Florida fans need to cherish every moment of this NCAA Tournament run, because it’s the last time they’ll see Brad Beal in a Gators uniform.

As the season has gone on, Beal has become one of the best players in all of college basketball. Those efforts culminated with what he called the best performance of his career Thursday night in the biggest game of his life.

“Before the games I’m aware of the stage,” Beal said. “I get caught up in the moment when we play. Once the ball’s thrown up in the air, I block everything out and I just focus in on the game and what the team needs to do to win.”

There’s almost no chance he comes back for a sophomore season to play in a system that is nothing like what he’ll run at the next level.

He is yet to offer any definitive comment on his future, but the writing is on the wall.

Besides, what more does he have to prove?

In UF’s 68-58 win against Marquette Thursday night, Beal was nothing short of dominant. He scored 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting, driving through the lane for acrobatic finishes while hitting 3 of 5 shots from long range. He grabbed six more rebounds, coming up just shy of his team-leading average of 6.7 per game.

He even notched four assists with only two turnovers, highlighting how far he’s come in terms of protecting the ball. After struggling with giveaways early in the season, he’s figured it out down the stretch, averaging just 1.4 per game over UF’s last eight contests. Not bad for a freshman who averages a team-high 34.2 minutes per game.

Beal has even gotten it done on the defensive end, where his ability to match up with everything from guards to power forwards makes him Florida’s best and most valuable defender.

His greatness has me conditioned such that when Junior Cadougan was sprinting down the court for an apparent transition layup, I instinctively looked for a trailing Beal. I was rewarded with a flying swat sure to find its way on to a few highlight reels, as Beal’s right hand sent Cadougan’s shot flying. Beal’s second block was his 31st, one more than Patric Young has this season.

Beal’s shown scouts everything they need to see. DraftExpress.com has him as the No. 7 overall prospect, and ESPN’s Chad Ford ranks him No. 4. Both peg him as the No. 1 guard.

There are a few reasonable arguments as to why he could come back.

Although he’s curbed the turnover problem of late, his 77 giveaways are still tops on UF’s roster. Another year as Florida’s best player would give him plenty of opportunity to work on his ball-handling. As recently as Sunday’s game against Norfolk State, Beal was entrusted with point guard duties against a bigger, stronger opponent, and that trend would continue into next season when point guard Erving Walker will no longer be on the team.

He might also be convinced another year could help his outside shooting touch. Even after Friday’s 3-for-5 showing, he’s still shot just 33.7 percent from outside this season.

He was expected to be the next Ray Allen, but the results from the perimeter haven’t matched. With another year to perfect his stroke, he could enter the NBA after his sophomore season without a hole in his game.

But that’s not enough to keep him around. Not when he’s being asked to do so much that he’ll never have to worry about again.

As an NBA two-guard, he won’t be relied on to crash the boards as often as he is at UF. More college experience isn’t likely to hurt Beal, but how much will that experience really help when it’s out of position in a three-happy, four-guard system totally foreign to the NBA ranks?

Beal already has all of the smarts, instincts and feel for the game that talented players make a pit stop in college to learn.

UF fans need to be ready to say good bye, because Beal’s out as soon as the Gators are.

Contact Greg Luca at [email protected].

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