Losing 11-point leads in the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons stings. But so does playing in the NIT, where Florida found itself in 2008 and '09. Clearly, the Gators have returned to elite status. But can they take the next step? "We'll have to create an identity in the backcourt," veteran coach Billy Donovan says. "We have experience in the frontcourt, but when you lose a top-three pick (Bradley Beal) and starting point guard (Erving Walker) it changes the complexion of your team."
Despite rumblings that he would enter the NBA Draft, Patric Young returned to Florida to improve his offensive game following a sophomore season in which he averaged 10.2 points and shot 61.8 percent from the field. Junior Will Yeguete makes a huge difference defensively as the point man in the Gators' press -- provided he's healthy. Back for a second season as well is 6-foot-10, face-up power forward Erik Murphy. Murphy has always been able to shoot threes (41.7 percent in his career), but he improved his inside game last year and led the team with 37 blocked shots.
Though he struggled down the stretch, Kenny Boynton had his most productive season as a Gator in 2011-12. His scoring average jumped from 14.2 points per game as a sophomore to 15.9 even though he attempted fewer shots. His three-point shooting has also improved from 29.4 percent as a freshman to 33.1 as a sophomore to 40.7 last season. Joining Boynton in the Gators' backcourt will likely be Scottie Wilbekin, who may take over for Walker as the starting point guard. Wilbekin has a great handle and is the best perimeter defender on the team, but he will have to be more assertive on the offensive end of the court as his role increases.
One player to watch is Casey Prather, a 6-6 swingman who played his best basketball of the season in the NCAA tournament. Prather, perhaps the team's best athlete, scored a career-high 14 points in the 71-45 win over Virginia. His emergence would give the Gators a valuable weapon off the bench.
The incoming class is heavy on guards, but the Gators will add two big bodies in 2013-14 when transfers Damontre Harris (South Carolina) and Dorian Finney-Smith (Virginia Tech) become eligible. Braxton Ogbueze is a candidate to play significant minutes at point guard. Michael Frazier and Dillon Graham are both considered to be outstanding shooters. DeVon Walker is a swingman who will help first on the defensive end.
Florida has the pieces in place to contend with Kentucky for the top spot in the SEC. The Gators, however, must stay healthy and will need more productivity from two key juniors -- Young and Wilbekin. A lack of size will still be an issue, but Donovan has proven that he can win with a perimeter-oriented attack.