New year resolution: UF hoops looks to close out games strong
Published: Monday, November 4, 2013 at 7:15 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 3, 2013 at 8:59 p.m.
After three straight Elite Eight seasons, Florida is seeking the right connection.
The Gators were stellar on defense in posting a 29-8 record and winning an outright Southeastern Conference regular-season title in 2012-13. Yet crunch time was crumble time for Florida during an otherwise successful season. The Gators went 0-6 in games decided by six points or less and failed to hold double-digit, second-half leads in four of the losses.
“There were times when adversity hit our team, we would get fractured,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.
Donovan said it wasn't a case of finger-pointing, just players going off into their own world when they made mistakes.
“At times, our guys get too hard on themselves,” Donovan said. “They make a mistake, they get so frustrated and down on themselves and don't realize there is another play coming. We're not getting that back. You've got to be able to move to the next thing.
“I think that's been something that we've talked about, letting previous plays go so that our five guys can be connected together in terms of what we are doing next.”
To that end, Donovan let his players decide a theme for the upcoming season. They chose the motto SWAG, standing for “Strengthen When Adversity Grows.”
“At first it was going to be selfless when adversity grows, but we wanted something that sounded like it was moving, strengthen as adversity hits us,” Florida junior center Patric Young said.
Young said he thinks the Gators are capable of executing better in close games this season.
“It's going to take us being connected,” Young said. “I think we're already a more connected team than we were my first three years.”
Florida returns two starters and seven scholarship players from its Elite Eight squad. There's plenty of experience. The senior class of Young, forward Will Yeguete, forward Casey Prather and point guard Scottie Wilbekin remains intact, though Wilbekin will start the year on a disciplinary suspension.
“We've been through a lot of big-time games, big-time pressure games, been through a lot of adversity,” Young said. “There's going to be adversity every game. I think we'll do a good job staying together and find a way to handle it.”
Offensively, the Gators will need to find a way to replace their top three scorers. Guard Mike Rosario (12.5 points per game), forward Erik Murphy (12.2 ppg) and guard Kenny Boynton (12.0 ppg) accounted for more than half of UF's scoring last season (71.4 ppg).
“We have a lot of good offense on our team this year, a lot of talented players,” Young said. “I don't think it's going to be a problem. It's going to be someone's night any given night. The results will take care of themselves, if we just keep the ball moving and keep playing unselfishly like coach Donovan preaches every day.”
Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II, who shot 46.8 percent from 3-point range last season, is going to need to step into a role of making more shots, Donovan said.
“We're going to have to do it by ball movement, player movement, running good actions, being unselfish,” Donovan said. “I think it starts with our defense. Last year we were really, really good defensively and we need to get to a place where we're good defensively. I think this team can be a very good transition offensive team and the more stops you get, the more opportunities you have to run.”
That transition offense should be sparked by incoming freshman McDonald's All-American point guard Kasey Hill, who is athletic and quick with the ball in his hands. Another key component could be Virginia Tech transfer Dorian Finney-Smith, who is eligible to play this season after sitting out last season due to NCAA Division I transfer rules.
“Finney-Smith, he does a good job putting the ball on the ground, something Murph wasn't as talented at doing,” Young said. “He can't shoot the ball as well as Murph, but he can shoot the ball. I think having that dynamic of being able to shoot it and pump-fake, go to the basket, make another play, could be an even greater help than what Murph could do last year.”
Transfer guard Eli Carter, who averaged 14.9 points per game last season at Rutgers, also should add scoring punch in the backcourt. Up front, the Gators could potentially receive a boost from center Damontre Harris, who averaged 2.3 blocked shots per game at South Carolina during the 2011-12 season.
But Carter is still getting back into shape after suffering a broken leg in February, while Harris has been limited with hamstring issues in practice. How much both contribute and are willing to sacrifice remains to be seen. If McDonald's All-American freshman forward Chris Walker enrolls in December, Florida has the potential for a deep frontcourt capable of navigating through foul trouble.
“We should have a lot of depth at the forward spot and we should be really good defensively as well,” Yeguete said.
It won't be easy for the Gators to top what they accomplished on defense last season. The Gators allowed just 54.4 points per game, the third-best scoring defense in the nation and the fewest points for a UF team since 1948-49. Donovan said the Gators “aren't close to playing at that level” of defense in preseason practices. An NCAA crackdown on charges and off-the-ball contact also is expected to boost scoring throughout college basketball.
But if UF can carry over its strong defense from last season and get more timely scoring, it could finally cross the Elite Eight hurdle.
“We have a really good group of guys who are willing to put in the work,” Yeguete said. “I think we are really close and I think we can do something special this year.”
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