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Guard-heavy Gators must go back to roots

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Posted: Tuesday, October 18, 2011 11:40 pm | Updated: 5:39 pm, Wed Aug 28, 2013.

After an 8-year period of mostly grind-it-out play, the 2011-12 Florida basketball season will finally mark the return of Billy Ball.

With three vaunted frontcourt seniors heading out and two more talented guards coming in, the Gators are going to have to pick up the pace and force teams to fight for every inch of the 94-foot court.

“Because we have speed and quickness in the backcourt, we really need to try and get up the floor and try to be a more full-court defensive team,” coach Billy Donovan said.

To the naked eye, that style may have always been there. But a look at the numbers shows otherwise.

Since 2002-03, only one Florida team has ranked in the top 45 percent of the country in tempo rating — a metric that estimates a team’s playing speed by calculating possessions per minute

Even that group, which won the 2005-06 national championship, had just a 67.9 rating, placing it near the middle of the pack in Division I. And the Gators only slowed things down from there.

That trend reached its lowest point last season, when Florida’s 64.1 tempo rating was 290th of 345 Division I teams, according to Kenpom.com. With Florida’s best attack options on the interior, the Gators all but abandoned the run-and-gun style. Rather than jacking threes in transition, UF let Vernon Macklin set up on the blocks for his patented hook shot.

That was all well and good, but Macklin and Co. are gone.

Of the nine most talented players on this year’s roster — Brad Beal, Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, Casey Prather, Mike Rosario, Erving Walker, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Patric Young — there is just one true center and one true power forward.

That will result in a lot of three- and even four-guard lineups, which can mean only one thing: The Gators will run. A lot.

And that’s right up Donovan’s alley.

In his first six years at Florida, from 1996-97 to 2001-02, his slowest team played at a tempo of 71.6 (2001-02). The fastest was the 1997-98 team at 75.4. For perspective, that team would have ranked as the third-fastest squad in the nation last year.

“Being that we have a lot more depth and knowing that in the past coach Donovan liked to press a lot, I think we’ll be a much more fast-paced team,” Walker said.

Wilbekin and Boynton, perhaps the team’s two best defenders, said they would like to see that shift.

“We’ll be a trap team,” Boynton said. “We’re going to press and we’re going to run. … I like that.”

Said Wilbekin: “I love playing defense. I love running, so it sounds good to me.”

Prather, who ranks next to Boynton and Wilbekin in discussions of defensive ability, said the press would be a good way to use his athleticism.

Even Florida’s bigs have bought into the idea. Well, sort of.

“As long as I’m in the back of the press just chillin I’m fine with that,” Young said, joking. “I run pretty well, I think. I’ll be able to go along with that pretty well.”

Murphy said he’s in the best shape of his life, and Yeguete said he loves playing defense up and down the floor.

All of Florida’s players seem to be on board, and that’s a good thing.

Billy Ball is back.

Contact Greg Luca at gluca@alligator.org.

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