No. 3 Florida Gators basketball (21-2, 10-0 SEC) is already in Knoxville, TN getting prepared to take on the Tennessee Volunteers (15-8, 6-4 SEC) on Tuesday evening. Before the team left, Florida head coach Billy Donovan met with the media to discuss the upcoming contest and difficult road ahead.
Senior forward Casey Prather continues to rehabilitate from an ankle injury he suffered a few weeks ago, but it has not stopped him from playing or participating in practice (though he has missed a couple over the last few weeks).
Donovan said Monday that Prather did not practice on Sunday because the “trainer wanted to give him an extra day of rest.” However, the expectation was that Prather would return to the court before Florida left for Tennessee later in the evening.
After scoring in double digits for the first 18 games he played this season, Prather failed to do so in consecutive contests to star the month of February (he was on the court for 21 minutes in each game). That was not the case on Saturday when Prather appeared to be back to his normal self, seeing 33 minutes of action and posting 15 points on 7-of-11 shooting with six boards and three assists.
LEADERSHIP WILL PROVE KEY
With four of Florida’s next five games on the road and each of thoses contest posing a threat to the Gators’ strong Southeastern Conference record, Donovan said he has done what he could to prepare his squad for the difficult sledding ahead.
“Our non-conference schedule got us prepared to go on the road in our league – having to go to Wisconsin, tough environment; having to go to Connecticut, tough environment – and obviously we played four road games in a pretty short period of time to start the league,” he explained.
“You have to play well. It takes you and your entire team being focused on what it needs to do on the road. … [Tuesday] night poses a different test and just because that’s been the case in the past doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to be the case [Tuesday]. We are going to have to perform and play very, very well. I have confidence with our guys going on the road and playing. We’ve got some older guys who have been through it and understand it. They know what it takes.”
Those older guys – specifically Florida’s four senior starters – have become a solid group of leaders for the Gators this season. Donovan noted that those players have succeeded in holding leadership roles because each starts by being responsible and accountable for himself.”
“If you’ve got guys that are making excuses, not doing their job, it becomes very, very difficult to lead because you lose respect inside the locker room,” he said. “Each and every day you have an opportunity as a player to show a level of unselfishness in terms of where your focus is and with the understanding that you are going to make mistakes. You’re not going to be perfect. But your heart is that of trying to do on a continual basis what’s best for your team.
“And I think when you do that you build trust, you build confidence, you build connectivity inside of your team. … There is no leadership unless you have good followers. Part of having a good leader is you’ve got to have guys that can follow, too.”
FOLLOWING THE LEADERS
The Gators have plenty of underclassmen who are learning from veterans this season but no single player can benefit more from his peers’ experience down the stretch than freshman forward Chris Walker, who has only appeared in two games for Florida.
According to Donovan, Walker has paid close attention to UF’s seniors and “been a very, very good listener.” Rather than have a big head as a top 10-ranked freshman, “he doesn’t come across like he has all the answers and solutions and knows everything.” Added Donovan: “Chris has been patient listening to those guys and those guys have been patient trying to help Chris.”
Walker is still acclimating himself to the Gators’ systems and college basketball in general. Donovan sees improvements slowly but surely being made in his game and thinks it will all come together for Walker when he is comfortable enough that he can naturally react and no longer think on the court.
“I think that [thinking] probably takes away some of his athleticism, some of his abilities. I think the more he gets comfortable, I think he can impact the game more athletically with his running, shot-blocking, rebounding. And I think he is getting more comfortable. He is getting more confident,” said Donovan.
“We used [Sunday] to kind of get him caught up on some different things on both offense and defense that maybe he hasn’t been exposed to yet. … Now we’re slowly starting to add some things where he’s getting a better background. I do think he’s going to be able to help our team and continue to play more and more minutes.”
Where Walker can pay dividends for the Gators on Tuesday will be with his big body. Expecting to but ultimately not having Walker nor redshirt junior center Damontre Harris early in the season left Florida with a thin frontcourt, a unit that was supposed to be strength in 2013-14. Adding Walker to the mix gives UF some extra fire power.
“Chris is getting more and more comfortable. He adds depth to our frontcourt. With him, we’re a deep team across the frontcourt,” Donovan explained. “I think the one thing that stands out about Tennessee is how well they rebound the basketball. They’ve got the largest rebounding differential in our league. They’re getting back better than anyone in our league. Inside will be a battle for both teams. For us, having Chris gives us a little more depth in our frontcourt that we didn’t have the first time we played them.”
NOTES AND QUOTES
» On Gators senior F Will Yeguete being extremely underrated: “He’s one of those guys who, in my opinion, is very undervalued and very under-appreciated. I try to do the best I can to let him know how much I appreciate what he does. He’s really reliable on defense. He’s smart and knows what’s going on. Obviously, he’s not the best scorer in the world, but he impacts the game is so many different ways. I have a high level of trust and respect for him and personally, as a coach, I appreciate what he does every day. He’s not a guy who steals headlines after games. As a coach, you go back and watch the film and stuff that he does doesn’t show up in the stat sheet, but it shows up in the won-loss column. Maybe he doesn’t get the attention that other guys get, and that’s unfortunate at times, but there’s no questions he’s a vital part of our time.”
» On his experiences with Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart while coaching him for two years with Team USA: “It’s really an unfortunate situation, everything that happened. Obviously you just sit there and see the replay of it, you know, and you don’t know what’s said, what happened. … He is a great kid. I never had one bit of a problem with him [while] coaching him for the two years with [Team] USA. I really was appreciative that he came back the second year and played. I remember the first year we had him, there were a couple of games where we were up by 30, 40 points at halftime. I told because we had to play five games in a row, I said, ‘Marcus I’m not playing you in the second half.’ [He replied,] ‘No problem, Coach, whatever I can do to help.’ He’s always been that kind of kid. What people saw from him in that situation against Texas Tech to me is totally uncharacteristic. I never saw anything like that – ever – coaching him.”
» On how Smart’s situation somewhat relates to former Florida center Joakim Noah: “I told Joakim this: ‘You cannot allow people to rob you of your happiness playing the game.’ And I think in some ways Marcus has allowed some happiness to be robbed from him a little bit in this whole process of coming back, not going [to the NBA Draft], maybe not playing like they want to. … Joakim hit the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore like a lightning rod; we were unranked everybody loved the kid. And then once the next year started, he was like [called] a complete ‘dope,’ chest pumping and all that stuff, but he did that since he was a freshman. What happens is that gets very confusing for young guys.”
» On how he keeps the Gators from paying attention to the crowd during road games: “I tell our guys all the time, ‘When you’re going on the road, there’s always going to be situations and things that can distract you from doing your job.’ There’s enough to deal with in between the lines with who you’re playing against, never mind trying to deal with what’s going on outside the lines. For us, it’s the same things, same messages all the time. We’ve got to do our jobs, be connected and focused on doing our jobs. Anything else that takes us out of doing our job is just a distraction that is going to put us in a position where we’re not going to play as well as we need to play. I think some of our guys have been in some tough venues, tough road games and this will be no different on Tuesday for us. We’ve got to stay focused on what we need to do between the lines.”