Beal brings toughness to UF's tourney run


Florida guard Bradley Beal shoots during a practice session on Wednesday at US Airways Center in Phoenix on Wednesday. The Gators face Marquette tonight in the Sweet 16.

Matt Stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 8:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 12:17 a.m.

PHOENIX — The early evenings were spent at a YMCA in St. Louis. After Bradley Beal finished his homework, his mom, Besta Beal, would hand her son the basketball and tell him to find his way to the basket.

Facts

UF's Sweet 16 matchup

Who: No. 3 seed Marquette vs. No. 7 seed Florida
When: Thursday, 10:17 p.m.
Where: Phoenix
TV/Radio: TBS/103.7 FM

Beal was in second grade then and his two older brothers, who each went on to play Division I football, outweighed him by at least 20 pounds.

“It was probably just to develop a sense of toughness, going to the basket, because my brothers were always bigger than I was,” Beal said.




When Florida plays Marquette in its Sweet 16 matchup tonight, it will need that kind of toughness from Beal and the rest of the Gators. The 6-foot-3 freshman has emerged as one of the best rebounding guards in the country. At 207 pounds, Beal's physicality has allowed Florida to keep its three-guard lineup intact for the entire season.

Beal is up to 6.7 rebounds per game, not bad for a player who had an underwhelming total of five rebounds in his first two career games. After Beal had just three rebounds in his second career outing against Ohio State, Florida coach Billy Donovan told his prized McDonald's All-American recruit that he needed to become more aggressive on the boards.

“I stood around and watched Pat (Young) and all those guys get beat up down there, and I didn't even try to go after the ball,” Beal said. “I really learned my lesson from that and I believe my rebounding has helped a lot. That's just another way of me contributing.”

Beal has posted six double-doubles this season, including a 14-point, 11-rebound effort against Virginia in UF's first game of the NCAA Tournament. In his first two career NCAA Tournament games, Beal is averaging 14 points and 10 rebounds per game.

“A lot of it has to do with positioning and being able to read the trajectory of the ball,” Beal said of his rebounding. “Just really trying to figure out where the ball is going to land and just try to get there as quick as I can.”

The elementary school pickup games with older brothers Brandon and Bruce also helped. Brandon, now 25, went on to play wide receiver at Northern Illinois, while Bruce, 23, was an offensive lineman at Alabama State. Beal was scoring and rebounding against a pair of dump trucks.

Beal's parents, Bobby and Besta, were both athletes at Kentucky State. Besta was a forward on the basketball team and outside hitter on the volleyball team. Bobby Beal was a strong safety on the football team.

Bobby Beal worked nights at a Chrysler plant in St. Louis while Besta had the kids.

“The pickup games were his mom's idea,” Bobby Beal said. “She also taught Brad how to shoot. In sixth grade, when everyone else was shooting the ball from their hip, Brad was shooting it higher. That got the attention of other coaches.”

Beal's toughness also has been reflected this season in his ability to drive to the basket. Though Beal has struggled from 3-point range in his freshman season (shooting 33 percent), he's made up for it by scoring at the foul line. Beal has averaged six trips to the foul line over his last 11 games, shooting 80.3 percent from the foul line (53 of 66) during that span.

Donovan said throughout the season he's had to push Beal to become more assertive offensively.

“He's really such a good team guy who understands team dynamics and chemistry,” Donovan said. “I think for him he's always been a guy who has relied on his offense, and I think he's starting to realize that there is so much more to his game — the way he rebounds, the way he passes and the way he's attacking. Earlier in the year he wasn't attacking the basket and driving and putting it on the floor the way he is now.

“Our team realizes that when he does those things, it helps us tremendously. I just needed to keep pushing him toward that, and I think Brad, being a freshman, needs a push a lot of times because he never wants to step over bounds and put our team chemistry in jeopardy. Sometimes he needs that push to let him know it's OK.”

Beal said he started to feel more comfortable with an increased role when Southeastern Conference play began.

“It kind of took me awhile to get used to it because I didn't want to step on anyone's toes because they've done a great job already and I'm trying to learn from them,” Beal said. “I think coach just gave me a nudge and I just ran with it. I've done a pretty good job to this point.”

Whether or not this is the last few games Beal will wear a Gator uniform remains to be seen. Beal, who moved up to the fourth overall pick in Chad Ford's mock 2012 NBA Draft this week, said he will wait until the end of the season to meet with Donovan and his family before deciding whether to return for his sophomore season.

“He's asked us not to talk about it until the end of the season, and we've agreed,” Bobby Beal said. “At that time, we'll weigh the pros and cons of it. We're just focused on the season right now.”

FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS

G Kenny Boynton 6-2 Jr. 16.1 ppg, 2.5 apg

G Erving Walker 5-8 Sr. 12.1 ppg, 4.6 apg

G Bradley Beal 6-3 Fr. 14.6 ppg, 6.7 rpg

F Erik Murphy 6-10 Jr. 10.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg

C Patric Young 6-9 So. 10.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg

MARQUETTE PROBABLE STARTERS

G Darius Johnson-Odom 6-2 Sr. 18.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg

G Junior Cadougan 6-1 Jr. 6.5 ppg, 5.4 apg

G Vander Blue 6-4 So. 8.5 ppg, 4.4 rpg

F Jae Crowder 6-6 Sr. 17.6 ppg, 8.4 rpg

F Jamil Wilson 6-7 Sr. 7.1 ppg, 4.1 rpg

Notes: Florida is 0-2 lifetime against Marquette with losses in 1976 (64-61) and 1977 (81-67). … Florida is making its 12th NCAA Tournament appearance under current coach Billy Donovan, who is 27-9 in NCAA Tournament games. ... Florida and Marquette are two of seven teams that have reached the Sweet 16 in back-to-back seasons (others are Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio State and Wisconsin). … Marquette is making its sixth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament. … Marquette coach Buzz Williams is 5-3 in the NCAA Tournament. … Florida has made 10 or more 3-pointers in 23 of 35 games this season. … With 282 career 3-pointers, senior point guard Erving Walker is six shy of tying Lee Humphrey's school record (288).

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Taking care of the ball

Marquette has been described as relentless by many opposing teams because of its ability to pressure the ball and force turnovers. The Eagles are forcing 16.6 turnovers per game. Florida guards Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton and Bradley Beal will need to do a good job of handling the ball while making smart decisions. The magic number for turnovers for Florida is 15. The Gators are 2-5 when they turn the ball over 15 times or more, 23-5 when they turn the ball over less than 15 times.

2. Florida's physicality

The Gators need to be physical on both the offensive and defensive end. Marquette makes up for its lack of size with its overall team strength. Senior forward Jae Crowder is 6-foot-6, 235 pounds, while 6-foot-2 guard Darius Johnson-Odom is a wide-shouldered 215 pounds. “These last two practices have probably been the most physical practices we've had,” Florida freshman guard Bradley Beal said. “We've been fouling each other, slapping at the ball. We're really prepared for them because they're going to slap us when we get the rebound and stuff like that and be aggressive coming into the lane.”

3. Getting back in transition

Marquette likes to run. Florida's ability to take care of the ball and get back in transition defense will be key in the game. Both Marquette and Florida are well-conditioned teams comfortable playing up-tempo. That conditioning of both teams could be put to an even more extreme test if both teams get the game going up and down the floor.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. Can Florida carry over another strong shooting performance after making 10 3-pointers against Norfolk State?

2. Can Florida keep Marquette senior forward Jae Crowder off the boards and keep Marquette from scoring second-chance points?

3. Can another Florida player step up off the bench after Casey Prather (14 points against Virginia) and Mike Rosario (12 points against Norfolk State) had double-digit scoring games off the bench in UF's first two games?

Go to Gatorsports.com after the game for Kevin Brockway's answers.

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