St. Louis native to make tournament debut

OMAHA, Neb. — A standout debut season has led here, to a cramped locker room Thursday at the CenturyLink Center where Florida freshman guard Bradley Beal prepares for the largest stage of his life. He slips on a black tight-fit T-shirt in front of a stall, his right biceps revealing a connection to home.

The symbols serve as a reminder of how far the St. Louis native has gone in his debut college season: The large design depicts the Gateway Arch, the Old Courthouse, the St. Louis Cardinals’ logo and his hometown’s area code, “314.” The former Chaminade College Prep player settles into a chair, wiser 33 games into his existence as an emerging national star.

“Fighting adversity was probably the biggest thing I had to face,” Beal says. “Just moving past bad plays and just playing basketball and having fun more than anything. My mentality is staying focused at all times and knowing what I’m supposed to be doing on both ends of the floor — just buying into what coach (Billy Donovan) wants me to do, more than anything.”

That mentality has made him a vital part of seventh-seeded Florida’s ambition to advance in the West Region. He is second on his team in scoring with an average of 14.6 points per game, behind junior guard Kenny Boynton’s 16.3. His contribution is complex: Teammates praise him both for his maturity and, as sophomore center Patric Young puts it, for being “a clown.”

But Beal has managed that balance to produce on the court, so much so that NBA Draft experts envision him as a potential lottery selection if he decides to leave Gainesville early. No matter his future, his progress to this point — he was named a second-team all-Southeastern Conference selection Monday — is the product of a demeanor that makes some around him forget that he was nothing more than an elite prospect one year ago.  

“He’s a freshman,” Florida sophomore forward Will Yeguete says. “He doesn’t play like a freshman. He doesn’t act like a freshman. He’s really mature for his age.”

The signs were there early. One day, when Beal was in sixth grade, Chaminade College Prep assistant basketball coach Doug Taylor approached head coach Kelvin Lee with a message: You must see what this kid can do.

Soon after, Lee walked into a gymnasium during one of Beal’s physical education classes. What Lee saw amazed him: Beal shot three-point attempts with a smooth, proper stroke, using a touch a high-school player would envy. Lee continued to watch, intrigued by Beal’s potential.  

“Unbelievable,” Lee recalls thinking at the time.

Some around Florida’s program had similar reactions this winter. Beal scored in double figures in his first six games, including two 22-point performances in victories over Wright State and Stetson that stand as his season high. He was held to fewer than nine points only three times. He led the Gators in rebounding with an average of 6.5 per game. He contributed in ways befitting of someone who was named the Gatorade National Player of the Year last April.

But there were hard moments involved with his debut season as well. On Dec. 29, Beal went one for six from three-point range with a season-high seven turnovers in a double-overtime loss to Rutgers. On Jan. 7, he went four of 12 from the floor and committed five turnovers in a loss to Tennessee. And March 4, he went a season-worst one of 10 in a decisive loss to Kentucky.

For Beal, this season has been a journey, a lesson in growth. He talks about how fighting through adversity has made him stronger. After all, success was simple in high school — he averaged 32.4 points per game and made 87 three-pointers as a senior. He was forced to evolve.

“The biggest thing was probably fighting adversity, because in high school I never faced it,” Beal says. “Things always went my way. I was really successful in high school. Now, I was hit with adversity, and things weren’t going my way. I had to really fight through it and find ways to beat it.”

He did it the last time Florida played. Last Saturday, Beal looked the part of a focused star against top-ranked Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals, going eight of 15 from the floor at the New Orleans Arena for 20 points in a three-point loss. It was his best outing since scoring 21 in a victory over Arkansas on Feb. 18. He lived up to his nickname, “Real Deal Beal.”

“He has completeness, and that’s a sign of a good player,” says Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose team faces Florida in the second round Friday. “His completeness on the offensive end is impressive, and the more experience he’s gotten being a first-year freshman, you can see him coming into his own.”

But Beal is not done yet. He has developed a comfortable mental approach, and he credits the adjustment for enhancing his play. He has learned to move past sequences that would have bothered him early in the season. Poor passes, careless turnovers and ill-advised shots don’t linger as long.

The evolution is part of his experience growing within the game. Familiarity brings confidence. Beal is a different player from the one he was four months ago when he made his college debut.

In the locker room Thursday, Beal leans forward and thinks about that change in the minutes before he takes the floor for practice. The tattoo, the memories and the high-school honors are all part of his past.

He will keep the St. Louis ties close. But he has built toward a promising future with a memorable freshman season.

“Right now, it’s really terrific,” Beal says. “You can’t ask for a better experience than this.”