually is, you know. ... Chris Walker now, it's like, my God, this guy is going to end up being Kevin Garnett. I mean, he's not that. And I think if anybody, whenever he gets able to play, if that's your expectation of Chris Walker, then you're going to be very, very disappointed because he's not that.
''I hope that there is at least a level of understanding in terms of how much he's missed coming in to where he's coming in and if anybody's expecting him to be a savior, it would really be unfair. 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. There's so much that's in front of him to try and get better at. I just hope that people will not look at it and say, 'Wow, I was expecting something different.' I don't want to see him have to go through that.''