GAINESVILLE, Fla.—The best SEC basketball team not named Kentucky was decided Saturday. It’s Florida, pending further developments.
Specifically, the development of Bradley Beal.
He potentially is the Gators’ best player, and he showed that against Mississippi State on Saturday afternoon at the O’Connell Center. The freshman guard had 19 points as Florida won what passed for a regular-season showdown.
“Florida is good, man,” Bulldogs’ coach Rick Stansbury said. “Very good.”
How good, nobody can say. There’s still way too much schedule left, but the 14th-ranked Gators are 17-4, and two of those losses came on the road to Ohio State and Syracuse.
Mississippi State was supposed to be tall measuring stick, primarily because center Renardo Sidney measures 6-10 and at least 270 pounds, and forward Arnett Moultrie is 6-11 and 250.
Florida showed it could bang with the 18th-ranked Bulldogs. That should erase the perception that the Gators are just a hustling, 3-point-shooting machine.
“You have to pick your poison with Florida,” Stansbury said.
SEC coaches haven’t faced such tough decisions in five years. That’s when Florida was winning its last of back-to-back national championships.
These Gators aren’t in that class, but they have the versatility of a Sweet-16 type team. The five starters all average double figures. Like those title teams of Joakim Noah and Al Horford, there is no singular star.
That’s Billy Donovan’s system, and it’s hard to argue with the success. Then you see how the 6-3 Beal smoothly dissected Mississippi State, and you can’t help wondering if he deserves a bigger role.
Beal has more upside than anyone. And if the Gators are to be the best SEC team of all, they’ll need all the upside they can get.
One problem is Beal is a freshman. He might be the best one Donovan ever has signed, which is saying something. Beal was the Gatorade National Player of the Year, averaging 32.5 points a game for Chaminade Prep in St. Louis.
This season has been the typical shakedown cruise. He’s been bad. He’s been spectacular. Beal’s just trying to figure out the college game. That was no problem against the rangy Bulldogs.
“It’s mainly just a mental approach to it,” Beal said. “I just really can’t get down on myself and think that just because they’re bigger than me they can just take advantage of me.”