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Wednesday January 22, 2014A Free Mind: Casey Prather's Incredible Transition

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. -- The last time the Florida Gators came to Coleman Coliseum they were significantly undermanned.

Will Yeguete had a concussion and Mike Rosario a hip pointer. Neither made the trip. The Gators were on a two-game losing streak after being drummed by 20 Kentucky and humbled at home by Tennessee. UF had just six regulars for its normal eight-man rotation available for a date at Alabama, so somebody on the bench had to step up.

Coach Billy Donovan called out talented sophomore Casey Prather, who at the time was averaging 1.7 points and a couple rebounds in limited minutes. The message to him was simple.

We need you.

Prather entered the game at the 12:24 mark of the first half. About 90 seconds later, he drove the lane under duress and kicked a pass to his left that almost hit Tide coach Anthony Grant on its way to landing three rows into the bleachers. Out he came. Donovan sent Prather back on the floor late in the first half to protect starting forward Erik Murphy from picking up a third foul. No fouls, Donovan ordered.

Guess who fouled.

That was it. Prather was done for the night: three minutes, no shots, no rebounds, one turnover and a foul. The Gators, basically with six guys, still went on to win the game. 

On Tuesday, as UF wrapped up practice, Prather was asked to reflect back on that night.

He shrugged.

“I don’t really remember too much about it. I know there were some games that year when I played bad, but I’ve kind of let that all go,” Prather said. “It hasn’t been easy [to move on], but I’ve got an opportunity now. Why dwell on the past when you can capitalize on the moment?”

Therein lies the key to the jump in Prather’s productivity; a leap so pronounced that it rivals any of his high-flying moves on the floor. The 6-foot-6, 215-pound senior forward has wiped away any mental baggage that might have been holding him back and transitioned into one of the most lethal players in the Southeastern Conference.

Thursday night, Prather will be back at Coleman as the No. 6 Gators (15-2, 4-0) put their nine-game winning streak and sole possession of first place in the league on the line against the Crimson Tide (8-9, 2-2). This version of Prather won’t be the tentative and shaken one that showed up last time. This one leads Florida in scoring at 17.3 per game, tops the SEC in field-goal percentage at .636 (that’s fourth in the nation) and makes the Gators all the more dangerous with his off-the-bounce ability to slash, spin and finish at the rim. 

“He’s playing with a clear head,” Donovan said. “He knows who he is and is playing to his identity.”

How’s this for context? If Prather hits his 17-point average against the Tide that will put him at 276 points this season. He totaled 276 in his first three years combined.

“I never really thought about how many points I could score this year or that year or any year,” said Prather, who averaged 6.2 points last season while dealing with a couple of concussions, an ankle sprain and facial laceration, all of which impeded his ability to stay on the court. “But I always felt I was capable of some really good things.”

After missing two games with a bruised bone on his right knee, Prather returned to action Saturday at Auburn, came off the bench and promptly poured in a team-high 21 points, hitting his first six shots. 

“He started back right where he left off,” senior forward Will Yeguete. “I guess he was feeling pretty good.”

With nearly five days since UF’s last game, he should feel even better for the return trip to the Yellowhammer State.

Donovan certainly likes what he’s seen to date. Specifically, the growth in Prather, both the player and the person.

When Prather arrived at UF his reputation as a superior athlete proceeded him. A lot of people around the Jackson, Tenn., product (none of them Florida coaches) told Prather that he already had all the tools to get to the NBA; all he needed was a long-range jumper.

“Shooting the basketball was probably the fifth or sixth thing he did best,” Donovan said.

Prather attempted just 39 shots as a freshman, but 15 were 3-point attempts. For his career, he’s just 30 percent out there, but this season he has attempted just three. His other 148 shots have been two-pointers, usually attacking the rim; and that doesn’t count when he’s been fouled and gone to the line, where he leads the Gators with 93 attempts (and he’s made 71 percent).

That’s his game. And it’s a really, really good one. A great one for this team.

He is the poster boy for the four-year player who works his way through a program -- not just the games, but the practices, individual instructions sessions, meetings and bonding sessions, plus the academic requirements -- and finally experiences a breakthrough.

That’s what Donovan calls “the process.” And Prather is being rewarded for time invested.

“It was just a matter of sticking to the process,” he said.

There’s that phrase again. Prather was told he cites the process as much as his coach.

He smiled.

“Well,” Prather said, “I believe in the process.”

No. 6 Florida at Alabama 

When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
Where: Coleman Coliseum, Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Records: Florida 15-2 (4-0); Alabama 8-9 (2-2)
TV: ESPN2 (w/Rece Davis and Bobby Knight)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise)
Game notes: Florida notes; Alabama notes


History: Alabama leads the all-time series 73-62, but during the Billy Donovan era Florida has taken a big bite out of what was once a monumental edge. Under Donovan, the Gators are 19-5 against the Crimson Tide, including seven straight wins. UF’s last loss to Bama came in the 2008 Southeastern Conference Tournament, while UF’s last win came in the ’13 SEC tourney at Nashville, where the Gators scored 15 straight in the second half to rally for 61-51 victory. Kenny Boynton led UF with 15 points, while Patric Young tossed in 13 and grabbed nine rebounds.

Pre-game storyline: The Gators are the lone unbeaten in the SEC, so this game is about maintaining their place atop the conference standings. The matchup once again pits Donovan against his former assistant, Anthony Grant, the two of whom worked together for 13 seasons on staffs at Marshall (1994-96) and Florida (’92-2006). Donovan’s teams are 6-0 against the Tide under Grant.

The players: PG Scottie Wilbekin (12.7 ppg, 3.9 apg) has hit huge, clutch shots in the closing seconds of both of UF’s two league road wins this season. He averaged 17 points on 42-percent shooting in those two games. ... Backup center/forward Dorian Finney-Smith (10.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg) never got on track at Auburn, thanks to two early fouls. UF’s No. 4 scorer and top rebounder was held to 7 points, 3 boards. The Gators are at their best, it seems, when Finney-Smith is a factor. ... Freshman point guard Kasey Hill (6.8 ppg, 3.1 apg) is shooting just 38.4 percent from the floor and has made just 6 of his last 23 field-goal attempts (26.1 percent). He is just 4-for-24 (that’s 16.7 percent) from the 3-point line.

The opponent: This game will only ratchet up the Crimson Tide’s strength of schedule, which began the week ranked No. 7 in the country. Out of conference, Alabama played Oklahoma, Duke and Drexel at neutral sites, Texas Tech, Wichita State and Xavier at home, plus South Florida and UCLA on the road. Unfortunately, they’re 1-7 in those games, with the seven losses by an average of 5.3 points, including a pair of two-point defeats and one in triple-overtime. ... Bama is 8-2 at home this season, including 2-0 in the SEC (with wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt). ... The Tide will go as guard Trevor Releford goes. He leads the team at 17.2 points per game, but the three-man backcourt also features Shannon Hale (13.3 ppg) and Retin Obasohan (10.3 ppg). ... Alabama ranks 10th in the league in rebounding with a dead-even 0.0 margin. None of its players average more than 4.0 rebounds per game in league play.

Key numbers:

* .266 - UF’s all-time winning percentage at Tuscaloosa, a mark of 17-47.

* .625 - UF’s winning percentage at Tuscaloosa under Donovan, a mark of 5-3.

* +6.9 - Florida’s average rebounding margin during its nine-game winning streak, though Kansas (minus-10) and Arkansas (minus-1) both beat the Gators on the boards, while Georgia matched them.

* 16 - Consecutive games sophomore guard Michael Frazier had gone hitting at least one 3-point shot before going scoreless at Auburn. His last goose egg was in the Elite Eight loss to Michigan at Arlington, Texas, last March 31. Frazier still leads the SEC in 3-point shooting at 46.3 percent.

* 72.4 - The Gators’ average points per game, which ranks just eighth in the SEC. That’s uncharacteristically middle-of-pack for a Donovan team, but Florida leads the league in scoring defense at 59.7 per game.

Watch for it: At Auburn, the Gators made it tough on themselves by allowing too much dribble-drive penetration by the guards. Alabama has the personnel in the backcourt to do the same thing, so you better believe -- after watching the Tigers get in the lane so easily -- that’s where the Crimson Tide's plan on offense will begin.


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