Casey Prather’s personal evolution from mop-up minutes specialist to go-to guy is a testament to patience and knowing and understanding when the time is right. The same guy who scored a combined 95 points in his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Florida is now the guy the Gators depend on at crunch time. It is an improvement that caught even Billy Donovan by surprise.
“I think the one thing you realize when you’re coaching is that guys have a tendency to change and get better and improve,” Donovan said Thursday before the Gators started practice for their Saturday matchup with Fresno State (6-5) of the Mountain West Conference at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, the second game of the annual Orange Bowl Classic. “I would say that it’s a little bit unusual to see the jump that he’s made from his junior to his senior year.”
It is not unusual for the lights to go on for a player following the freshman or sophomore seasons, but Prather was only a 6.2 points per game contributor as a junior. He has tripled his scoring this season, averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game that ranks him sixth in the Southeastern Conference.
Some of the improvement has to do with good health. Prather had a high ankle sprain as a sophomore and a concussion and another ankle sprain last year but he hasn’t missed a practice or a game this year because of injury.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the jump has to do with Prather understanding what his team needs and adapting to the situation.
“I think in fairness to him, Casey has always been a really good teammate and an unselfish guy,” Donovan said. “When you look at our team the last couple of years with (Kenny) Boynton, with (Mike) Rosario, with Erving Walker, Brad Beal, Scottie Wilbekin, Erik Murphy and Patric Young, he was never really in a position offensively to flourish like that. It’s not to say that those guys held him back, but it really wasn’t his role.”
The role has expanded this season. Prather is the ultimate slasher who thrives around the basket where it seems he either scores or gets fouled so he can go to the line for free throws. He was a liability at the line his sophomore and junior seasons when he shot a combined 32-64. He has already surpassed that total this year – 56-74 (75.7%) – when he has become Mr. Clutch from the line in the final minutes. He leads the Gators in both free throw attempts and made free throws.
In Florida’s last two games – a 67-61 win over Kansas and Tuesday night’s 77-75 win over Memphis – Prather is 16-18 from the line. He was 10-12 against Kansas and 6-6 against Memphis including 4-4 in the final 1:20.
“I think any time you’ve got a guy who gets fouled like he does you want to shoot a high percentage because every time you get fouled and go to the free throw line there are always points to be had and if you don’t make those free throws it’s almost a wasted possession so to speak,” Donovan said.
KASEY HILL’S SECOND HALF VS. MEMPHIS
After a difficult first half against Memphis, freshman point guard Kasey Hill played extremely well in the second half, particularly down the stretch when he got five points during a critical run in which the Gators expanded their lead to eight points. Donovan wasn’t happy with the way Hill played the first half but saw a totally different player on the floor in the second half.
He did not play with the intensity level,” Donovan said. “He got caught too deep in the lane several times, got shots blocked. Defensively, he was in poor position and really struggled. Coming out of the half, I give him a lot of credit because he really responded because he wasn’t playing great. Then he got in there in the second half and did a lot of good things to help our team and had a lot to do with us going on a run there when the score was close. We got up by eight with a great drive in the open floor where he finished with his left hand, then he knocked down a three-point shot. He made some extra passes, made some good decisions and did a lot of good things out there in the second half.”
Hill missed four games with a high ankle sprain and Donovan said that Hill is still not playing at 100%.
In fairness to him, he’s still bothered,” Donovan said. He tweaked the other ankle last week. He’s probably, on the high ankle sprain, he’s probably 85 or 90 percent. I still think he’s hobbled some. I don’t think he’s, I think he’s healed enough that he’s going to be explosive and fast in the open court, but I don’t know if he’s got that confidence level in his foot like he needs to get back to. And how long that’s going to take, I don’t know.”
HOW CHRIS WALKER IS HELPING WITH PRACTICE
McDonald’s All-American Chris Walker won’t play against Fresno State and might not play before January. Although he’s being force fed both the offense and defense and clearly has a way to go before he’ll be a contributor in games, Walker is already making a different in practice if for no other reason allowing the Gators to go full court, 5-on-5 in practice.
It’s the first time we’ve probably been a full complement of players, to where we got nine or 10 guys. For the most part that wasn’t the case in October when we first started. We’ve been able to weather that a little bit and now hopefully get a full complement of guys back.”
Being able to do full-court scrimmages, particularly during the holidays when the Gators can do two-a-day practices will be a big help.
There was probably not enough depth and competitiveness when we tried to go 5-on-5,” Donovan said. “So a lot of our stuff earlier in the year was done 3-on-3, 4-on-4. We really weren’t very often in 5-on-5 situations. And this will give us the opportunity to be able to do that.”
FRESNO SCOUTING REPORT
Fresno State is a high-volume 3-point shooting team that has taken 125 more shots from behind the arc than the Gators. Florida is 54-141 from the 3-point line, a very respectable 38.3%. Fresno State, on the other hand, is 81-236 (34.3%) and the Bulldogs will often have five shooters on the floor at the same time.
This team is going to take more three-point shots that anybody we’ve faced this year,” Donovan said. “They’ll shoot it at certain times with five people on the floor. They’re really good off the dribble with talented offensive players. They can get it by themselves. One of the more difficult things to guard against is when you’ve got a player that’s particularly gifted offensively and they’ve got the ball in their hands, they can drive it or put it down and take threes. They’ve got several guys that can do that.”
Leading scorers Marvelle Harris (17.9) and Cezar Guerrero (14.4) both launch the 3-ball frequently. Harris is 20-54 (37%) from behind the arc this season while Guerrero is 21-59 (35.6%).
Defensively, Fresno will change defenses frequently, showing a lot of zone (mostly 2-3 or 1-2-2 trap) but occasionally going man-to-man.