GAINESVILLE — A few years ago the Florida men's basketball team was coming off consecutive NIT appearances and fielding questions about the state of the program. Now, after back-to-back Elite Eight appearances and with a preseason top 10 ranking, the Gators are back among the nation's top programs and begin a new season Friday night with a mix of veterans and newcomers they believe has the potential to be very good.
"We have a lot of our guys back, and we know that if we play the way we're capable, this team can make another run," senior forward/center Erik Murphy said.
Three starters return: senior guard Kenny Boynton, the team's leading scorer (15.9); Murphy; and junior center Patric Young. Junior forward Will Yeguete, who missed the final month of last season with a fractured bone in his foot, also returns, providing strong rebounding and post presence.
But for the first time in four years, Erving Walker will not be the Gators' point guard, and Florida must also try to replace the scoring and rebounding of Bradley Beal (14.8, 6.7), who took his skills to the NBA after just one season at UF. Junior guard Scottie Wilbekin, who has played significant minutes in reserve, will take over at point guard.
"It's going to be different but I think, overall, Scottie is going to step in in Erving's place," Boynton said. "But I think it's going to take a collective effort to get in and replace Beal."
Florida will open its season Friday night vs. Georgetown in a game that will be played on the USS Bataan Naval ship at Mayport in Jacksonville. One of Florida coach Billy Donovan's top concerns is the Gators' rebounding struggles, which surfaced in the exhibition game against Nebraska-Kearney. UF outrebounded Nebraska-Kearney 32-29 and Murphy and Young combined for six points and seven rebounds. Georgetown has four starters who are 6 feet 8 or taller.
"You're a Division II school, and it's 32-29 on the glass," Donovan said. "You've got your power forward and center with seven total rebounds in 40 minutes. That's a concern. Our guards weren't much better, either. That's not good enough. They've got to go after the basketball and they've got to come down with it."
Young said the Gators' style in the post often hampers rebounding, but he believes the problem can be fixed.
"I think it's pretty tough trying to be a team that rebounds high up in the air on the rim when you're so focused on blocking your guy out," Young said. "When you're engaging someone it's hard to get off the ground. But if we're all doing our jobs as far as blocking out and making sure our individual guy doesn't get the ball, we should be fine."
The opener — outside on a ship at night — may pose unique challenges for the Gators, who plan to use a three-guard lineup of Wilbekin, Boynton and senior Mike Rosario. There's no telling how the wind will affect shooting.
"I think you've got to be smart what kind of shots we do take," Donovan said. "We've been practicing a certain way for most of this time to get ready for our season. Both teams will have to deal with the elements, outside, whether it's very cold or windy whatever it may be, we're both going to be dealing with it. … I think we've got to be smart in terms of taking those kind of shots. I don't think that we can go into the game saying we're going to totally alter everything we're doing because we're outside."
Antonya English can be reached at email@example.com.