Florida going for history
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- They've spent countless hours together over the last four years, creating the kind of bonds that last a lifetime. They've played 141 games together, winning most of them while developing the kind of chemistry that pays off in crunch time of close games. They've celebrated three Southeastern Conference championships in four years together and felt the sting of coming up one victory short of the Final Four the last three years.
Florida seniors Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete and Patric Young are the heart and soul of the top-ranked Gators, a rare group that stayed in school and continued to get better.
They likely will leave Gainesville with the most wins in school history. And while they have their sights set on winning a national title this season, they also have a chance to make history in their home finale Saturday against No. 25 Kentucky (22-8, 12-5).
The Gators (28-2, 17-0) can become the first time in SEC history to go 18-0 in league play.
"We're trying to make this the best year possible with this team we have, with this team that will never be together again ever," Young said.
The conference played an 18-game conference schedule from 1967 through 1991, and then expanded the league slate last season with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M. Only two SEC schools have managed a 17-1 mark: Kentucky accomplished the feat twice (1970, 1986), and LSU did it in 1981.
So Florida is on the verge of something special.
If the Gators do it Saturday, it would add to what will be an emotional day for Prather, Wilbekin, Young and Yeguete. The four seniors will be honored before the game.
"It's going to be an emotional thing for them," coach Billy Donovan said. "I'm not downplaying it. These kids have meant an enormous amount for our program. They've been great kids, they've represented the school very, very well. They've been bought in. They've worked hard. They've been coachable. They've done everything as a coach you can ask.
"But at the same time, too, these guys love is playing. Yes, there's a ceremony. They're going to be honored before the game. But once that's over with, they have to get back to be ready to play."
Here's a brief look at each of the seniors:
CASEY PRATHER: The 6-foot-6 forward from Jackson, Tenn., averaged less than 10 minutes a game his first two years, settling for jump shots and failing to finish around the basket. He briefly considered transferring, but decided to stay in Gainesville. He was slowed by a series of injuries last season, missing time because of two concussions and a sprained ankle, but rebounded to have a stellar senior year. Prather leads the team in scoring, averaging 14.5 points a game, and tops the SEC in field-goal percentage (61.8). His athleticism makes him a dynamic scorer on the fast break and in the open court. "I'm smarter, more aware of what goes into winning, what goes into doing my job," he said. "I just feel like I've matured a lot."
SCOTTIE WILBEKIN: The 6-foot-2 point guard from Gainesville spent two years playing behind Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton and was nearly kicked off the team after his second suspension in less than a year. The preacher's son got another chance, though, and has developed into arguably Donovan's best floor leader in 18 years in Gainesville. Wilbekin is averaging 12.9 points, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 2-to-1. He's the front-runner to be the SEC's Player of the Year. "I'm trying to make sure I do the right things and put myself in a position to keep doing what I love doing," he said.
WILL YEGUETE: The 6-foot-8 forward has endured two significant injuries to become one of the country's best post defenders. The Frenchman broke his left foot in 2012 and missed the final nine games. Florida went 4-5 without him. It got worse last year, when Yeguete needed arthroscopic surgery on his right knee during the season. He returned for the postseason, but clearly wasn't the same, and needed another surgery last summer. He's healthy for the first time in more than two years. "It's been a really long run, but we have a lot more games, so hopefully I stay healthy," he said.
PATRIC YOUNG: The 6-foot-9 center from nearby Jacksonville has improved every year, going from a clumsy freshman who couldn't stay on the floor because of fouls and stamina to a dominant big man who now has a jump shot to complement his post moves. Young is averaging 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds, and has greatly improved his biggest weakness down the stretch: his free-throw shooting.
Young also has learned to channel his energy. "Every single day you have a chance to impact the team with your attitude and effort," he said. "It took me a little while to understand that it wasn't always about me. It's about our team and about winning."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.