- Eamonn Brennan, College Basketball Reporter
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In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Florida.
1. Do not sleep on Kenny Boynton.
You would think a statement like this would be superfluous, given the rather remarkable offensive season Boynton put together in 2011-12. But Boynton was overshadowed on the brightest stage by the 2012 NBA draft’s No. 3 overall pick, Bradley Beal. Beal struggled at times in his one-and-done season at Florida, particularly early in his career. Unlike in his high school days, when Beal dominated the ball and played a pure (and totally dominant) scoring guard, Florida coach Billy Donovan needed him to act in more of a small forward role. He needed Beal to work off the ball, spot up on the wing and chase down offensive rebounds from the outside in. This allowed the Gators to keep all their best players -- including Boynton and senior point guard Erving Walker -- on the floor at the same time.
By the time the Gators reached the NCAA tournament, Beal became more far more demanding. In short, he took over. This had the effect of preserving his position as one of the top players in the 2012 draft, and deservedly so. (That 8-for–10 shooting performance against Marquette basically sealed the deal.)
But Beal’s late emergence also had the effect -- right when many casual fans (and NBA people) pay the most acute attention to the college game -- of obscuring just how good Boynton was throughout the entire 2012 season. And he really was remarkable. He averaged 15.9 points per game on a team with balanced scoring (five Florida players averaged double figures). He launched 270 3-pointers, and made 40.7 percent of them. He made nearly 50 percent of his 2-pointers. According to Synergy scouting data, Boynton scored 1.2 points per possession on spot-up opportunities, among the best in the country, and he placed in top efficiency percentiles in transition, on isolation plays, and in pick-and-roll sets. He rarely turned the ball over. Despite pretty frequent usage, much of it from distance, Boynton ended the season with a 121.8 percent offensive rating.
The moral of the story: Boynton had a great offensive season. This marked a major departure from his first two years at Florida, when he (not unlike Walker) probably fairly earned the reputation as an inconsistent chucker. That reputation was completely and utterly demolished last season. He was a beast.
There’s little reason to expect anything less this season. Despite losing one of the best pure talents in the country to the NBA draft, Florida’s offense should again finish in the top five in overall efficiency. Boynton, once so frustrating and mercurial, is the biggest reason.
2. The rest of the Gators’ lineup is less of a sure thing. It is also, forgive the alliteration, tantalizingly talented.
Arguably the biggest question is how forward Patric Young will progress into his junior season in Gainesville. To say Young is a physical specimen requires understatement. He is 6-foot-9 with the torso of an NFL running back and the vertical leap of a much smaller, less muscled human. The laws of physics say Young shouldn’t exist, yet he does. But he was often overlooked by his teammates in Florida’s attack last season; with so many guards on the perimeter, Young couldn’t get touches even when he established good post position. Will that change this season? Will Young polish his offensive game to the point that it’s impossible for Florida to ignore his raised hand on the low block? Even if the offense doesn’t suddenly flow through him, can his interior rim protection finally match his bewildering size?
How will former Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario -- a pure scorer who came off the bench last season, and who will surely take on a larger role this year -- fit into that larger role?
For the first time in four years, Florida’s offense won’t be initiated by point guard Erving Walker. Instead, Wilbekin will take on some of the responsibilities, and freshman point guard Braxton Ogbueze -- the No. 7-ranked point guard in the 2012 class, and the No. 50-ranked player overall -- will almost certainly play a big role from the start of the season. But scouts say Ogbueze excels at scoring, particularly from long range. I would argue the one thing Florida needs (at least on offense) is a pure distributor, not another scorer. How does that all work?
3. There may be some hiccups along the way, but with Boynton back, and Young likely to improve, I’m not worried about Florida’s offense. It will be just fine.
The real uncertainty with these Gators will come on the defensive end. For all their offensive wizardry in 2012, they couldn’t get over the hump -- whether against Kentucky in the SEC, or in the NCAA tournament, when Louisville came from behind to topple them in the Elite Eight -- because the Gators couldn’t get stops on a truly consistent basis. Much like Indiana, they weren’t necessarily bad; they finished ranked No. 71 in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. But they weren’t elite, especially in regard to turnover creation, where they ranked No. 223 in the country.
Perhaps more minutes for Wilbekin, the arrival of Ogbueze and the departure of the diminutive Walker can lead to better perimeter ball pressure. Maybe Boynton, having figured out the offensive side of the game last season, will turn his attention toward defense. Maybe Young will morph into a mini-Dwight-Howard-like force.
Still, none of these things are certain. Florida has a high ceiling in 2012–13; even without Beal, the Gators remain a talented outfit. But they’ll have to become a more complete team -- not just an offensive juggernaut but a credible defensive squad, too -- if they want to meet or exceed last season’s Elite Eight visit.
In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology.