Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
AUBURN, Ala. -- The two most spectacular plays of Casey Prather’s career have come against Kentucky.
Florida’s 6-foot-6 junior forward absolutely posterized 6-foot-10 Kyle Wiltjer with a dunk in the Southeastern Conference Tournament last year -- a moment that is, fittingly, captured in poster-size inside the UF basketball complex -- and pretty much did the same Tuesday night to Wildcats 7-footer Willie Cauley-Stein in taking a behind-the-back pass from Scottie Wilbekin and attacking the rim for a thunder-slam that ESPN replayed over and over.
“I saw it on ‘Top 10’ a couple times,” Prather grinned.
Make no mistake, Prather is a walking potential of SportsCenter “Top 10” material. His athleticism -- the best on the UF team -- makes him a highlight-reel threat anytime he’s on the court.
And therein lies the issue with Prather.
Getting him on the court.
More specifically, keeping him there.
“Every time he’s kind of gotten back, something has happened,” Gators coach Billy Donovan said.
Two concussions cost Prather the first five games after a promising preseason. Then, just as he was kicking the rust from those wildly athletic limbs, a high-ankle sprain at LSU sidelined him again. All told, Prather missed 25 practices and 10 games.
Now a month since the ankle roll, Prather is healthy again and putting his stamp on the Florida squad in the absence of his classmate/buddy Will Yeguete, as the seventh-ranked Gators (20-3, 10-1) head back on the road this weekend with a visit to Auburn (9-15, 3-8) Saturday at 1:30 (SEC Network).
When Prather is bouncing about in the press, grabbing rebounds, drawing charges (he took three against UK) and skying toward the rim, the Gators are a different team.
Deeper one, too.
“It’s so exciting to see him do what he’s doing,” Yeguete said. “That’s Casey. He can bring so much energy and fire to the court. He’s making shots, he’s taking charges, taking care of the ball, and above all else just playing with confidence.”
The last two games have flashed the Prather the Gators envisioned when he signed out of Jackson (Tenn.) Northside High. The UF coaches didn’t expect him to slash and fly over the Southeastern Conference -- at Northside, he scored more than 2,000 points, averaged more than 29 as a senior and once went for 52 in a game -- but they knew in the Florida up-tempo system he could impact the game on both ends.
The way he did to make Dick Vitale gush Tuesday night.
“He’s worked so hard to get to this point,” stepfather Jeffrey Reid said from Tennessee earlier this week. “Finally, hopefully, he’s going to be injury free and reap the benefits. We were elated for him during the Kentucky game. Maybe he’s about to hit his stride.”
For the first time in his career, Prather has put together back-to-back double-digit scoring games, tallying 12 points last Saturday in a win against Mississippi State, then another 12 against the defending NCAA champs. In those two games, he combined to hit 11 of 17 shots, but more importantly provided a huge jolt of off the bench in taking on the role he inherited via a battlefield promotion following Yeguete’s regular season-ending knee surgery last week.
“Casey was great,” senior guard Mike Rosario said. “That’s what he can do. That’s what we need him to do.”
The second half of that quote bears breaking down.
He can do it.
The Gators need it.
Prather’s next developmental step is establishing a consistency on the floor. Imagine a Florida team in March, with Yeguete back in his role as first frontcourt reserve off the bench, plus Prather -- from the post or perimeter -- being the active and athletic force he’s been the last two games.
“That’s my goal now: to stay consistent, stay focused, stay determined,” Prather said.
The key to all that, of course: stay healthy. That would seem like a given with any player, but it especially rings true with Prather because each time he’s gotten into the UF flow and the game has begun to slow down for him, some malady has reared to slow him down.
The concussions in the preseason were nine days apart, with the second coming the day he was cleared to return to practice. When he eventually did return, Prather’ went for eight points against UCF and 11 in a rout of Marquette, making all seven of his field-goal attempts in the two games.
Prather was in a groove and averaging nearly 16 minutes per game when he rolled his ankle at LSU, a setback that cost him four games on the bench before finally returning for limited duty. He had logged a combined nine minutes over his first two games back when Yeguete was injured after playing just one minute at Arkansas.
Just like that, Prather was needed in a game the Gators trailed by double-digits after just three minutes. And he needed to produce.
Instead, Prather missed his only shot, plus both free throws, and finished the game with twice as many fouls (4) as turnovers and missed layups (2).
“I was really frustrated with myself,” Prather said.
The next day, Prather showed up on a players’ day off for extra treatment on the ankle, extra individual instruction and extra shots. He’s been doing the same since.
The results have been obvious.
“He made a commitment, all the way around,” Donovan said. “Maturity-wise, he understood we needed him back. If he didn’t, we were going to use DeVon Walker more.”
That very scenario was put to Prather the first practice after the Arkansas game. Walker, a seldom-used freshman, was placed with the blue team (the first rotation) and Prather with the orange (backups).
He got the message.
Prather has been a different player since. The Gators need him to be that player the rest of the season.
“I knew I had to do whatever needed to be done to help the team,” Prather said. “I’m more focused now.”
More confident, too, which definitely is rooted in his return to health.
“I’ve always told Casey that he brings a different element to a dynamic offense,” said Reid, who has worked with Prather’s basketball since coaching his stepson as a 7-year-old in church league. “He doesn’t need to reinvent his game because in the confines of that offense, with his athleticism, he can flourish. Now that he’s doing that, you can see his confidence.”
Against Kentucky, everybody saw it.
Cauley-Stein saw it up close.
“When he plays like that, it’s fun to watch,” Wilbekin said. “With Will out, we’re missing some things, but Casey’s helped make up for it.”
If he continues that trend at Auburn, then Tuesday at Missouri and then on until Yeguete gets back, what a boost that would be for a team trying to win a conference championship.
“I think I just made my mind up to be ready, prepare myself better than ever before and not take anything for granted,” Prather said. “Seeing one my teammates and someone I’m really close to not being able to play, it just made me want to go out there and take advantage of the opportunity.”
GATORS GAME BOX
No. 7 Florida at Auburn
Tip-off: Saturday, 1:30 p.m. (Auburn Arena, Auburn, Ala.)
Records: Florida 20-3, 10-1 (SEC); Auburn 9-15, 3-8 (SEC)
TV: SEC Network (w/Clay Matvick and Joe Dean)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Need to know: After being home four of the last five games, the Gators are on the road for three of their next four. First up are the Tigers, who have lost eight of their last nine and currently are tied with Vanderbilt in the next-to-last spot in the Southeastern Conference standings. ... UF trails the all-time series 87-72, but the Gators are 17-4 against Auburn under Coach Billy Donovan with four straight wins and 14 in the last 15. ... The last meeting between the two teams at Auburn Arena was an absolute eyesore, as the Gators shot just 28 percent (19 percent from the 3-point line), but managed to score the game’s final eight points to win 45-40. The game marked the fewest points scored by UF during Donovan’s 17 seasons. ... The current Gators don’t figure to have that kind of difficulty scoring, though they’re last road outing -- the 80-69 loss at Arkansas and lone SEC defeat -- marked the low point of the season on both ends of the floor. UF shot just 29 percent in the first half and allowed the Razorbacks to hit 15 of their first 19 shots, including seven of nine 3-pointers, to fall behind by 23 points. ... UF leads the SEC in victory margin at plus-21.3 points, with Tuesday’s 17-point defeat of No. 25 Kentucky the second-smallest winning margin of the season. All 10 conference wins for Florida have been by 14 points or more. ... Only 3.4 points separate UF’s top scorer, senior guard Kenny Boynton (12.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg), and its No. 5 scorer, junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin (9.5 ppg, 5.2 apg). ... Junior center Patric Young (10.8 ppg, 6.8 rpg) posted his sixth double-double of the season against Kentucky, scoring 11 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He also blocked four shots. After going 5-for-7 from the floor against the Wildcats, Young is shooting 65 percent in SEC play. ... Auburn is led by guard Frankie Sullivan (15.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and 6-10 center Rob Chubb (9.1 ppg, 7.3), who is a very physical player whose aggression will challenge an opponent’s patience. Point guard Josh Wallace (3.8 apg) has the third-best assist-turnover ratio in the league (plus-2.5). ... The Tigers have some bad losses (Winthrop and DePaul), but also defeated Florida State and SEC rival Alabama (holding the Crimson Tide to just 37 points), and lost by just two points at Illinois, which upset No. 1 Indiana last week.