Florida's Final Four mission
Published: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 9:21 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, November 6, 2012 at 6:24 p.m.
Florida junior center Patric Young said the memories stuck with him beyond March.
Three things to watch
1. Can junior Scottie Wilbekin emerge as a consistent floor leader in replacing three-year starter Erving Walker at point guard?
2. Can Patric Young become a more consistent post scorer and rebounder after posting just four double-doubles in 37 games last season?
3. Can Florida defend better from the perimeter after finishing last in the SEC in 3-point percentage defense in conference games (39.7 percent) last season?
The disappointment of falling just short of a Final Four for a second straight season stayed in Young's mind every time he pushed a pickup truck during offseason conditioning drills.
“I had two opportunities to hang two banners up in my gym, and just to know, I'm not trying to leave here without leaving my mark,” Young said. “The summer just gave us some great motivation.”
For Florida, the 2012-13 season will be about breaking through. The Gators have the pieces back for another deep NCAA Tournament run. Three starters and seven scholarship players are back. Florida returns 64.2 percent of its scoring and 71.5 percent of its rebounding.
Still, Florida coach Billy Donovan said he doesn't want his experienced team looking that far ahead.
“Our guys really need to be careful with the mentality of we got to try and get over the hump and get to the Final Four,” Donovan said. “We can actually end up being a better team than a year ago and not go as far. With that being said, there's no guarantee right now that we're even an NCAA Tournament team. You have to earn your way into that. You have to work your way into that.”
The wounds are still fresh, though. Florida had double-digit leads in the second half of Elite Eight losses against Butler and Louisville. In both instances, the Gators failed to close the game out in the final 10 minutes. Poor free-throw shooting, shot selection and lackluster defense all played roles in the two late collapses.
“We know how hard we worked to reach that point again and we came up short,” Florida senior guard Mike Rosario said. “That's why we're trying to avoid that happening again.”
Florida has enough depth and versatility to contend for another Southeastern Conference title. The Gators were picked second in the SEC behind defending national champion Kentucky in the league's preseason media poll.
The losses of one-and-done freshman Bradley Beal and senior point guard Erving Walker will serve as a blow to UF's perimeter scoring. But Florida is hoping to regain some of that scoring punch from Rosario, who is healthier and refocused after an inconsistent junior season. Rosario had issues accepting his role off the bench and missed 25 practices due to several minor ailments.
Leading scorer Kenny Boynton (15.9 ppg last season) also is back and will help more at point guard. But junior Scottie Wilbekin will take the reins as starter at the point in a three-guard starting lineup.
Returning starters Erik Murphy and Patric Young round out the starting five. Donovan also is looking forward to big contributions off the bench from returning scholarship forwards Will Yeguete and Casey Prather, who both showed flashes of productivity last season. Yeguete emerged as UF's most versatile defender before going down with a broken foot in late February. Prather had issues with turnovers before coming through in March, scoring a career-high 14 points in UF's NCAA Tournament opening win over Virginia.
“One thing that is clear right from the get-go is we have incredible potential defensively.” Donovan said. “Erving was, at times, a guy whose size became a factor defensively, whether in zone or in man, his size was an issue. Scottie, sizewise, brings a different element to the table.
“I think Brad Beal, as talented and gifted as he was, being a freshman, there were some ups and downs he had defensively. Now you have Prather, who is a very, very good defender. Hopefully after how he played last year, he'll provide us with more this year. Will Yeguete is now back, healthy. He's a terrific defender. I think Patric has the ability to defend and block shots.”
Offensively, Donovan is looking for balance, though not necessarily in inside-outside scoring. He just wants to make sure all five of his starters average double figures, like they did last season.
“Last year, clearly the identity was we could really, really shoot 3s and have a great shooting team,” Donovan said. “I think we have a good shooting team, but we probably, with the loss of Walker and Beal, don't have the same depth shooting the ball as we did a year ago.”
As a result, the ball could go inside more to Young and Murphy. Of course, the 6-foot-10 Murphy is just as capable of extending the defense by stepping out and taking 3-pointers. Murphy shot 42.1 percent from 3-point range (59-140) in his first full season as a starter.
“He's actually a good low post player,” Donovan said. “When he catches the ball, he's actually a pretty efficient scorer. The difficulty last year sometimes in the post was getting the ball, you know, where people got into his legs and got below him and pushed him and rowed him out of spots and got him in areas where he couldn't catch it.
“I think the biggest thing for Erik is catching it. Once he can establish a catch, I felt pretty confident that he could score.”
Florida will find out early its issues going forward. The Gators play two of their first three games against perennial NCAA Tournament teams. Florida opens the season against Georgetown on Friday in the Navy/Marine Corps Classic in Jacksonville. Then, after a home game two days later against Alabama State, Florida will host Wisconsin on Nov. 14 at the O'Connell Center.
“It comes at us pretty quickly in November to really, really find out where we're at as a basketball team,” Donovan said.
Other tough early non-conference tests include Marquette (Nov. 29), at Florida State (Dec. 5), at Arizona (Dec. 15) and vs. Kansas State (Dec. 22, Kansas City). That should prepare UF for an expanded 18-game SEC schedule with the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M this season.
“You have to embrace the process and be committed to the process — and really, really enjoy the process of getting better as a player, getting better as a team, and understanding that there's a price to pay,” Donovan said. “And I think in anything in life the investment that you make into something, there's going to be results at the end that reflect on what kind of investment that you make.”
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