Friday March 7, 2014Senior Day: Gator Nation Bids Home Farewell to Class for the Ages
Seniors left to right: Will Yeguete, Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young.
Seniors left to right: Will Yeguete, Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They laughed, all four of them, when asked to think back to that moment in time when one of them first dared to speak about the possibilities.
The 2010-11 University of Florida freshmen class went out on the town their first night together. Their paths had crossed in high school and the AAU circuit, but now they were at their destination and as they walked down the street with a lifetime of college basketball in front of them, it was Patric Young who stopped the group, called an impromptu huddle right there on the sidewalk, and made his proclamation.
“Guys, we gotta stick together. If we do, I’m telling you, we’re gonna be really, really good.”
Those exact words. With authority.
“It was like he was our dad or something,” Scottie Wilbekin said.
“And he was being extra loud, too,” Will Yeguete added. “It was funny.”
“All I was thinking about was going to Checkers, man,” Casey Prather recalled. “I was starving.”
On Thursday, Young looked and listened as his three best friends recounted that warm Summer-B night back in 2010. He flashed one of those priceless Patric smiles.
“OK, OK,” Young said, before getting the last word. “But guess what -- we are really, really good.”
Yes, they are.
Lord knows how many times their collective ears have heard Billy Donovan utter the phrase, “Trust the process,” over the last four years. But if anyone could speak to the UF coach’s method of going to work -- specifically, its ebbs and flows, and, ultimately, the rewards that can come with an all-in buy-in -- it’s the four UF seniors who will play their final home game Saturday at noon at the O’Connell Center.
ESPN ranked UF’s signing class of 2010 as the ninth-best in nation, but only two of its members, Young and Prather, rated top-100 status. The third-best prospect was actually Cody Larson, a center/forward from South Dakota who left UF after the 2012 season. Wilbekin was the No. 53 point guard in the nation; Yeguete the 143rd best power forward.
As freshmen, they logged their time on the orange scout team at practice, doing their best to challenge Chandler Parsons and his crew. They struggled to score.
In games, they came off the bench, some with more significant roles than others, and did their part to help the Gators win a Southeastern Conference title. In UF’s overtime loss to Butler in the NCAA South Region final, the quartet combined for just 39 of the team’s 225 minutes. Prather did not play.
It was early in “the process.”
Fast forward three years. Now as seniors they’re all starting and the Gators (28-2, 17-0) are ranked No. 1 in the nation heading into Saturday’s high-noon regular-season finale against No. 25 Kentucky (22-8, 12-5) at the sold-out O’Dome, where they’ll try to become the first team in SEC history to post a perfect record against an 18-game league schedule.
A UF victory would extend the school-record winning streak to 23 games, the home streak to 32 games and be the 113th for this remarkable and beloved foursome that has come to define what the college athletic experience is supposed to be about.
“You never know what you have until you start coaching them,” Donovan said. “Like with mental toughness. They all had a capacity for it coming in, but as they’ve gotten older that toughness has gotten better while they’ve grown through their experiences. And these guys have experienced some stuff together.”
Now, come what may, it’s all winding down.
How soon it ends will be up to them and their teammates.
“I can’t begin to explain what it’s been like to play with these guys,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier said. “They’ve been through it, been in every fight, had their hearts broken and basically seen it all. Whenever I struggle, those guys pull me aside and say, ‘It’s not the end of the world. You will pull through,’ and then they help pull me through. It’s been a blessing and a privilege to be with each of them.”
An awareness of the ticking clock has hit them.
“We were stretching today, with all of us out in front [leading the team],” Young said, “and I was just thinking that this time next year, we’ll all be stretching somewhere else.”
“Yeah,” Yeguete nodded. “Probably in the back of a line.”
For now, they’re front and center of the Gator Nation, with the goal to remain there for another month.
But for two hours Saturday, the Rowdy Reptiles and everything orange and blue get to say thank you.
Truthful. Athletic. Real. Fighter. Smooth. Funny. Trustworthy. Resilient.
Those were among the adjectives teammates used to describe Casey Prather.
“I’ve got one, but it’s two words -- big brother,” Wilbekin said. “Throughout my four years here, I’ve told him a lot of things. I could always go to him when I had to talk.”
Prather was there when a teammate needed a friend, but the 6-foot-6 forward and high-flying athlete wasn’t on the floor very much his first couple years. He lacked confidence and it manifested itself in mistakes (some physical, others mental) on the floor.
Then came that play in the SEC Tournament his sophomore year when Prather practically dunked Kentucky’s 6-10 forward Kyle Wiltjer through the basket (albeit in a loss) when something seemingly clicked.
The next game out, a first-round NCAA game against Virginia, Prather scored a career-high 14 points on 6-for-7 shooting. That success carried over to his junior season, but two concussions and a sprained ankle slowed his progress.
After three years, Prather’s career average was 3.1 points per game.
“I stayed the course,” he said. “I put in the work and knew it would eventually show.”
Prather erupted for 28 points in the first game of his senior season and a tone was set. He now leads the Gators in scoring at 14.5 points, to go with 5.3 rebounds per game, and tops the SEC in field-goal percentage at 61.8.
His skills in the open floor were never a question, but Prather’s ability to slash and attack the basket this season in the halfcourt have provided the Gators with an off-the-bounce element they desperately needed.
“We knew what he was capable of,” Young said. “We always knew.”
Where would the Gators be without him?
“The lowest moment was my early years” said Prather, who briefly considered transferring. “Now, my highest moment is playing with this team ... and just winning.”
Fierce. Evolved. Young. Competitive. Warrior. Mature. Tough. Bulldog.
“How ‘bout ‘super hero?’ ” asked sophomore DeVon Walker.
Or how ‘bout “Southeastern Conference Player of the Year?”
OK, so that’s six words, but it’s very likely a title that will go alongside Wilbekin, the point guard, when the league announces its postseason awards in the coming weeks.
Just for a moment, try to imagine the 2013-14 Gators had Wilbekin, when told by Donovan last June that he was being suspended for a second time in seven months for violating team rules, opted to leave school rather than agree to his coach’s ironman list of demands for reinstatement.
In hitting rock bottom, Wilbekin realized what he almost lost, then merged his desire to change personally with a love for the Florida program.
From there, he willed himself back to the team.
“It wasn’t fun, but I’ll be the first one to say it was worth it,” said Wilbekin, who graduated from The Rock School in Gainesville a year early to join the Gators when they needed to sign a point guard. “I’m a better person for it, and I think everybody else here would say the same thing.”
Wilbekin missed the season’s first five games as part of his suspension, but seized the moment with a huge game at both ends in a win over Kansas. Then came the high bank shot with two seconds left to force overtime in a win at Arkansas; his clutch jumper against the shot clock at Auburn; and key free throws (like at Tennessee and Kentucky) to close out many a game during this insane winning streak.
“There’s nobody I’d rather have with the ball in his hands late in a game than Scottie,” sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith said. “He’s the heart of our team. Has been all year.”
Wilbekin is second on the team in scoring at 13.5 points per game, leads the team in assists, and over his four seasons remained one of the best on-ball defenders in the country.
And the unquestioned leader of its No. 1 team.
Caring. Happy. Unselfish. Reliable. Unsung. French. Listener. Dirtywork. Happy.
When the final tallies are in, Yeguete will have the fewest points of any of his classmates by a couple hundred, at least.
But teams that have players like Yeguete are teams that win championships.
“He doesn’t get the attention of the other guys,” freshman point guard Kasey Hill said of the Frenchman by way of Melbourne Air Academy. “But with what we do and the way we want to play, we go as Will goes.”
A broken foot cost Yeguete the last month of his sophomore year, including that 2012 run to the Elite Eight. The Gators could have used his defense against Chane Behanan in the West Regional loss to Louisville. In fact, Yeguete was dressed out on the UF bench that day and would have played the next week had the team reached the Final Four.
Then came knee surgery his junior year. Two of them, actually.
The first was a patchwork job. Doctors recommended micro-fracture surgery, but Yeguete opted for an arthroscopic procedure that would get him back on the floor to be with his teammates for the NCAA run he missed the year before.
The micro-fracture procedure and long, dark road of rehab came after the season.
Now a senior, he’s been close to 100 percent virtually the entire SEC slate. His 5.2 points and 5.2 rebounds don’t really do justice to what the 6-8 Yeguete does with help defense, in the press and his general understanding of what the Gators are trying to do.
But Rowdy Reptiles of his era will never forget the Mohawk.
Or the smile.
“I just think the guy takes pleasure in playing the game and affecting what’s going on out on the court,” assistant coach John Pelphrey said. “The stat sheet doesn’t reveal his importance, but we still want Will Yeguete for 25 minutes a night.”
Beast. Personable. Grinning. Mentor. Loyal. Enormous. Friend. Servant.
That last word was another one courtesy of Walker.
“He serves and by that I mean he’s willing to do whatever it takes to help everybody else,” Walker said. “He’s dedicated to what we’re doing here; a true servant to the program.”
Some would take it a step further and say Young is a servant to life.
A devout Christian, exemplary student and gregarious (and sculpted) big man, Young will leave UF as one of the most popular athletes in school history and the only basketball player ever crowned three-time SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year.
He was the lone McDonald’s All-American of his class and actually was projected as a lottery pick in the NBA Draft had the 6-9, 250-pounder chosen to leave after a freshman season when he averaged just 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds.
But Young never viewed college (or college basketball) as a way station to the NBA. He came to UF for the college experience and along the way took nothing for granted in living it to the fullest.
The goal of making his final season truly special began with his approach to the everyday rigors of the game.
“I knew this was my last chance to do something great here” Young said. “I just really wanted to give it my best shot by putting in the work during the offseason. I’ve been focused on doing whatever I can to be more connected to my teammates, being a better teammate and trying to improve myself mentally for the ups and downs that come during the season and focus in on working harder each day.”
Young’s numbers have not changed much the last three years -- his 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game are nearly identical to the 10.2 and 6.4 of sophomore year -- but what Young does every game, every possession in anchoring UF’s league-leading defense in the post cannot not be overemphasized relative to the success of this team.
Nor can what he’s meant in the off-court company of his teammates or in the way he’s carried himself on campus.
So Saturday should be special.
“To me, these four guys are the epitome of what the Gator Nation wants of its athletes,” UF basketball trainer David “Duke” Werner said. “They’re great guys. They love the University of Florida. They give it their all on the floor and represent the school in a first-class manner out in the community. They’re not like so many of what you could call ‘the modern-day athlete.’ I’m so proud of these guys. Everybody should be.”
All four seniors will be surrounded by family members or friends, but above all they’ll be alongside each other in an arena that adores them one last time.
Don’t think the finality of it all hasn’t come crashing down on them this week.
“Thought about it a lot,” Young said.
“No,” Prather declined. “I don’t want to talk about.”
“I’m excited to go out there and play one more time with these guys,” Yeguete said. “But honestly, I’m mostly excited for what’s next.”
Then came this.
“I wonder how it feels to cry before a game?” Wilbekin asked. “But if I do, I won’t be embarrassed by it.”
Nor should he be.
About 12,000 others will be crying, too.
GATORS HOOP SCOOP
No. 1 Florida vs No. 25 Kentucky
When: Saturday, noon
Where: O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Fla.
Records: Florida 28-2 (17-0); Kentucky 22-8 (12-5)
TV: CBS (Tom McCarthy and Jim Spanarkel)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise)
Game notes: Florida notes; Kentucky notes
History: Kentucky holds a dominant 94-35 edge in the series (like it does over everybody in the Southeastern Conference), but the Gators are 15-24 against the Wildcats under Coach Billy Donovan, including a 10-7 record at home. UF has won two of the last three, including the 69-59 victory Feb. 15 at Rupp Arena that marked just the ninth win for the program in Lexington. In that game, the Gators got 24 points from forward Casey Prather and a career-high 23 points from guard Scottie Wilbekin and a defense that completely throttled the Cats in the final minutes.
Pre-game storyline: UF will say goodbye to its stellar four-member senior class of Wilbekin, Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young. The pre-game ceremony figures to be an emotional affair, after which the Gators must play the SEC’s most talented team for a place in history. No SEC team has ever completed an 18-game conference season undefeated -- Kentucky (three times), Vanderbilt and LSU (once each) went 17-1 -- and Florida, having already wrapped up its second straight regular-season league title, has a chance to be the first. That would be a significant and fitting achievement for a senior group that has won 112 games since arriving in 2010-11. Kentucky, meanwhile, has lost two of three, including an embarrassing defeat last week at last-place South Carolina. The Wildcats would like nothing better than to ruin Florida’s chase for perfection with a win that would help jack an NCAA Tournament resume that includes just one win over a ranked opponent (Louisville).
About the Gators: They remain the league’s best in scoring defense (58.2 ppg) and best in points per possession (.898) following two stifling efforts in a home win over LSU, where the league’s highest-scoring team (77 ppg) was held to 61 points, and Tuesday at South Carolina, which managed just 46 points and scored only five field goals in the second half. ... UF only rates eighth in the SEC in scoring (71.1 ppg), but has hit the 70-point mark in four of its last five games after scoring in the 60s in eight of nine. ... Sophomore off-guard Michael Frazier II (13.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg) had a run of inconsistency from the 3-point in the middle of the SEC season, but has gone 22-for-41 from the arc (53.6 percent) over his past four games, including his record-setting 11 makes at South Carolina. ... Prather (14.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) continues to lead the SEC in field-goal percentage at 61.3, which also rates first in the nation among players from so-called BCS conferences. ... Look for Wilbekin, the favorite to be named 2014 SEC Player of the Year next week, to bounce back from arguably his worst offensive game of the season. Against Carolina, he went 1-for-7 from the floor, 0-for-6 from 3-point range, with four assists and three turnovers. Wilbekin, though, was sensational on defense -- no surprise there -- in holding USC guard and leading scorer Brenton Williams (14.8 ppg) to just 7 points.
About the Wildcats: After losing back-to-back games (home against Arkansas, then on the road at South Carolina), UK righted itself Tuesday with a win over Alabama at Rupp and now look to torpedo UF’s chance at SEC history. ... Kentucky ranks third in the SEC in scoring (76.7 ppg), but managed just 55 points in defeating the Crimson Tide, as the Wildcats offense looked out of sync and minus much movement. .. UK leads the league in virtually every rebounding category (including 41.7 per game overall and 15.1 on offensive), plus free throws made (20.8 pg) and 3-point defense (.305). ... The Wildcats have committed to starting their five freshmen, who collectively made up what a consensus of recruiting analysts declared the greatest signing class in college basketball history. ... UK is led by power forward Julius Randle (15.4 ppg, 10.5 rpg), who can do his damage by driving from the high post or camping out beneath the basket and getting feeds on the block. The 6-9, 250-pound Randle had a double-double in the first meeting, but was held without a field goal for the final 22 minutes. ... Guard James Young (14.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg) is just streaky enough from the 3-point line (even at 32.8 percent) that he must be honored out there. ... The Harrison twins, Aaron (13.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and Andrew (10.9 ppg, 3.5 apg), have yet to meet the expectations that were placed on them coming into the season. ... Backup 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein (7.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 2.9 bpg) is one guy who could give the Gators some problems in the event of foul trouble for UF. He also is a capable rim-protector in the halfcourt.
* .000 - 3-point percentage of Gators not named Frazier against South Carolina. His teammates combined to go 0-for-13. That needs to be an anomaly.
* .315 - Kentucky’s winning percentage in going 6-13 all-time vs. No. 1 teams. The Wildcats last beat a No. 1 in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, toppling Ohio State in the Round of 16.
* .782 - Florida’s combined record in five instances as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, based on an 18-5 record that includes a 3-0 mark this season.
* 7 - Consecutive games that Kentucky has failed to record more assists than turnovers. During that run, the Wildcats are 4-3 with 65 assists and 91 turnovers.
* 17 - Steals by the Gators in their win at South Carolina, far and away a season high. The next-best was 11 (against Arkansas-Little Rock and at Auburn).
* 57.9 - UF’s combined free-throw percentage the previous three games. That comes after a really good six-game run when the Gators hit 73 percent.
Watch for it: Tears. Kentucky will try to seize on all the distractions (and emotions) of UF’s big day and take a big swing at the home team early. The Gators, though, know how to fight when they’re in one. Doubt much would change in that situation one this Senior Day of days.