UF hoping return to Columbia sparks Frazier

Taking over the team hasn’t gone as planned for junior guard Michael Frazier.

The only returning starter from last year’s Final Four team, this was supposed to be the season Frazier become the team’s leader. He wanted to handle a bigger load of scoring and be the vocal leader after learning for the previous two years under Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young.

It hasn’t happened this year.

His numbers are down across the board, except points per game, which was expected to go up after the Gators lost so many starters from last year’s team. Despite having 14.1 points per game, Frazier is shooting 43.4 percent from the field, lower than his 44.6 percent as a freshman and 46.1 percent as a sophomore. He’s also shooting 37.5 percent from behind the 3-point line, lower than his 46.8 percent as a freshman and 44.7 percent as a sophomore.

“It has forced me to look in the mirror,” Michael Frazier said. “Still doing that. It has forced us to look in the mirror as a team and see what we’re really about and what we want to stand for as a group, as a unit. Like I said, once we get bought in, we’ll start to win.”

The struggles haven’t surprised Billy Donovan. In the offseason, Frazier talked about what kind of leader he wanted to be and that he wanted to help carry the team. The Florida coach was quick to point out that the junior was looking at things the wrong way. Donovan made sure his guard understood that he needed to be OK if opposing teams took him out of the game. Frazier’s mindset had to be on making life easier on his teammates, and that has been tough at times.

The problem doesn’t come from selfishness. Frazier has just put too much pressure on himself to carry the team, and when opposing defenses make that difficult, it can frustrate him and take him out of his game.

“I don’t think he’s handled that well at all,” Donovan said about Frazier wanting to lead the team. “And I don’t say it from the standpoint of him coming from bad intentions. I think it’s only normal. Michael is a very, very competitive guy. He’s a guy that wants to win. But I’m not so sure his approach going into that was the best thing in terms of what he was trying to do.”

There’s no better opportunity to spark Frazier’s play than a return to South Carolina. Last season against the Gamecocks in Columbia, Frazier posted a career-high 37 points and hit 11 3-pointers to set a new school record. The junior guard downplayed the significance of returning to South Carolina on Wednesday at 7 p.m. (SEC Network), but it was clear last season he likes shooting at Colonial Life Arena.

“It’s not about last year,” Frazier said. “We’re a different team this year, they’re a different team. We’ve got to focus on things that go into winning. That’s the main thing we have to focus on, how we’re going to go in there and win the game and what we’re going to do to go in there together.”

The game against South Carolina has been an afterthought for the Gators in recent seasons. Florida has won six straight over the Gamecocks and 13 of the last 16 meetings.

But this South Carolina team is different.

The Gamecocks bring a 9-3 record into Wednesday’s SEC opener, finally playing with the toughness that head coach Frank Martin has been trying to instill. They’re giving the effort Martin has wanted out of his team, and they’re getting points from sophomores guards Duane Notice (13.3 points per game) and Sindarius Thornwell (11.5 points/5.9 rebounds per game). Thornwell was just named SEC Player of the Week.

The scoring has increased with different South Carolina players, but the difference in this year’s team is they’re playing more to the mentality Martin has been preaching since he arrived in Columbia.

“He’s gone through two years of some very difficult times in some very difficult situations, but you’re starting to see his team take on his identity and how he wants his teams to play,” Donovan said. “That’s a process when you’re looking to change culture. When you saw South Carolina last year, you could see the same thing you could say about this year’s team -- they’re going to really defend hard, they’re going to pressure you, they’re really physical, they’re going to really rebound the basketball and they’re going to screen you. The difference between this year and last year is they do it way more consistently for 40 minutes than they did last year.”

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