November 15, 2011

Gators adjusting to wealth of talented guards

As Florida advanced to the Elite Eight last season, teammates and opposing coaches often described guards Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton as fearless.

Perhaps because of his 5-foot-8 frame, Walker plays with a chip on his shoulder when he's taking a potential game-winning shot or driving to the basket. Likewise, Boynton has little fear when launching his own shot. They formed a confident starting backcourt that helped carry the Gators to their best NCAA tournament performance since winning the 2007 national title.

Erving and Boynton may be fearless, but the Gators will find out this season if that duo is afraid of not being in the spotlight.

Florida boasts perhaps the nation's deepest and most talented backcourt, with five-star freshman Brad Beal and Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario - who averaged a bit more than 16 points per game in each of his two seasons in the Big East - joining the mix.

"A lot of guys question if there are enough shots for us," Walker said at SEC basketball media day. "We're a team. We're not playing against one another. With the talent we have, it should make everyone's job a lot easier."

Florida went into the season saying all the right things about the division of labor and glory among its guards, and in Friday's opener against Jackson State, all four guards got their minutes and plenty of looks at the basket. But that was in a 99-59 win. Tonight, the Gators' backcourt gets its first opportunity to deliver on the promises of being happy as long as the team wins when Florida visits Ohio State.

Against Jackson State, the Gators started Walker, Boynton and Beal. Boynton and Beal each attempted double-digit shots. Rosario came off the bench to play 20 minutes and go 7-of-12 from the field.

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The results mirrored what coach Billy Donovan said he had seen on the practice court. The point guard is Walker, whose 372 shots from the field trailed only Boynton last season. But Donovan said Walker had become more of a pass-first point man in practice.

"It says to me that he's trying to get others involved," Donovan said. "He's trying to embrace that he's got more scoring and shooting around him."

Rosario is another used to getting his shots. He had at least 470 attempts from the field in each of his two seasons at Rutgers.

Those are two shooters used to getting looks at the basket. It would be crowded even without Beal, who has the highest upside of Florida's guards. Beal, a freshman who attended the same high school (St. Louis Chaminade) as former UF star David Lee, was the top shooting guard in the 2011 class, and has a pure stroke and deep range.

Donovan called Beal, the fourth-ranked player nationally in the 2011 class, a "chemistry creator." In one of the early practices this season, Beal missed a jump shot. A teammate grabbed the long rebound and passed it back to the freshman. Beal then passed it right back despite being wide open for another shot.

"He said, 'Coach, I don't want those guys to think I'm selfish,' " Donovan said. "I need to get him to be more aggressive. It's always easier to make a guy more aggressive."

Again, the positive results have been in a 40-point rout of a SWAC school and in practice, where the teams have been split and the guards have only needed to share the ball with one or two guards rather than three or four.

Four's a crowd
Florida will be led by its deep backcourt. Here's how each guard performed last season.
PlayerMPGPPGAPGFG shooting
Erving Walker32.8 14.63.4153-of-372
Kenny Boynton32.914.22.6169-of-439
Mike Rosario*33.7 16.71.4184-of-487
Scottie Wilbekin17.12.41.631-of-89
Casey Prather6.7 1.20.417-of-39
Brad Beal &--32.82.7278-of-434
*-2009-10 at Rutgers; &-high school stats at St. Louis Chaminade.
In preparing for the season, Donovan spoke with Villanova coach Jay Wright, who has utilized guard-heavy lineups in the past. In 2005, Villanova used a four-guard lineup of Randy Foye, Allan Ray, Mike Nardi and Kyle Lowry to defeat the Gators in the NCAA tournament. The Gators defeated Villanova the next season on the way to the first of back-to-back national titles.

Walker, for one, doesn't mind a four-guard lineup. While he went to high school in Brooklyn, he was a Villanova fan.

"They battled and scrapped," Walker said. "We need to take a page out of their book sometime when it's me and Kenny and we're small and ... try to be an annoying team defensively."

That's easier said than done. The difference on that team was Lowry, who was extremely physical. On this team, that job likely would fall to Beal.

"If we're down in a game and we want to throw something out there to show something different and break momentum, we can do something like that," Donovan said. "We just haven't worked with that."

With all the talk about the guards, it's easy to forget about 6-9 sophomore center Patric Young. He averaged just 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds last season, but Florida expects him to play a bigger role this season with the departure of all three starting frontcourt players. Young was a five-star recruit in the 2010 signing class.

Walker envisions Florida being a great assist team. That may mean some guards aren't going to score as much as they'd like, and how this group handles the sharing of the wealth will determine how far Florida goes this season.

"A guy like Erving Walker - how are you going to handle it when you walk off the court and we win and you have eight points and Boynton's got 18 and Brad Beal's got 22," Donovan said. "And Kenny Boynton - how are you going to feel if you've got eight points and Mike Rosario has 22 and Erving Walker has 19?

"There's going to have to be sacrifice."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com, and you can click here to follow him on Twitter.

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