Brad Beal carries UF back into Top 10

The Florida Gators moved up four spots in both the ESPN/USA Today Coaches’ Poll (No. 7) and the AP Top 25 (No. 8), jumping back into the Top 10 in the nation for the first time since December.

Freshman guard Brad Beal is one of the main reasons why, as the league’s top rebounding guard. The former McDonald’s All-American was named the Southeastern Conference’s Freshman of the Week for the second straight week and a league-high fifth time following Florida’s wins against South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Beal helped Florida get back into the game against Vanderbilt in the second half after the Gators sputtered, despite finishing the first half just 1-6 from the floor.

With Florida trailing 49-46 midway through the second half, Beal spotted up for three and knocked it down to tie it at 49-49 with 12 minutes remaining. Seconds later, he stripped Lance Goulbourne and dished a pass down the floor to Will Yeguete, who slammed home a dunk to put Florida ahead for good.

Beal grabbed an offensive rebound about a minute later and followed it up with a putback, before burying a three a minute later to put Florida ahead by seven.

“I was really proud of Brad because he didn’t shoot the ball particularly well in the first half,” said UF coach Billy Donovan. “He didn’t have a great first half, he didn’t do a whole lot. Then he knocked down a big three for us that gave us the lead. He had a great transition drive, he got fouled one time going to the rim.”

“He made a lot of really, really good plays that impacted the game, I thought. The last 10 minutes of the game, he made some really big plays for us.”

Beal finished the Vanderbilt game on a tear, going 4-4 from the floor and scoring 14 of his 16 points in the game’s final 12 minutes. In Florida’s two games last week, he averaged 16.5 points and 9.0 rebounds per game.

While it was his scoring plays that helped flip things in the second half against the Commodores, his rebounding has been just as important to the Gators.

Beal is currently the league’s best rebounding guard with 140 on the season. That’s seven more than Vanderbilt’s Jeffery Taylor, who is four inches taller than Beal and listed as a combination guard/forward.

The freshman credits Donovan with his rebounding numbers, saying the Florida coach is constantly hounding him to hit the glass hard.

“It’s always in my mind, because I always get on myself because I’m like, ‘Dang, I need to rebound or coach is going to get on me,’” Beal said. “Coach has always been hectic on me about going to rebound, going to rebound. I’ve just been trying to take that into my mentality and try my best to rebound.”

Beal’s efforts on the defensive end have also paid dividends for the Gators. He came up with two steals against Vanderbilt, including the one that led to Yeguete’s go-ahead dunk.

On the season, Beal is tied with Yeguete for the team lead in steals. He has 29, to go with 18 blocks.

Florida made it a goal to get after Vanderbilt in the press to create turnovers, and Beal and Yeguete keyed a defense that helped cause 17 turnovers by the Commodores.

“They played Arkansas last week, and Arkansas was able to force a lot of turnovers,” Beal said. “So we just wanted to come out and try to do the same thing, to get them to play fast and just try to get them out of their pace of the game.”

The Gators will need to get another week from Beal like the one they just received if they hope to keep pace in the SEC race.

Florida is set to face No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night on ESPN. The Wildcats have lost only one game all season, a buzzer-beating defeat against No. 23 Indiana.