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Monday March 26, 2012What's Next? Gators Head Into Off-Season Looking for Answers

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The scene Saturday in Phoenix was a little difficult to watch. 

 

Senior Erving Walker and freshman Bradley Beal, both fighting back tears, sat high on the sterile NCAA podium after that numbing, cold-hearted 72-68 loss to Louisville in the NCAA West Region championship game. As the questions were lobbed their way, both tried to make sense of the cold-hearted final eight minutes of their 2011-12 season. 

 

For Walker, it was the final eight minutes of his career. Maybe even for Beal, too. 

 

They talked of Louisville’s changing defense changing the game. Of missed shots. Missed opportunities, too. About getting so close to the Final Four and being so cruelly turned away with a second straight late-game collapse in the Elite Eight. 

 

“Definitely, we had a good journey,” Walker said. “We’re disappointed that it had to end here, but when you reflect back later [we’ll] realize that we did a great thing making it to the Elite Eight.” 

 

“We stuck with it and we played together as a team,” Beal said. “We got this far. I’m really proud of our guys.” 

 

Coach Billy Donovan fought emotions when asked to assess his team’s season; one that two weeks ago exited the Southeastern Conference Tournament with four losses in five games. 

 

“Because of them being great kids, it was great to see them mature and grow because you don’t get to this point in time unless you have some substance,” Donovan said. “This is life. When you pour your heart and soul into something and don’t get the results you want, you find out how important it is and you find out reasons why you do things, and can you come back with the same level of passion and enthusiasm and excitement to get better.” 

 

The hurt from this loss will subside in time, leaving a promising group of UF underclassmen, assuming the roster returns intact. 

 

That rarely happens. 

 

Beal, of course, has a mega-decision to make. The 6-foot-3 guard is projected as a sure-fire lottery pick in the NBA draft -- maybe even a top-five choice -- and the lure of financial security will be difficult to bypass for the player who led the Gators on their deep run into the NCAA Tournament. 

 

“I’m not thinking about the future right now,” Beal said afterward. 

 

Nobody in the Florida locker room was, but it’s only natural that the end of one season engenders thoughts of the next. Should Beal, who averaged 14.8 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds, opt to forgo his sophomore season, the Gators will return nine players from a team that finished 26-11.

 

Maybe. 

 

Junior guard Kenny Boynton, who topped the team with 15.9 points per game and rocketed to No. 7 on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,589 points, could be considering his options, also. While Boynton's name doesn't show up on many mock drafts (first or second round), he certainly could play abroad. 

 

If Beal and Boynton both leave it would vaporize the three-man backcourt (along with Walker) that combined to start all but one game together this season and averaged 43 points, nearly seven 3-point field goals per game, plus 9.5 assists.

 

The lone returning starters would be 6-foot-9 center Patric Young, a projected first-round NBA pick who averaged 10.2 points and 6.5 rebounds and has stated his intent to return for his junior season, plus 6-10 forward Erik Murphy, whose 3-point shooting accuracy for a big man (42.1 percent) was a key component in Donovan’s space-the-floor offense. 

 

Also set to return: 

 

  • Forward Will Yeguete, the team’s top frontcourt defender and rebounder, who missed the final eight games with a broken foot. The coaches expect the 220-pound Yeguete to come back closer to 240 for his junior season. 
  • Guard Scottie Wilbekin, the heir apparent to Walker’s point guard spot. He averaged better than 15 minutes per game and actually led the team in 3-point percentage (45.7 on 21-for-46 shooting). Nice springboard to junior year. 
  • Guard Mike Rosario, the transfer from Rutgers who started out as a double-digit scorer off the bench, but was slowed by injuries during the season, along with some struggles on defense. Rosario found his niche in the rotation late in the season. His comfort zone should have a better starting point as a senior. 
  • Forward Casey Prather, who lacked confidence (but not turnovers) for most of the year, but then scored 24 of his 57 points in the final eight games, including a career-high 14 in the first-round NCAA win against Virginia. Prather’s play at the end of his sophomore season, especially his defense and rebounding, was an ideal bridge to his junior year. 
  • Center/Forward Cody Larson, who as a redshirt freshman averaged less than a point and rebound, and did not play in 12 games. The 6-9, 230-pound Larson caught the flu bug twice during the season and had trouble keeping on weight. He’ll need to return much, much stronger. 
  • Center Walter Pitchford played in just 13 games and scored six points as a freshman. Pitchford has a ways to go. 

 

This is the core that would be back, barring further attrition. The incoming freshman class is a three-man group of perimeter players, led by point guard Braxton Ogbueze, a Charlotte, N.C. product who figures to be the most ready to contribute early. 

 

Ogbueze wil be joined by Dillon Graham (Orlando First Academy) and Michael Frazier (from Tampa by way of Montverde Academy), while Donovan has indicated there could be room for additions to the class. 

 

The 2012-13 schedule, like this past season, will be ambitious and feature home games with Sweet 16 participant Wisconsin, a home game in the SEC-Big East Challenge, as well as Richmond and UCF. The road schedule will include trips to Florida State, Arizona and Yale, a date against Kansas State in Kansas City, plus the annual Orange Bowl Classic game in Sunrise, Fla., against an opponent to be named.

 

The anticipation for these players, these games and the next season, in general, are a ways off; especially with the pain of the latest NCAA disappointment still too fresh to start looking ahead. 

 

“It's really hard for me to even get into next year right now,” Donovan said Saturday. “We'll see. We've got some young guys that got better, improved. Hopefully they'll get back to work here.”

 

 

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