No. 7-seed Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan and guards freshman Bradley Beal and junior Kenny Boynton spoke after Thursday’s Sweet 16 victory over the No. 3-seed Marquette Golden Eagles about the hard-fought victory and advancing to the Elite Eight round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. Florida will face No. 4-seed Louisville on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. live on CBS.
IT ALL STARTS WITH THE COACH
The Gators are experiencing a spectacular turnaround, no doubt, and while Beal and the team’s bench has been a large part of it, Donovan is certainly the catalyst for the change the team has undergone recently. Asked how he has gotten his team to adjust and do more this season, Donovan (like any good coach) gave his players all of the credit.
“We’ve got really good kids. When adversity hits during the course of the year, I’m not so sure they know exactly how to handle it,” he said. “I asked [Brad] one time, ‘What’s the most difficult part for you playing in college?’ He said, ‘Dealing with adversity and dealing with bad games because I didn’t have a lot of those in high school.’ Because he was always the best player on the floor. Even for Patric, too, the grind and having to come every single day. When you’re relied upon for the first time in your life by other players and a coaching staff and people, there’s a responsibility that comes with that. So when it doesn’t go well, a lot of times they don’t know how to handle it.
“Going through some of those adversities that they had to go through has forced them to kind of grow and mature. With Erik [Murphy], I told him at halftime, I think he was 0-5; I told him, ‘I want you to shoot it every time you’re open and if I see you not shooting the ball with confidence, I’m taking you out of the game. You have a responsibility to every guy in this room that when you shoot the ball, you got to expect it to go in. If it doesn’t, we’ll be fine.’ [...] Just trying to push those guys into positions where they’re being forced to grow up. Everybody handles it differently.
“They are such good kids that they want to do well. Sometimes they just need some help to get through those difficult times.”
It doesn’t hurt that Donovan is an exceptional coach or – as Marquette head coach Buzz Williams put it – “He’s just class.” Williams continued, “He does it for the right reasons. I don’t think his ego gets in the way. You talk about a guy that has won two national championships and he’s only 46 years old. And he’s won over 400 games. And he’s won 28 games now in the NCAA Tournament. And he still talks to you and he still looks you in the eye and he says, ‘How ya doin’?’ I appreciate that.
“There’s a lot of guys in our business that don’t do that. Because sometimes they think they win because of who they are. I think he’s been raised in the business the right way, and I just have the utmost respect for him. I think he’ll be like some of the guys in our league – he’ll be in the hall of fame and still coach 10 more years. You know what I mean? I think he’ll be in the hall of fame before he’s 55 years old. There are very few of those guys, very few of those guys. I have great respect for who he is.”
BEAL’S EMERGENCE CONTINUES
Having learned to play more aggressively and no longer as concerned about getting in his teammates’ way, Beal has exploded over the last five games. He is averaging 17 points on 54 percent shooting (43 percent from downtown) with 8.2 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.4 blocks in the five games that have made up the 2012 postseason. His improved level of play is easily recognizable and obviously quite praiseworthy.
“Brad is really unique. He’s a great kid. Actually he’s a much better kid than he is a player, that will give you an idea what it is like coaching him,” Donovan said. “I had a hard time with him early in the year because I think when you come out of high school you automatically – as decorated as he was – there is this expectation not only for himself but people around him who know him and watched him play and think that he’s just going to step on this stage and just be this star.
“He struggled shooting the ball early in November and December and he didn’t handle it well. At times he could get a little moody and a little pouty. He just didn’t know how to handle it. I think he realized when he wasn’t shooting the ball well that there are other parts of his game he could step up and really impact the game with his driving, with his rebounding, with his assists. The one thing that’s great about him is he’s a total chemistry guy. I’ve been around a lot of really good players that they can make it all about themselves. He has great respect for the returning players. He doesn’t necessarily want to step on anybody’s toes. He’s very much aware of where his place is on the team. He never, ever is disrespectful to players.
“He’s got a great awareness as a young kid of what team chemistry is all about. I’d say he’s a great facilitator of team chemistry. He’s really very unique in that way. He’s got a great presence and a confidence in himself but it’s not an arrogance and an over-the-top where he actually views himself being better than someone else. Our guys, with him coming in, you can’t do anything else but love him because of the way he conducts himself.”
Beal agreed with the notion that Thursday as probably the best game of his UF career and explained how he has turned the corner recently. “Before the games, I’m aware of the stage. I get caught up in the moment or whatever. But once the ball is thrown in the air, I block everything out and just focus in on the game and what the team needs to do to win,” he said. I know it’s a big crowd and everything like that, but I just stay humble, stay grounded and focus on what the team needs to do. [...] I had a lot of confidence in myself tonight as well as my teammates. I found ways to get open, just stayed aggressive and tried to make plays.”
On the other side of the court, Williams was very cognizant of Beal’s effectiveness and simply could not stop him during the contest. “I think he’s really good. Nothing against Erving Walker. Nothing against Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, Patric Young. In a lot of ways, I think Bradley Beal is their swing vote because he’s so multi-versatile, talented, can guard multiple guys,” he said. “He plays multiple positions whether they’re small, whether they’re big. He can beat you off the bounce, using their ball screens; he can catch and shoot. I think he is their leading rebounder, isn’t he? I think he’s really good. I mean he missed two shots. That’s a heck of a line. Really good.”
BACK TO THE ELITE EIGHT
Florida may have found its way back to the Elite Eight for the second-straight season and fourth time since 2006, but Donovan has had to make a lot of changes from the team that made their run one year ago. He admitted that it has been “really hard” to get to this point in the season.
“Our team is totally different than it was a year ago,” he said. “We were such a long, big, experienced team with [Vernon] Macklin and [Alex] Tyus and [Chandler] Parsons all being seniors. Then we had Erving Walker, a junior, and we had some good young guys come off the bench that played spot minutes in Patric and Scottie [Wilbekin]. We’re a lot younger and a lot different and play a lot different than we did a year ago. It’s a great compliment to those guys and how hoard they’ve worked, the schedule that we’ve played, them wanting to learn and grow and get better. I’m very proud of them and very happy that we’ve been able to move on this far in the tournament.”
Donovan is not the only one pleased to be back to the Elite Eight. Boynton also expressed his delight in his team’s accomplishment and believes that a tough regular season prepared the Gators for this opportunity. “It means a lot. It goes to show the losses early in the season made us stronger,” he said. “Before the NCAA Tournament, we had seen every defense and offense there could be. Those losses fueled us to this point in time. We’re happy to be here.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Donovan on making sure the team drives the paint during the game: “We don’t have, per se, an offensive-dominant post player. I think Patric has gotten better and he’s made good growth and he’s improved. But he’s not that offensive player you can just dump the ball inside to him. When he gets great position, he’s an effective scorer. You still have to put pressure on at the basket – one to get to the free throw line and two to get yourself some easy baskets. Because of the way we can shoot the ball and space the floor, we’ve got to try to put the ball on the floor and get into the paint and create some help, which opens up maybe getting fouled, finishing at the basket and/or if there is a collapse we can kick out and knock down some open shots. We’ve got to have a paint presence.”
» Donovan on his former head coach, Louisville’s Rick Pitino: “Outside of my parents he’s been the most influential person in my life. I’m very thankful for the opportunities that he’s provided me as a player, as a coach, the relationship that we’ve shared for more than 25 years. When you’re in this profession, now for me more than 25 years, you have situations where former assistants [and coaches play each other]. The game is really about the players that are playing in the game, that are going to be competing on Saturday because both teams have earned the right to play. The competition part of it will never ever get in the way, for me, with our relationship ever.”
» Donovan on Florida’s bench: “I thought we were going to need to use our bench, especially in this game. [...] That was encouraging that we could rely on them. [...] With the injury to Will Yeguete and their roles all being kind of in flux so to speak as we tried to figure it out, those guys have really settled in to understanding what they need to do.”
» Beal on Murphy finding a “mean streak”: “Murphy’s just being aggressive on both ends of the floor. Coach is always on his butt about rebounding in practice. It’s just carrying over to the game. He’s doing a tremendous job for us just grabbing the ball and being strong with it, rebounding on both ends pretty well for us.”
» Boynton on weathering the run by Marquette: “After the steal on Erving, we knew that they could be back in the game easily. I think we buckled down, started taking care of the ball and told each other, whoever is at the free throw line, just knock down the free throws.”
» Beal on being assertive when shots aren’t falling: “Whenever you’re missing shots from the outside, you should just keep attacking the basket. If you’re wide open, of course coach wants us to take them, but you just have to be more aggressive and keep attacking the basket – start inside and come back outside.”
» Beal on the Gators’ bench: “Our bench did a tremendous job. Mike [Rosario] came off the bench and provided a lot of help on both ends of the floor. He had a big layup for us in the first half. Scottie is always doing a great job playing great defense, and Casey is always tremendous as well on the boards. Those three guys out there really contributed a lot tonight.”
» Williams on Florida’s bench: “That’s one of the reasons why they’re so potent. Bradley Beal plays more minutes than any of them and that’s because he can swing to the four if they’re playing small. We played Rosario when he was at Rutgers. He was a McDonald’s All-American. So when you have a McDonald’s All-American coming off the bench that speaks to your depth.”