Coming off a tough loss in the NCAA Tournament for a second-straight year, the Florida Gators basketball program lost its lone senior starter, a No. 3 overall draft pick and a big man due to transfer. At 26-11 a year ago after dropping the Elite Eight game to Louisville, Florida hopes to have taken yet another step and go even deeper in the tournament this season.
Though the Gators brought in two transfer for 2012-13 in junior center Damontre Harris and sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith, neither will be able to contribute right away. Instead, Florida will count on a four-man freshman class to fill in the gaps created by the departures of point guard Erving Walker, guard Brad Beal and F/C Cody Larson.
The Gators are not even at full strength for Friday's season opener against Georgetown on the deck of the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, FL as head coach Billy Donovan announced Tuesday that junior forward Casey Prather suffered his second concussion in just over a week.
Here's Inside the Gators take on five key questions that Florida must face as it looks to regain its former spot as the best team in the Southeastern Conference.
1) Can the Gators rebound with consistency?
If there is one thing that Donovan is worried about heading into the season, it is whether or not Florida will be able to attack the glass on both ends of the court.
The Gators have lost their leading rebounder in Beal (6.7 per game) and are without a big man in Larson who was expected to give the team upwards of 10-12 minutes per game. Though Florida still has junior C Patric Young (6.4 rpg) and junior F Will Yeguete (6.3 rpg) in the fold, the Gators are going to need to find someone else who can rebound consistently.
With senior F Erik Murphy expected to see more time in the post this season, he should be able to improve on his 4.5 rpg average, but the Gators are going to need a concerted effort from the entire back court, especially on the defensive glass.
Depending how Donovan coaches the players to rebound, such an effort could limit Florida's fast break, which will already been suspect without a long guard like Beal on the court.
2) How is Florida going to replace a player who did everything?
The Gators were faced with a tough task in replacing Chandler Parsons last year, but Beal filled in admirably. Now Florida has a similar void to replenish but has yet to identify a standout player singled out to take that spot.
Yeguete's versatility on the defensive end gives the Gators a good amount of flexibility, though his limited offensive game still leaves something to be desired.
Prather showed some big-time flashes in the postseason but has had major decision-making issues and is now dealing with concussion concerns. When he will return and how much Donovan plans to trust him remains to be seen.
The simple answer is that there is no replacing a guy like Beal. It took a player of his caliber to supplant Parsons, and it is very rare for a team to have that type of talent to immediately fill in for another.
3) Which young player is going to step up and make a major impact?
If his performance in the exhibition game is any indication, G Michael Frazier could be Florida's breakout player.
A pure shooter with an impressive mid-range game and sweet stroke from beyond the arc, Frazier led Montverde Academy in scoring during his senior year and showcased plenty of confidence on Nov. 1 when he went 8-for-10 from the field (5-for-6 from downtown) for 21 points.
He is the first freshman off the bench, which should give him the greatest opportunity to make an impact. Also in the fold are G Dillon Graham, G/F DeVon Walker and PG Braxton Ogbueze, though each is expected to see fewer minutes than Frazier overall.
4) Can the Gators prove that experience and coaching is a winning formula?
Florida will try to win the SEC with its main competition being a Kentucky team once again boasting the most talented rookie class in the nation. Though Missouri and Tennessee will also be stiff competition for UF, the rivalry with UK is always where the preseason focus resides.
While the Wildcats will have their freshmen starting and playing major minutes, the Gators will feature a veteran starting five with three seniors and two juniors. These players know what Donovan wants on the court, how he plans for games and the results he expects when the 40 minutes are up.
Florida may have lost a supreme talent in Beal, but with senior G Kenny Boynton as a four-year starter, Young having gained the necessary experience and Murphy seemingly improving with each passing year, UF has many of the necessary components to prove that building a team through experience and coaching can trump pure young talent.
5) Will Mike Rosario be a net positive or negative?
Adding Rosario was supposed to be a huge deal for the Gators, yet his lackluster play during his first season of eligibility in 2011-12 left a lot to be desired.
When he actually played and was not on the bench due to injury or lack of confidence by the coaching staff, Rosario averaged just 6.6 points, 1.4 rebounds and a turnover in 14.4 minutes per game.
He supposedly matured in a significant way over the summer after returning home to train and then playing with the Puerto Rico National Team as they fought but failed to earn a spot in the Olympics.
However, in his first action this season, Rosario looked lost on the court, going 0-for-3 from downtown and committing four turnovers in just 21 minutes. "For some reason, I think he thinks his foot is part of his hand when he dribbles. He kicks it off his foot all the time. He turns it over way too much and he's way too careless with the ball," Donovan said.
With Rosario set to take the final spot in the starting five, it is imperative that he prove to be the player Donovan hoped for when he accepted his transfer three years ago. Otherwise, Florida will have a noticeable liability on the court and will have to send Rosario back to the bench, a role he claims to be OK with but seemed to have trouble accepting last season.