Better late than never, Florida's Beal blossoming at just the right time

by | CBSSports.com Senior College Basketball Blogger
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PHOENIX -- Bradley Beal, how nice of you to reward us like this. We've been waiting to see this kind of play all season long, and boy is it a joy when it comes in bunches like it did Thursday night against third-seeded Marquette.

The Gators are in the Elite Eight for the second successive year thanks to Beal's superb performance against the Golden Eagles in their West Regional semifinal. Beal, who played a team-high 33 minutes, scored 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting and added six rebounds, four assists and a pair of blocks and steals.

"There's no other way to describe it but, he played great," Erving Walker said.

Here's how you pare down Beal's play: He was clutch in a truly critical game. I didn't know that turn of events could be possible for Beal at this point in the season. But this is how it has to be, and probably how it always has been for the Gators in 2011-12.

Florida doesn't win on the small backs and hopeful bombs of Kenny Boynton and Walker. It can't be lifted into the elite ranks by Patric Young's play or Erik Murphy's stretch-the-defense ability. Beal's the most vital piece for this team, and if he's feeling like he can put up 21 without breaking a sweat? Look out, Louisville (Florida's Elite Eight opponent on Saturday).

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Wasn't like this for most of the season, though. Beal's story isn't one of immense hardship or anything like that -- he was simply not playing the way he did during his high school and AAU days, when he was a top-five prospect and doing whatever he wanted, no matter the opponent. We wondered, what is wrong?

Sometimes, it just takes these talents time to figure it out. Thank goodness coaches have more patience than writers and fans most times.

"There was a moment in time where I got down in slump," Beal said. "I got mad at myself."

Initially, Division I basketball smacked Beal in the face, and he was a little slow to recover. Beal showed flashes of his lottery-pick talent, but he wasn't consistent at all. He would go entire halves or games without doing anything of impact on the floor.

Fellow freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Trey Burke and Cody Zeller distanced themselves from Beal nationally. Earlier this season, Donovan went to Beal and asked him why he thought he was struggling, why he wasn't able to command the floor the way he had before.

The bad games, the frustrating losses, not being the best player on the floor -- that was Beal's response.

Bradley Beal problems, basically. Good problems to have, as they were easy to figure out, and now he seems to be improving by the game. The confidence has improved and conversations and practice habits with teammates have made it so Beal has successfully carved his game into something more fine-tuned, yet at the same time unpredictable for opponents to stop as the game goes on.

What Donovan never doubted about Beal -- his glue ability. It's not often a star talent is a freshman and also critical to a team's togetherness, but that was the case with Beal, who is mature beyond his years.

"He's a total chemistry guy," Donovan said. "And I've been around a lot of really, really good players, that they can make it all about themselves. He has a great respect for the returning players. He doesn't want to step on anybody's toes. He's aware of where his place is on the team. He never, ever is disrespectful to players. He's got a great awareness as a young kid of what team chemistry is all about."

This is the quote of a freshman who knows his place, talent and team's expectations.

"Before the games I'm aware of the stage," Beal said. "I get caught up in the moment. Once the ball is thrown in the air, I block everything out and just focus in on the game and what the team needs to do to win. I know it's a big crowd, but I just stay humble and stay grounded and focus in on what the team needs to do."

The stage is now his. All of Florida gets to share it with him, but I don't see how the team can be successful if he doesn't push the wagon. He needs to be the star, the player Donovan recruited because his ceiling was higher than a circus tent. Despite the team's misleading (but legitimate) No. 7 seed, it can win three more games and get Donovan his third national title. Beal is the reason why.

In his past five NCAA tournament appearances, including this one, Billy Donovan is 18-2. That stunning stat is possible because Beal took command and played like the alpha dog against Marquette. With the evidence mounting of Beal's emergence as an elite-level player, Florida gets only more dangerous, closer to being the team many expected it to be five months ago: in the Final Four.

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