With just under four minutes remaining Friday night against Florida State, Casey Prather ran the floor like a gazelle, slipping almost unnoticed behind the Seminoles who were transitioning back to defense after a couple of free throws had cut Florida’s lead to 58-53. Scottie Wilbekin noticed, made eye contact and then lofted a two-hand chest pass rim high to Prather who didn’t even have to break stride. He simply elevated grabbed the pass and finished with a thundering two-hand slam.
Prather’s dunk was a spectacular exclamation point to a steady, consistent and almost quiet 19 points in the Gators’ 67-66 win. Prather has always been a high wire act, capable of using an almost 40-inch vertical leap to power home a highlight reel dunk, but it has taken three full years for the rest of his game to develop. He languished on the bench his first two years and it wasn’t until the Virginia game in the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore – a game where he got extended minutes out of necessity because of an injury to Will Yeguete – that anyone gave him much thought. Prather was a valuable contributor off the bench last season, particularly when Billy Donovan went to a press lineup, but there were no indications that this would be a breakout season.
Prather has scored in double figures all seven games, hitting for 28 once and 27 twice while leading the team in scoring at 19.1 per game. While playing as many as three positions every game, Prather is Florida’s second leading rebounder (5.7) and he’s gotten to the foul line 51 times.
Everyone seems to be surprised by Prather’s emergence as a prime time player. Everyone, that is, except Prather, who attributes the surge to added strength and aggressiveness.
“I’m a lot stronger than when I first came in,” Prather said Sunday morning before the 13th-ranked Gators (6-1) departed for Storrs, Connecticut, where they will take on 14th-ranked UConn (7-0) Monday (7 p.m., ESPN2). “I was like 180 and now I’m 210. I’m a lot stronger and that has helped my game a lot. I don’t know how much it translated into confidence. I just know it helped my game in terms of being more physical.”
Being stronger and more physical has turned Prather into an aggressive slasher off the wing and in the open court but it hasn’t turned him into a conscience-less shooter. He’s hitting 64% from the field and has rarely ventured outside his comfort zone, which is 15 feet on in.
Donovan says it’s a matter of Prather understand what he can and can’t do.
“He’s playing to his strengths,” Donovan said. “He’s not forcing shots. He’s not trying to make plays that aren’t there. He’s being a lot more productive and selective.”
While improved strength has played into the improvement, so has maturity and understanding. Donovan said that Prather “was a deer in the headlights a lot of times” during those first two seasons. He scored only 38 points as a freshman and 57 as a sophomore – 14 coming in the NCAA game with Virginia – before averaging 6.2 points and 3.7 rebounds in an injury-marred junior season.
Prather, who was Tennessee’s Mr. Basketball out of Jackson North Side, never lost confidence that he could get the job done. He says his issues were strength and consistency.
“I have pretty good confidence,” he said. “I always thought I had confidence. I didn’t ever think there was an issue with that. I’m just glad I’ve been able to stay consistent.”
Many prep hotshots who sit can’t get on the floor transfer out after one or two unproductive seasons, but that never crossed Prather’s mind.
“We were winning,” Prather said. “That’s what mattered.”
ELI CARTER UPDATE: Unless he shows marked improvement physically in the next couple of games, expect Eli Carter to take a medical redshirt for 2013-14. Carter, who averaged 14.9 points per game last year at Rutgers, has hit a bit of a wall in his efforts to recover from a broken leg. In the limited minutes he has played, he lacks the explosiveness that made him one of the top offensive threats in the Big East the previous two years.
The last thing that Donovan wants to do is waste a year of Carter’s eligibility without any assurance that the leg is going to get significantly better.
“He’s got a lot of issues,” Donovan said. “He’s got a lot of scar tissue built up in his ankle, which has really limited his mobility in his ankle. He’s got strength issues. Structurally he’s got some problems he’s going to have to work though, for however long it takes him to get that back. But it’s an unfortunate situation. He’s a great kid. I respect him an awful lot, just with the way he’s handled himself. He’s just trying to do whatever he can do. But like I said before, we’re not going to waste a year just so he can be a guy who can spot somebody just to get a breather. I think he’s done too much in his career. We owe it to him to get him fully healed and ready to play.”
Donovan said he wasn’t sure what the actual cutoff date is for the medical redshirt. There are reports that Carter has to declare on or before December 10.