The surprisingly cold, dark walk across the University of Arizona's campus to the McKale Center Saturday evening was made more bearable by the companionship of an equally lost couple from Phoenix. They had driven down that day to support visiting Florida, the husband an avowed loyalist to anything Gator while his wife was the rare SEC sort who actually liked basketball more than football.
As the group wound its way through construction barriers and down winding paths to the far edge of campus, the husband got to asking about the Gators' potential this season as a title contender. The late-game fades in the Elite Eight the last two seasons had left him wary of his team's closing capability.
"I hope that doesn't happen tonight," he said just before the arena came into view, as a salutation. Three hours later, it did.
This early-season encounter with the 5th-ranked Wildcats doesn't carry the same heft as the 2011 Elite Eight game with Butler, where Florida wasted a nine-point lead in the final seven minutes and lost in overtime, or last year's version, where Louisville came from 11 down in the final eight and a half minutes to win. It wasn't even the same kind of collapse. This one came quickly and fatally in just over 60 seconds, with three turnovers, a missed 1-and-1, and an airball turning almost certain victory into a one-point defeat. Still, these Gators are developing a reputation that they won't close you out in a big spot.
After the game, Florida head coach Billy Donovan was asked about the obvious protagonist, senior guard Kenny Boynton. Attempting to stand in for usual starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin, who was limited with a wrapped broken finger, Boynton shot 2-for-10 from the field, committed a couple of turnovers in key spots, and was the one who missed the front end that gave Arizona the chance to win. Boynton was an easy target at which to point a finger, but Donovan went to bat for his senior, taking blame for perhaps playing him too many minutes at the point under adverse conditions, causing him to tire and take his jump shot with him.
On this night, the protection was probably warranted. Boynton was put in a tough spot, and overall, his ball security wasn't any worse than Arizona guard Mark Lyons, who also is taking on a significant ball-handling role this season after making a name as a shooter next to Tu Holloway at Xavier. Boynton's had a number of "these nights" over the course of his more-than-three-year career in Gainesville, though, so a bigger picture question arose from the rubble of this defeat: Does Boynton actually help?
Truth be told, I've been pretty harsh on Boynton ever since his freshman season, when he somehow was allowed to take 245 threes and only made 29.6 percent of them, joining the extremely rare 200 attempt/sub-30 percent club. He reinforced that style as a sophomore, "improving" to 33.1 percent on 242 threes while seeing his two-point field goal percentage drop. At least he got to the line a bit more.
Early last season, after watching Florida fall by four at Syracuse, I wondered whether the Gators' three-pointer intensive attack could ever work over the long run, seeing as they were relying on volume shooters in Boynton and Erving Walker and advanced stats showed how badly the Gators got punished in transition off misses. Of course, Boynton (40.7 percent from three) and Walker kept on making threes at a rate that more than justified the 460 attempts between the two, even as it turned Boynton into an even-more one-note shooter (63.5 percent of all shots from three) and the duo hindered Brad Beal's ability to make an impact.
The retort to all of this is that Florida made those back-to-back Elite Eights, and Boynton really wasn't the issue in the losses, totaling 29 points and nine assists on 45 percent from the field. Thanks to volume from the arc and more frequent trips to the foul line, Boynton had the Gators' highest offensive rating over the last two seasons. He also played pretty well in most of Florida's defeats last season. This season, with Wilbekin running the show, Boynton has evolved into a more diverse offensive player, taking nearly as many twos as threes. With the Gators a whisper away from an 8-0 start after making two straight regional finals, the simple answer is yes, you can win with Kenny Boynton. But how much of the winning is because of Kenny Boynton?
On KenPom.com's player similarity scores, Boynton's best major-conference comparables by season (starting with the current one in progress) are William Buford '12, John Jenkins '11, Terrence Oglesby '09 and Terrico White '09. Jenkins was one of the best shooters in the college game and a definite asset to Vanderbilt's solid teams in his era. If Boynton regularly shot like he did as a junior, there would be fewer questions. When he's at his normal rate, though, the comps are not very encouraging. Buckeyes fans spent all of last season practically begging Buford to rise from a tentative, supporting cast role. Oglesby and White were renowned chuckers with shot selection issues, in part caused by their teams' need for their offense. They had nights, like Boynton, where they carried their team with big shots. They had more nights where they went 1-for-7 from three and hurt their team since they did relatively little else.
There's something to be said for overall consistency, and Boynton's year-to-year career numbers are staggeringly consistent. Per KenPom, counting this stub season thus far, he's played between 78 and 81 percent of Florida's available minutes, used between 22 and 24 percent of Florida's possessions, taken 26 to 27 percent of the Gators' shots while he's on the floor, and has had an assist rate of between 16 and 17 percent in all four years. Over larger samples, you know what you're getting. I'm just not sure this is a good thing, as Boynton's baseline is merely OK and his game-to-game variance is significant.
In the hallway of the coaches' offices in the aftermath of the Wildcats' dramatic win, Arizona head coach was asked about Boynton and the impact Wilbekin's injury had on the game. "Kenny Boynton, we did a good job guarding him a year ago and I thought we did a pretty good job guarding him tonight," Miller replied. "Sometimes, guys like that don't have great games every night. I'm sure he'll be fine and learn from it."
Maybe, but it's getting very late for a senior with so much experience to change. This is pretty much who Kenny Boynton is, an impact player who has the capacity to decide a game. You're just never certain in which direction he'll decide it. On Saturday, it was in favor of the opponent. Florida fans hope that doesn't repeat itself in March, lest this core of Gators fall short one final time.