By David Stirt
Fightin' Gators Magazine
With five starters returning last season, Florida was expected to be a strong contender for the SEC title and return to a prominent position on the national scene three years after winning back-to-back NCAA titles. The Gators met, and even to some degree, exceeded those expectations, winning the regular-season SEC title and then coming within one shot of making the Final Four in an overtime loss to Butler in the NCAA regional final.
Now that last year's entire starting frontcourt of SEC Player-of-the-Year Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin and Alex Tyus has used up its eligibility, the Gators appear to be woefully short in both depth and experience up front, making it seem extremely difficult for UF to approach last year's sterling 29-8 record and championship-caliber performance.
After developing a well-rounded, inside-out offensive game plan that produced double-scoring figures for all five starters in 2010-11, Florida heads into the 2011-12 season with a squad loaded with talented guards and a single dominant inside force, sophomore center Patric Young. But if it's possible for outstanding guard play to make up for limited options inside, then head coach Billy Donovan has what is arguably the best set of guards in school history to make it happen.
All-SEC selections Erving Walker (14.6 points per game) and Kenny Boynton (14.2 ppg) return as the starting backcourt. They are joined by Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario, who led the Scarlet Knights with 17.6 points per game two years ago, plus Bradley Beal, one of the nation's top guard recruits. Add in sophomore Scottie Wilbekin, who had a terrific freshman season off the bench last year, and Florida has a five-pack in the backcourt that can arguably be called the nation's best.
There is little doubt that at least three of the guards will be together on the court for plenty of time this season, and there may even be instances where four guards will be stationed around Young.
"I think you're always trying to make adjustments to put your team in the best situations to be successful," Donovan said. "Certainly over the last few years with our depth in the backcourt with Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton logging so many minutes, it made it very difficult for us to extend the floor like we needed to. I do think that because we have speed and quickness in the backcourt we really need to try and get up the floor and try to be a more full-court defensive team. That's not to say you do it for forty minutes, but I'd like to do it more than we have in the past."
There is no question the guards are capable of being prolific scorers, but even though he led the team in scoring last season, it will be up to Walker to put a renewed emphasis on being a distributor.
"His goal needs to be to try to lead the league in assists," Donovan said of the 5-9 senior guard. "It is very difficult when you're a backcourt player and the strength of your team is in the front lines - a lot of times you're not getting direct assists when you're feeding the low posts because those guys are making a move or getting the ball to a certain area of the floor. With us having more shooting around Erving, and with his speed and quickness, he needs to be a guy that has a great assist-to-turnover ratio."
While the guards may be getting most of the preseason notoriety, it's the 6-9, 237-pound Young who could be the key to Florida's NCAA Tournament hopes.
In playing 18 minutes per game off the bench last year, Young averaged 3.4 points and 3.9 rebounds and led the team with 31 blocked shots. Over the summer he competed for the USA in the Under-19 FIBA World Championships, and the experience figures to elevate him into the upper echelon of the SEC's inside players this season.
The Gators will need to get consistent play from 6-9 sophomore Erik Murphy, who led the team with a 40 percent mark from 3-point range as a freshman. Sophomores Will Yeguette (6-7) and Casey Prather (6-6) will also be expected to contribute.
The new-look Gators will certainly find out how good they are early in the season.
"Looking at it on paper right now, at least preseason, we probably have the toughest if not one of the toughest schedules out there," Donovan noted. "It's good for our team to find out where we're at - we certainly have a very early test with Ohio State on the road, Syracuse on the road and Arizona at home, UAB, Florida State and then Texas A&M. We have a lot of highly-quality games, including our league. There's a lot for our team to get prepared and ready for, and there's a lot that we will be faced with early in the season.
"I do think that our schedule last year, being as competitive as it was, probably helped our team going into the league. I'm hopeful that the same thing will happen this year."