Jackson St.-Florida Preview
Florida coach Billy Donovan has had plenty of success with relatively thin backcourts.
He won consecutive national championships with guards Taurean Green and Lee Humphrey playing nearly entire games, and he advanced to the NCAA tournament the last two years with Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker handling much of the workload.
Donovan monitored minutes, worried about fouls and couldn't press as much as he liked.
He won't have those concerns this season, which begins Friday night against Jackson State.
The Gators, No. 8 in the preseason poll, are downright deep in the backcourt, with Boynton and Walker returning, Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario eligible to play and high school sensation Bradley Beal in the fold. Throw in backup guard Scottie Wilbekin and Donovan's toughest challenge might be getting everyone to share the ball.
"We have a lot of shooters and athleticism," Wilbekin said. "I think we can really pressure on defense this year with all the guards we have."
Donovan is counting on it. He is leaning toward a three-guard lineup and expects to be more of a full-court defensive team, hoping to force turnovers, score easy baskets in transition and wear opponents down over 40 minutes.
It could help Florida offset the loss of three frontcourt starters: center Vernon Macklin, power forward Alex Tyus and versatile swingman Chandler Parsons, last season's Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
"We're not as long or big as we were a year ago, but there are other things that we do better," Donovan said. "What kind of rebounding team are we going to be this year? We could be a high-octane offensive team that scores a lot of points, but if we don't defend and rebound it's not going to make a difference. That is going to be something that is going to be a driving force for our team. They need to understand the importance of that."
Walker (14.6 ppg) and Boynton (14.2) were Florida's top two scorers last season. Together, they took 39 percent of the shots and scored 40 percent of the points. Boynton led the Gators with 21 points and 10 assists in their lone exhibition game, a 114-67 win over Catholic University last Thursday.
With the addition of Rosario, who ranked ninth in the Big East in scoring (16.7) in 2009-10, and Beal, a consensus All-American from St. Louis and the Gatorade National Player of the Year, Florida should have as many scoring options as those back-to-back title teams that featured three NBA lottery picks.
Beal and Rosario combined for 38 points in the exhibition win.
"It is going to be easy to play with that backcourt," forward Erik Murphy said. "It will open a lot of things up, and we have a lot of talent. They are all pretty versatile. It should be a fun season."
The Gators also have sophomore center Patric Young, Murphy and several bench players. Donovan said the backups - Wilbekin and forwards Will Yeguete, Casey Prather and Cody Larson - will be key for the team's success.
"Guys' roles are going to get defined," Donovan said. "We have guys on the perimeter, offensively, that can score. Beal, Rosario, Walker and Boynton can score. I think that Patric can be a scorer, and then Erik Murphy can shoot it and make shots. That is enough scoring. We don't need more scoring."
The Gators finished 29-8 last season, winning the Southeastern Conference and finishing one victory shy of the Final Four. They lost to Butler in overtime in the Southeast Regional final.
Not long after, Donovan lost all three assistant coaches. Larry Shyatt took the head coaching job at Wyoming, Rob Lanier went to Texas and Richard Pitino joined his father, Rick, at Louisville.
Donovan replaced them with former Arkansas coach John Pelphrey, former St. John's coach Norm Roberts and former Florida Atlantic assistant Matt McCall. Pelphrey and McCall worked for Donovan previously, so having that familiarity with the program made the transition easier.
"It's hard to sit there in front of your team and talk to them about chemistry when your coaching staff doesn't have that," Donovan said. "Players see that stuff. I wanted to try to hire a staff where we all try to make each other better. There was going to be great relationships, great respect, great passion, and it really exceeded my expectations to what these guys have done to this point."
Donovan will find out a lot about his team's on-court chemistry right away. The Gators play one of the most challenging non-conference schedules in the country. It includes early season matchups at Ohio State (Nov. 15) and at Syracuse (Dec. 2), and home games against Arizona (Dec. 7) and Florida State (Dec. 22).
"It's good for our team to find out where we're at," Donovan said. "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."
Florida has won 20 straight season openers - 15 under Donovan - and this one shouldn't provide much of a test.
Jackson State hasn't been to the NCAA tournament since a 112-69 first-round loss to the Gators in 2007 - the only matchup between these programs.
The Tigers are coming off a 17-15 season which ended in the Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament semifinals. Their top returning scorer is Jenirro Bush, who averaged 14.2 points.
The closest Jackson State has come to beating a ranked opponent over the past decade was last season, falling 63-49 to then-No. 17 Baylor.