Posted: 3:57 p.m. Wednesday, March 6, 2013
By Andy Hutchins
The two years after the highest height of the Florida basketball program were all about falling from it. Florida would start seasons well, with only the occasional ignominious loss to Jacksonville or something, then fall off, and the Gators didn't record an NCAA Tournament victory in either of those years.
And that essentially forced Lon Kruger out of his job at Florida back in 1996, and sent the Gators into an ebb that would take Billy Donovan a few years to emerge from. That Donovan didn't flee for calmer waters after his two years in the NIT hinterlands in 2008 and 2009 is a credit to him, but Donovan's Gators recovering from the worst years of his tenure to become perennial contenders again is a testament to three Gators who will be honored on Senior Night: Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, and Mike Rosario. Boynton and Murphy will be looking for the 100th win of their Florida careers, and their second SEC title; Rosario will be trying for his 50th win and first SEC crown as an eligible player. The numbers are round, clean, reflective.
For the Reset Gators, that makes sense.
Kenny Boynton was the original Reset Gator, the one that every Florida fan thought would be the five-star key to a resurgence. It was Boynton and future Kentucky star Brandon Knight, South Florida rivals at American Heritage (Boynton) and Pine Crest (Knight) who competed for all of Florida's high school basketball awards in 2009, and that Knight, a junior, won them and won the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year awards didn't matter to Gators fans: Boynton was the next Billyball star.
Boynton's five-star pedigree seemed more like the McDonald's All-Americans that had feasted at Florida, not the ones that washed out: He was Donovan's highest-regarded recruit since David Lee. And though he was supposedly the slasher Florida had been missing for years and a deadeye shooter in the vein of Teddy Dupay, Boynton's commitment to defense was something Donovan raved about from early on, and something I noticed the first time I saw Boynton in a Florida uniform. Even as a freshman, Kenny Boynton relished playing defense.
He would start that year, and would launch threes at an alarming rate without much accuracy, and would establish himself as a volume shooter who hurt the Gators with his commitment to spraying more often than he helped — in 34 games in 2009-10, Boynton took 245 threes, one fewer than Lee Humphrey did in 39 and 40 games in his last two seasons*, but made just 72 on the year, 41 fewer than Humphrey, and shot 29.4 percent from three, earning the inauspicious honor of being the only one of the 54 players in the country to take more than 215 threes and make less than 30 percent of them.
But he would also play defense masterfully for much of the season, and especially against Jimmer Fredette in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, as Florida made it back to the promised land of March by the skin of its teeth, snatching a No. 10 seed despite sweating out the bubble until Selection Sunday. Boynton "held" Fredette to "just" 37 points in a double overtime loss to BYU, but made him take 26 shots to get them, and both limited him to three made threes and hounded him into five turnovers. And Boynton did that while scoring 27 points of his own, coming within a point of his career high.
If Boynton could improve his shooting, Florida's future seemed very bright, especially in 2010-11, with all five players returning from that NCAA Tournament team and three seniors leading the way. Chandler Parsons, Vernon Macklin, and Alex Tyus were the frontcourt, and running mates Erving Walker and Boynton were the backcourt. And despite bizarre losses (UCF and Jacksonville, and a home loss to a bad South Carolina team) and only marginal improvement from Boynton as a shooter (he made 33 of his last 81 threes in 2010-11, which raised his seasonal average to 33.1 percent; prior to that torrid stretch, he was shooting 29.1 percent for the year, worse than he did as a freshman) that team earned its way into the 2011 NCAA Tournament and snagged an improbable No. 2 seed.
Boynton then proceeded to give a four-game snapshot of every Florida fan's issues with him: He played great defense against UC Santa Barbara's Orlando Johnson in Florida's first win and harassed Fredette (32 points on 29 shots, and just three made threes on 15 attempts) again in Florida's overtime Sweet Sixteen win, but he was unable to stop Shelvin Mack in Butler's overtime win in the Elite Eight, and was horrific from three in the Tourney, making eight of 26 triples. (That hot streak? Boynton had made a tremendous 25 of his last 55 threes entering the Tournament before cooling off.)
That hurt, especially given that Boynton had a go-ahead three in overtime, and missed it. But it wouldn't hurt as much as Florida's loss to Louisville did in the 2012 NCAA Tournament.
(Photo credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-US PRESSWIRE)
Boynton improved markedly as a shooter in 2011-12, making a staggering 57 of 122 threes (46.7 percent) in non-conference play before cooling off and making 110 of 270 (40.7 percent) on the year, as playing alongside Bradley Beal and with a more pass-first Walker got him better looks, and looked like a guy who finally deserved his hype for much of the year.
Then he made five of 24 threes in four NCAA Tournament games, missed a tying three against Louisville, and came right back to most Gators fans' doghouse.
Boynton had to decide to come back for his senior year, and he did. Three years after joining a team that hadn't been to the NCAA Tournament in two years, he chose to assume the role of senior leader of a team that had been within seconds of the Final Four in two straight seasons.
Erik Murphy chose to stay at Florida at a time when he could easily have gone, as CBS Sports' Jeff Goodman wrote last November. And then he chose to stay again. By doing that, he chose a path that took him from lost soul to potential NBA player.
Murphy came to Florida as a project, a skinny, 6'9" big man who had marginal skills off the dribble. He remained that project in his freshman and sophomore years, playing more than 20 minutes just once, against Presbyterian, in an incredibly lopsided victory. (Murphy played 23 minutes in that game, which Florida lead 43-14 at the hald; Kyle McClanahan played 22 minutes, and Nimrod Tishman got seven.)
Then came one fateful night in St. Augustine that resulted in the arrests of Murphy and fellow Florida player Cody Larson on burglary charges. Murphy had been considering transferring from Florida, and had told Donovan that he would stay just before that arrest, but it certainly could have been an excuse for Donovan to push him out the door or the impetus for Murphy to reconsider his decision. Instead, he stayed despite an indefinite suspension, and received deferred prosecution for his role in the burglary.
And then Murphy became Florida's best stretch big man since Matt Bonner.
Murphy had been shooting threes from at least his sophomore year, even if he wasn't shooting many of them in games: I routinely saw him going around the arc in pregame shootarounds back then, and displaying a feathery touch on those shots. He made 12 of 30 as a sophomore, a very respectable 37.5 percent clip.
As a junior, Murphy was Florida's sixth man, though he took more shots than Patric Young and a higher percentage of shots when on the floor than Erving Walker; if he was a sixth man, he was more like a scoring forward than anything. And he was devastating in that role, making 42.1 percent of his threes and often dropping trailer three daggers.
Murphy was superb against Kentucky in the SEC Tournament, scoring 24 points and making all four of his threes in Florida's 74-71 loss, but went cold in the NCAA Tournament, putting in just nine of his first 28 shots. And though he warmed back up against Louisville, making four of five shots and scoring 14 points, Murphy had four turnovers, critical ones in a game the Gators lost by four.
Murphy was coming back for his senior year, no doubt. But would he be as good as a starter as he had been as a reserve?
When he transferred to Florida, Mike Rosario had to learn how to be as good as a reserve as he had been as a starter at Rutgers. Given that he wasn't all that good as a starter at Rutgers, it shouldn't have been that hard.
Rosario was the classic good player on a bad team at Rutgers: He and Gregory Echenique were essentially the Scarlet Knights' offense in 2008-09 and 2009-10, and he averaged more than 16 points per game in each year, but he also took 470 shots as a freshman and 487 as a sophomore, ranking among the nation's top 40 in percentage of shots taken each year. And there weren't many wins, as Rutgers got off to strong non-conference starts before being torn apart by the Big East each season.
Transferring from Rutgers to Florida gave Rosario a second chance at being a winner, but it came with a price: Rosario couldn't be the freewheeling, three-jacking (as a freshman, Rosario shot 30.2 percent from three on 254 attempts; had he missed one more three, he would have performed the Boynton feat of 200+ threes and under 30 percent shooting before Boynton) player he was at Rutgers in Donovan's system, and wouldn't be a starter in his first year, not with Bradley Beal in town for a one-year crash course in NBA prep.
Rosario struggled with that role early in 2011-12, taking threes lightly and taking defense off. (It's very hard to be worse at keeping your man in front of you than Nick Calathes was, but Rosario made a run at that distinction early last season.) He was a liability on defense even when the threes fell — and they did, early, as Rosario made 15 of his first 28 threes as a Gator — and a liability on both ends when they didn't, and went from competing with Boynton and Beal for playing time to settling into a role as an instant-offense player off the bench. Rosario had 12 points in 19 minutes in Florida's romp over Norfolk State in the NCAA Tournament, but that was his only game with double-digit points in Florida's final 13 contests. He played just six minutes against Louisville.
He got better as the season wore on, cutting down on turnovers and amping up his defense, but Rosario had plenty of room to improve at the end of his redshirt junior season. With Beal and Walker moving on, though, Rosario also had plenty of minutes to earn as a senior.
All Boynton, Murphy, and Rosario have done this year is return Florida to the elite of college basketball, resetting the Gators as titans not far removed from their title-winning peak.
Boynton's done it by doing what he's always done — playing sound defense and shooting threes at a respectable clip — and continuing a trend of unselfishness that he never gets credit for, taking fewer shots per game (Boynton's averaging 10.3 shots per contest, more than a shot per game less than in 2011-12) and a significantly smaller share of Florida's shots (23.2 percent, his smallest number in four years) while helping Florida's offense remain one of the nation's most efficient.
Boynton and Scottie Wilbekin are also the hellhounds of Florida's ferocious defense, both capable of harassing a shooter for a full 40 minutes, and it almost feels like neither has let up at any point this year. For Boynton, now Florida's career leader in minutes played, threes taken, and threes made, it's an affirmation that he is what he is, and that he can definitely be part of a great team.
Murphy's done it by somehow improving as a shooter, going from 42 percent from three as a junior to 46.4 percent as a senior — a number that is only under 50 percent because Murphy's made just six of his last 21 threes — and turning into a lethal finisher inside, one making more than 61 percent of his twos. He was by far the nation's most efficient offensive player in November and most of December, and remains both Florida's most efficient player and a top-20 player nationally.
Murphy remains an underwhelming rebounder for his size, despite growing to 6'10" and filling out to nearly 240 pounds, but he's become a great help defender, and still uses his long arms to swat, smother, and alter shots underneath. In college basketball, there are very few players like Murphy, but his best comparisons might be Duke's Ryan Kelly and Creighton's Doug McDermott; though Murphy's a poor man's version of those players, no team would pass up a player in that vein.
Rosario's done it by blossoming into a calm playmaker with defensive skills that compliment his offense nicely. He's still not a great three-point shooter, making just 35.4 percent of his treys, but Rosario's Assist Rate (he assists on 14.6 percent of his possessions) has never been higher and his Turnover Rate (he coughs it up on 16.1 percent of his possessions) has never been lower, and he's Florida's best option as a slasher looking to draw contact, as he's making more than 85 percent of his free throws.
He's not nearly the liability he once was on defense, even if he's not a stopper, and he's toned down the emotional instability that drove Donovan crazy last season, most notably by reacting to a quick benching last Saturday against Alabama with full-throated cheerleading from the bench instead of a tantrum.
These are the Reset Gators because they have helped Donovan's Gators find their level as a consistent factor in March, and re-established Florida as a top-tier program capable of competing for top-shelf recruits. Boynton and Murphy signed on for that in the midst of Florida's second straight season that would end in the NIT, and were the first parts of the small-scale culture change Donovan rode back to the Elite Eight; Rosario made his call to transfer despite Florida not winning an NCAA Tournament game in his last three years, and a potential glut at his position.
But they've all pushed reset themselves, in one way or another. Boynton went from jacker to sniper to a midpoint between the two, and though Florida fans will question his shot selection unless those shots fall and lead to a title this year, there's no argument against Boynton being one of Florida's most productive players ever, and no doubt that he has done it all with dignity. Murphy could have fled at his moment of greatest self-doubt, but continued a reinvention as an offensive weapon instead, and is yet another testament to Billy Donovan's ability to mold and improve players. Rosario picking Florida was his first reset; Rosario committing to being the best player he could be as a senior was his second, and has both revived his chances of playing professionally and erased one of the biggest potential weaknesses in Florida's starting five.
I've found in my many years of watching sports that there's not much more that you can realistically ask for from the athletes you root for on the teams you love than consistent individual and collective improvement. In my eyes, this class of 2013 has accomplished that. They learned from the seniors that won the SEC in 2010-11, a crew that persevered and improved in its own right, and were taught by Donovan, who has built and torn down and rebuilt his roster and his philosophy, and did less for themselves and more for their teammates, sacrificing individual glories for a better chance at wins.
Tonight, those players get a Senior Night that will have a pregame ceremony and should have a postgame celebration, with an SEC regular season title awaiting them if they can knock off a Vanderbilt team that should be no threat to Florida at home. They'll get a farewell of sorts from a crowd that won't be as large as it should be — Senior Night coming during Spring Break is a killer — but should be fully appreciative of what they have done.
This Senior Night is not goodbye, not when there is work to be done and a Final Four just up I-75 in Atlanta to reach. But it is certainly a time to thank Florida's seniors for what they have done.
Thank you, Kenny Boynton.
Thank you, Erik Murphy.
Thank you, Mike Rosario.
Thank you for everything.