Beal Leads Florida Into Elite Eight

March 22, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Florida Gators forward/center Patric Young (4) celebrates with guard Bradley Beal (23) after a play during the second half in the semifinals of the west region of the 2012 NCAA men's basketball tournament against the Marquette Golden Eagles at US Airways Center. The Gators defeated the Golden Eagles 68-58. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

It's been obvious this season that Bradley Beal is a key part of Florida's team. He was pegged as a future lottery pick before he even ended up in Gainesville, and he's largely the reason the team was expected to compete for the SEC title despite losing several key veterans from last year's Elite Eight squad.

He's been held to single digit points six times this year; three of those occasions were losses, one was an overtime win, another was four-point win over Ole Miss, and only a contest against UAB was a comfortable win. Look over the Gators' other losses and you'll see things like 4-12 shooting against both Rutgers and Tennessee, 5-15 shooting against Kentucky, and a harrowing 1-10 performance versus UK again on the regular season's last day. There isn't a 1:1 correlation between his play and the team's success, as he played well in the SEC Tournament loss to the Wildcats, but he's definitely the most important player on the team.

It is no surprise then that most pundits out there are singing Beal's praises after Florida polished off Marquette 68-58 late last night in Phoenix. He was hot, scoring 21 points on 8-10 shooting, on a night when Marquette's defense stifled just about everyone else on the team. He was clearly the best player on a court that included Big East Player of the Year Jae Crowder and a couple others who will play in the pro leagues some day.

Beal's emergence from great player to team leader is a big reason why Florida is in the Elite Eight for the second year in a row, but to attribute everything to him is incomplete (not that the linked-to pundits above are doing that). Erik Murphy has dedicated himself to rebounding. Casey Prather has become useful off the bench. The team as a whole is playing its best defense of the year, as it held Marquette to 30.8% shooting last night.

The Gators will take on Louisville next, after the Cardinals became the first team this year to knock out a 1-seed after beating Michigan State. All of the focus will be on Rick Pitino versus Billy Donovan, and that's for a good reason given that their relationship goes back to when Pitino coached Donovan at Providence.

And, of course, it will be on whether Beal can keep leading his team all the way into the Final Four. Based on what we've seen in the tournament so far, it's tough to bet against it.

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