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Wednesday October 10, 2012Ready to Get Back to Work: Gators Focused on Challenge Ahead as Season Approaches

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Two straight trips to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. 


Double-digit leads in the final 10 minutes both times. 


No Final Fours. 


“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t still think about it,” junior center Patric Young said of the loss last year to Louisville, which came a year after a similarly scripted loss to Butler. “Back-to-back Elite Eights doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as back-to-back championships. That’s hanging over my head.” 


Added senior guard Mike Rosario: “It left a bad taste in our mouths. We all still think about it and have spent the offseason working to cover all those weaknesses that stopped us from accomplishing our goals last year.” 


It’s hanging over the Florida Gators’ collective heads. The frustration Young feels is shared by everyone in the UF basketball program, but those close calls are also barometers of where the Gators are under Billy Donovan and where his players expect to be at the end of the season. 


Remember, after UF became only the third team in the last three-plus decades to win consecutive national championships, the Gators were absent from the NCAA field in two straight years before the current run of just-miss Final Four calls. 


The room of programs to go to the Elite Eight each of the last two years includes Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Florida. 


That room is as small as it is prestigious. 


So don’t expect Billy Donovan to take any bows heading into the 2012-13 season, though. 


“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 during the team’s media day session Wednesday. “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. Our guys need to understand -- and I think that they do -- that there’s a process.”


For the Gators, who tipoff practice Friday, it’ll start with replacing the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft, Bradley Beal (now with the Washington Wizards), and the No. 4 scorer in the school history, point guard Erving Walker, who also left UF as its all-time assists leader. 


That’s a big chunk of productivity. 


“They left some holes, no doubt,” 6-foot-10 forward Erik Murphy said. “The guys filling those holes aren’t going to be like [Beal and Walker], but they can do certain things and come together and fill them differently. That’s something we’ve been working on. Right now, everybody is just chipping in in different ways, doing a little bit more than they have in the past. Maybe changing their game a little.” 


That includes senior guard and leading returning scorer and three-pointer bomber Kenny Boynton, who with 1,589 career points is 502 shy of UF’s all-time record, held by Ronnie Williams (1980-84) with 2,090. 


Boynton is going to get a shot to play some point guard this season, though that role -- held the last four years by Walker -- will go to Scottie Wilbekin, who will have to play increased minutes, score a little more and carry his lock-down defense far more minutes than in the past. 


“We’ve used the offseason to develop chemistry and kind of learn each other’s new roles,” Wilbekin said. “There’s a winning recipe, if you will, in that mix. We just have to keep working on it.” 


Murphy, who provides such difficult matchup issues because of his size and touch from the arc, will have to go inside more than in the past to help the Gators rebound. 


Young will have to log more minutes, while increasing both his scoring and rebounding.


Rosario will have to score, which he’s more than willing to do, but also fan out his contributions on defense and with his consistency. 


The postseason version of junior swingman Casey Prather, who struggled so mightily with his confidence most of the year before breaking out in NCAA play, needs to step up from Day 1 with scoring, rebounding, defense and athleticism in transition. 


Junior Will Yeguete, whose broken foot in midseason robbed the Gators of a valuable and versatile asset, has bulked up by nearly 20 pounds and improved his ball-handling and post-up skills around the basket. 


The roles of a four-man freshman class, headed by shooting guard Michael Frazier and point guard Braxton Ogbueze, will evolve throughout preseason. 


“The biggest thing we need to focus on right now is getting better every day, every practice,” Prather said. “We learned last year that you can’t take anything for granted.” 


So this year, in turn, you can’t make any assumptions. 


It’s hard to get to the Elite Eight. 


Really, really hard. 


“We’ve got to earn our way into the NCAA Tournament, and we’ve got to really focus on the things that have got to make our team better and be willing to go through the process of what that takes,” Donovan said. “I think that they understand because we do have some guys that realize that there was a two-year period three or four years ago where we didn’t get into the tournament and the last few years we have gotten in.”


It’s about the work they do to get there. 


And it starts for real Friday. 



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