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Coming off a tough loss in the NCAA Tournament, the Florida Gators basketball program lost three senior starters and a ton of size in the frontcourt this past off-season. At 29-8 a year ago after dropping the Elite Eight game to Butler 74-71 in overtime, Florida hopes to build on their experience and go even deeper in the tournament this season.
Three players join the Gators for 2011-12 - redshirt junior transfer guard Mike Rosario, five-star freshman guard Brad Beal and three-star freshman forward Walter Pitchford. Redshirt freshman forward/center Cody Larson will also see the court for the first time in his Florida career.
The Gators are full strength for Friday's season opener against Jackson State at the Stephen C. O'Connell Center. Here's Adam Silverstein's take on five key questions as Florida looks to once again compete to be the best team in the Southeastern Conference.
1) How are the Gators going to replace the playmaking of Chandler Parsons?
Though Parsons was Florida's most reliable player from an all-around effort and impact standpoint, his inconsistent shooting at times gave the Gators fits especially early in the season.
Technically, Beal will be taking Parsons's place in the starting lineup. However, the addition of Beal to an already perimeter-based offense will make the entire team quicker and create more space for open jump shots.
While the offense will likely improve with Beal in the starting five, he is not the passer - and certainly not the rebounder - that Parsons was in 2010-11. That does not mean he cannot grow into those qualities, simply that he does not possess them right now the way Parsons did.
Sophomore Casey Prather will also have an opportunity to make an impact from the third-guard position, and it will be interesting to see what he can do with more playing time.
2) Can Florida rebound enough without Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin?
The top issue head coach Billy Donovan believes his team is facing this year, rebounds may be hard to come by for Florida.
The Gators only have three players on the roster who are 6'9" or taller and out of them, Patric Young is the only one who has proven he can consistently rebound in the paint.
Donovan said in the offseason that rebounding in 2011-12 will be an entire team effort. If Florida buys into that mantra and gives extra effort on the glass both offensively and defensively, the Gators may be able to close a glaring hole on the team.
3) Did UF learn anything coming out of the loss to Butler in the NCAA Tournament?
Unlike recent years, Florida's run in last season's NCAA Tournament gave the team plenty to build off of. The five freshmen on the roster had an opportunity to play late season basketball against some quality opponents, and the older players got a better idea of what it takes to get to the Final Four.
Senior point guard Erving Walker and junior guard Kenny Boynton have had a calm over them this entire offseason with both realizing what the Gators need to do in order to get back to the promised land.
Perhaps most important of all, UF's late-game collapse against Butler will teach the team that the little things - going after loose balls and offensive rebounds, holding onto the ball and making the most out of each possession.
If there is one thing Donovan knows how to do, it is hammering home a point with emphasis. He has mentioned the Butler loss to the media at least three times this fall, so you know that the game has been on his mind all off-season.
4) Aside from Beal, what young player could make a major impact this year?
It is obvious that Young will be counted on to be the big man in the middle for the Gators all season, but redshirt freshman forward Cody Larson has a major opportunity to be a relevant part of Florida's frontcourt rotation.
He has yet to play in the orange and blue but is said to have been doing great in practice and proving that he can impact the game if given the opportunity.
Larson may wind up seeing expensive minutes in a number of contests this year, especially if Young gets in early foul trouble or is struggling defensively.
It is tough to count on one player to do all of the defending and rebounding in the post, so Larson's presence may be a nice surprise in some tough, close games.
5) Will the Gators return to the NCAA Tournament, and can they contend for the SEC title?
Yes and yes. The combination of Walker, Boynton, Rosario and Beal in the backcourt will result in plenty of scoring all year long. Freshman point guard Scottie Wilbekin will be a great change-of-pace for Walker, and Prather will also see some time at the two and three depending on the game situation.
The scoring alone will be enough for Florida to win many games, but Boynton's defense coupled with Young's presence in the middle and Erik Murphy's versatility will provide the Gators additional areas in which they can succeed.
UF will have a rough go of it early as Florida has perhaps its toughest non-conference schedule in school history. Games against No. 3 Ohio State, No. 5 Syracuse, No. 16 Arizona, No. 19 Texas A&M and rivals Florida State all occur before the new year begins, and the Gators will also take on No. 2 Kentucky (twice), No. 7 Vanderbilt (twice) and No. 17 Alabama in SEC action.
Even with all of those tough contests, Florida will likely be just fine through the regular season and should contend for both the SEC regular season and tournament titles. The Gators will undoubtedly have a spot in the NCAA Tournament for the third-straight season.
Florida will probably earn at worst a No. 4 seed and should have a fair opportunity to get back to the Final Four for the first time since the Gators' back-to-back national championships.
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