GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Bradley Beal had a problem.
It was there at the beginning of the season, but it wasn’t yet much of an issue for the freshman guard or the Florida basketball team. But as the season wore on, it became evident that Beal’s problem was significant enough that it could potentially impact how deep the Gators would advance in the NCAA tournament.
So a week or so before the Southeastern Conference tournament, UF coach Billy Donovan sat down with Beal for a chat he hoped would fix the problem. He was pretty blunt a bout it, too: You’re being too nice, Donovan said. Quit deferring to your older teammates all the time and play the way you’re capable of playing.
“I said, ‘Start stepping up and start to be more aggressive. Start doing things out there that are going to impact the outcome of the game,’ ” Donovan said. “Our team realizes that when he does those things it helps us tremendously, and I just needed to keep pushing him toward that.
“I think Brad, being a freshman, needs a push a lot of times because he never wants to step over bounds or out of bounds and put our team chemistry ever in jeopardy, but sometimes he needs that push to let him know it’s OK.”
Since that speech, the 6-foot-3 Beal has been Florida’s best player -- and it’s coming at the most critical time. In five games in March, Beal is leading the team in scoring (13.4 ppg), rebounding (8.4 rpg), assists (18), steals (seven), and minutes played per game (34.6). Senior point guard Erving Walker also has 18 assists, but he has nine turnovers -- one more than Beal.
It wasn’t easy for Beal, though, because he believes freshmen should be seen and not heard.
“That’s exactly what [Donovan] told me: It’s time to stop trying not to step on everybody’s toes, and it’s time to be more of a leader and start pushing guys to get better and really just taking more of a leadership role,” Beal said. “Coming in, I didn’t really want to [say], ‘Oh, this is my team,’ because it’s really not. It’s everybody’s team.
“I didn’t want to come in as a freshman thinking, ‘Oh, I’m just going to give everybody orders,’ when these guys have been here before.”
But the Gators wouldn't be in Phoenix, Ariz., for the Sweet 16 without Beal. He posted his sixth double-double of the season in a second-round NCAA tournament game against Virginia (14 points, 11 rebounds) and followed that with 14 points and nine rebounds two nights later in the Gators’ rout of Norfolk State.
The only stinker he had in March came against top-ranked Kentucky in the regular-season finale in Gainesville. Beal went 1-for-10 from the floor and scored just five points, but he did have seven rebounds and four assists.
In the rematch with the Wildcats in the SEC tournament semifinals, however, Beal responded with 20 points on 8-of-15 shooting, eight rebounds and five assists in a game the Gators lost by just three points.
Beal has cut down on his turnovers -- he is averaging 1.6 per game in March after averaging 2.2 the rest of the season -- and has been more aggressive off the dribble. That has opened things up offensively for his teammates.
“Earlier in the year he wasn’t attacking the basket and driving and putting it on the floor the way he is now,” Donovan said. “The thing I’ve just tried to get through to him is stop worrying about your shot. You’re a freshman and most freshmen have their peaks and valleys shooting the basketball. You can do too many other things as a player that can really impact our team.”
Beal’s most important contribution has been on the glass. Without 6-7 Will Yeguete (broken foot), the Gators needed someone to help Patric Young and Erik Murphy rebound, and Beal has been a monster on the defensive glass. He has grabbed 33 in March -- more than the total number of defensive rebounds Young (17) and Murphy (13) combined -- and has had to spend time at power forward.
“I have to really put my body in more plays now and start boxing out bigger guys and just start going after the ball more,” said Beal, who is averaging 14.6 points and a team-best 6.7 rebounds. “Will was a big addition to our team and we don’t have him anymore, so everybody has to step up and try to contribute the best we can.”
Donovan has finally convinced Beal that the best way he can contribute is by continuing to be more aggressive -- especially because the past five games have shown Beal that his worries about upsetting the team’s chemistry are unfounded.
“He understands the importance of the little things, the importance of selflessness,” Donovan said. “He understands the importance of team chemistry and he understands the importance of coming in and fitting in, and he has handled himself in a way that has probably brought more chemistry to our team. I've been around guys out of high school where it's like they think the sun rises and sets on them and they are all about that, and he is anything but that.”