If Casey Prather goes off for 18 points tonight in Tuscaloosa – entirely possible since he’s averaging a team-high 17.3 per game – he will have scored more points in 16 games this season than he did in 90 previous games in a Florida basketball uniform. He’s gone from the last guy on the bench as a freshman to a shocking contributor in the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore to an excellent sixth man as a junior to a prominent name on the John Wooden Award midseason watch list as a senior.
Although it seems like a remarkable transition, Florida coach Billy Donovan says there is a rather simple explanation for the Parther’s emergence as a legitimate go-to scorer.
“I think he’s kind of played to his identity and that’s kind of helped him, I think, evolve into who we thought he could be when we recruited him here,” Donovan said Tuesday afternoon before his 6th-ranked Gators (15-2, 4-0 SEC) practiced for tonight’s Southeastern Conference encounter with Alabama (8-9, 2-2 SEC) at Coleman Coliseum (7 p.m., ESPN2). “And I think the other piece of it too was when you know you’re going to play, you know you’re going to be in that rotation, that also relieves a lot of pressure, too.”
What Prather has done as a senior is play a similar game to the one that made him a national recruit out of Jackson, Tennessee. After a superb AAU campaign after his junior year, Prather averaged 29 points and 13 rebounds per game for North Side High School. He rarely took jump shots in those days, but scored practically at will slashing to the rim where he was a devastating finisher.
When he came to Florida, Donovan says Prather shifted his focus from slasher to jump shooter.
“I think so much earlier in his career he was trying to be somebody he was not,” Donovan said. “It’s amazing to me with young players, a lot of times they have a tendency to focus on their weaknesses. And Casey was a guy that I think everyone told him with his athleticism and his speed and his quickness and the way he can jump and finish in transition that if he can really prove that he can be a deep long-range jump shooter, that he’s got a chance to play in the NBA.
“So inevitably that became the focus for him early in his career, you know, shooting the basketball, shooting the basketball, and it was probably the fifth or sixth thing he did best in his game. There were a lot of other things that he did so much better than shoot the basketball.”
His game started coming around as a junior when he came off the bench to average 6.2 points per game. He was at his best in press situations where his length and athleticism made him a fearsome open court defender and allowed him to score in transition.
Finally, a starter as a senior, Prather has gotten back to his North Side roots. Once again he’s the slasher who gets to the rim, finishes and draws plenty of fouls. He has scored in double figures all 15 of the games in which he’s played including 21 last Saturday against Auburn, his first game back after missing two with a bone bruise in his knee. Prather is hitting 63.6% of his shots from the field and only three have come from the 3-point line. He’s so effective around the rim that he’s gotten to the foul line a team-leading 93 times (made 66 for 71%)
For Prather, it’s a case of being comfortable in his own skin.
“I think he knows who he is,” Donovan said. “I think he’s playing to his identity. I think so much earlier in his career he was trying to be somebody he was not.”
For the Gators to come away with a win in Tuscaloosa tonight, they’ll have to do a good job of at least controlling Alabama point guard Trevor Releford, who, like Prather, is making a strong case for SEC Player of the Year. Releford is seventh in the league in scoring (18.3), seventh in field goal percentage (50.3), fifth in 3-point shooting (39.6%), second in steals (2.4 per game) and second in free throw shooting (91.7%).
He certainly has Billy Donovan’s attention.
“He’s as good of a guard in the country, in my opinion, when he gets in the lane at finishing around the basket,” Donovan said. “He gets assists, he knows how to play, he’s experienced, he’s logged a lot of minutes and he’s clearly one of the better point guards in our league.”
What Releford does best is make every one of his teammates a better player. While he certainly can take the scoring load on his shoulders, he also makes sure he gets every one of his teammates involved. Donovan knows that when Releford is having a good game, Alabama is not an easy team to defend.
“The most difficult part for him is when he is scoring and distributing, they become a very difficult team to defend,” Donovan said. “So certainly I think like most teams it stops and starts with him as a point guard. But if you give him so much attention and leave other guys just wide open or free, those others players are good enough players to make plays as well.”
GAME NOTES: Alabama is 8-2 this season at Coleman Coliseum but 0-4 on the road and 0-3 on neutral courts … Alabama holds an all-time 73-62 edge against the Gators, but Florida is 19-5 since Billy Donovan became head coach … Donovan is 12-2 against former assistant coaches, 6-0 against Alabama coach Anthony Grant, who was a Florida assistant from 1996-2006 … The Gators have held 12 of their 17 opponents to 61 or fewer points … Prather is hitting 63.6% from the field, best in the SEC and fourth nationally … Florida has won nine straight games … Patric Young has scored double figures in six consecutive games.
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
FLORIDA (15-2, 4-0 SEC): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SO)
ALABAMA (8-9, 2-2 SEC): Shannon Hale (6-8, 220, FR); Carl Engstrom (7-1, 265, JR); Trevor Releford (6-0, 190, SR); Levi Randolph (6-5, 205, JR); Retin Obasahon (6-1, 205, RSO)