Back in November when the Gators were still trying to sort things out because of suspensions and injuries, Casey Prather couldn’t foresee a 23-game winning streak, an 18-0 run through the Southeastern Conference or a #1 ranking. Following that loss to Wisconsin when Florida (29-2) was trying to make do with six scholarship players, Kentucky was supposed to be the team to beat and Florida was looking like a team that would have to struggle because of all the adversity.
What no one – even Prather – could have predicted was that the adversity would act like a high powered fertilizer and grow the Gators into the best team in the country or that Kentucky would qualify as perhaps the most over-hyped team in recent college basketball history.
“It’s very hard to envision this – winning the SEC championship the way we did, going undefeated in the league,” Prather said Tuesday when it was announced that he had been selected first team All-SEC by the league’s coaches. “So, if someone had told me that, I probably wouldn’t have believed them, but I’m just happy we got it done.”
The Gators got it done without a true superstar, without a full roster until January or a recruiting class proclaimed as “the best in history.” From a talent perspective, there are other teams in the SEC whose rosters are more impressive on paper.
On the floor, where games are actually played, Florida is the best team in the nation. The Gators have four senior starters – Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young and Will Yeguete – and a roster made up of players comfortable and familiar with their roles. Defensively, the Gators swarm opponents and force them into mistakes. Offensively, if you try to take out one player, someone else will beat you because the team is that unselfish.
It’s definitely not all about the talent.
“I’m not sure about the talent,” Prather said. “All I know is that we come together as a team and do what we need to do each and every night, as far as little things, hustle plays, rebounding. So it’s a collective effort between us and not just like individuals.”
From an individual standpoint, this was the year when everything clicked for Prather, who has scored more points this season (422) than he did his first three seasons combined at UF. He is Florida’s leading scorer at 14.6 points per game even though he has battled lingering ankle problems and a sore knee. He has scored in double figures 21 of the 27 games in which he has played, plus contributed 5.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. He averages a steal a game and has blocked 15 shots.
That Prather has played like an All-SEC player since game one says a lot for how he has developed under Billy Donovan, but it also says plenty about patience and perseverance. There were times in those first two seasons at Florida – he scored 38 points as a freshman and 57 as a sophomore – when transferring entered his mind.
If not for Scottie Wilbekin, who was named SEC Player of the Year Tuesday, Prather might have gone back home to Tennessee to sort out his basketball future and figure out where to transfer. Wilbekin talked to Prather every day and that made the difference.
“We talked like every game, after ever game,” Prather said. “He helped me keep a level head, kept me hungry. He pretty much helped me stay with it.”
Prather had a 14-point game in the NCAA Tournament at the end of his sophomore year, averaged 6.2 off the bench in an injury-marred junior year and then broke out as a senior.
So what does that say about him?
“That I’m determined, I guess,” Prather said. “Willing. That I don’t let obstacles bring me down. I try to overcome them any way I can.”
The reward for perseverance was an improbable 18-0 run through the SEC in the regular season that culminated in an 84-65 win over that same Kentucky team that everybody was predicting to win the national championship back in November when the Gators were trying to patch lineups together against a demanding schedule.
Following the win over Kentucky, Prather wore the nets on his head like a hat and then later transferred it around his neck. It sits on the dresser in his dorm room – “I might keep it as my necklace,” Prather says – and serves as a nice reminder of a season that still has goals to reach. The Gators open play in the SEC Tournament Friday in Atlanta against the winner of Thursday’s Missouri-Texas A&M game and then there is the NCAA Tournament. A six-game win streak in the NCAA Tournament will result in a national championship, a fitting way to end a career that began with plenty of adversity, just like Florida’s season back in November.