If there is one area of concern for the No. 6/7 Florida Gators at this point, it is the team’s severe lack of depth in the frontcourt now that junior forward Will Yegeute (knee) is out for at least the duration of the regular season after undergoing arthroscopic surgery last Friday.
That issue moved to the forefront on Tuesday night when, early in what was ultimately a big 69-52 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats, junior center Patric Young picked up a foul 1:38 into the game and senior F Erik Murphy was sent to the bench after being called for two with 8:06 left in the first half.
Last year, Florida getting in early foul trouble might have been an issue the team would struggle rebounding from against an opponent with the length and post presence that Kentucky possesses. However, a pair of outstanding performances from Young and junior F Casey Prather ensured that Yeguete’s absence and Murphy’s move to the bench in the first half were not hindrances to the team.
Young did not commit another foul for the duration of the game. Rather than play second fiddle to Wildcats F Nerlens Noel, he stepped up and posted a double-double of 12 points and 11 rebounds while looking like the most dominant big man on the floor.
In the same number of minutes, Young grabbed five more boards and blocked one more shot than Noel and gave the consistent effort that head coach Billy Donovan has wanted to see from him throughout his career with the Gators.
“He did a really, really good job,” Donovan said after the game. “I was a little bit concerned to start the game just because he picked up a foul pretty quickly. I let him play through it a little bit more than I normally have in the past and then we got him out. But he was able to get through the half with one foul, which was him doing a really good job just being disciplined, staying down, holding his ground, holding his position
“He gave us a very, very good game with his effort. When he gives incredible effort and plays with a really good motor, he’s capable of getting double-doubles every night. He did a very good job tonight and we found him in certain areas of the floor to score. But he rebounded, he made great effort plays, he kept balls alive – offensive rebounds in the second half. He did a really good job.”
Where Young was perhaps most impressive was on the defensive end. In addition to blocking four shots, he pushed UK’s big bodies out of the paint, disrupted drives to the hoop and showed how ferocious he can be when he puts his mind to it.
“Defensively he’s got so much of a better awareness of things that are getting ready to happen,” Donovan said. “I would call him, as a freshman, he was an aloof defensive player. He’d get back screen’d. He’d [give up] layups. He could never sniff a play out. He’s gotten really good defensively. He’s really done a really good job; he’s really improved there. Last year he had a hard time sustaining intensity for long periods at a time being a starter. Now this year he’s done better. I think his work habits have been a lot better this year than maybe they’ve been in the past.”
Just like a year ago, Prather has been asked to be the primary replacement for Yeguete, a tough assignment considering how much the latter player does for Florida on a game-by-game basis. On Tuesday, he once again proved that he is more than capable by doing everything asked of him by Donovan and then some.
“He really played well and we needed him. Murphy was the one that was in foul trouble there in the first half picking up two fouls. I didn’t know if we could get through [to halftime],” Donovan said.
What Prather did was draw two early charges and force a third turnover in the backcourt as part of the Gators’ press. He went on to finish the game with 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting to go along with three rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a huge dunk that made the No. 6 play on ESPN’s Top Plays.
“I was just trying to give the team a big boost, a big energy boost. I was just glad to help the team out any way I could,” Prather said. “I was just trying to be aggressive. They threw the ball my way so I went through and tried to be as aggressive as I could.”
Donovan credits Prather’s renewed energy and ability to contribute to his improved intensity off the court and the confidence he has gained from finally being healthy coming off of two concussions and a high-ankle sprain.
“I think he’s worked really, really hard – just on his own – just wanting to get in extra time of skill work, timing, those kinds of things. I think that’s been the biggest thing. And then I think he’s gotten over [his injuries],” he said. “This guy got two concussions, high-ankle sprains, and he’s probably saying to himself, ‘What’s next?’ But for him, the thing that was encouraging was that he started to do things a little bit more recklessly and fearlessly. … I think he’s moving past the [mental block].”
If Young can maintain his level of effort and Prather can continue providing Florida with great energy off the bench, the loss of Yeguete can certainly be mitigated for the time being. And when he does return, the Gators may be looking at a frontcourt can be praised for its resolution and intensity rather than criticized for its lack of size.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» On how the team played against Kentucky: “I thought our effort, our focus, our guys being connected on defense, them helping each other, rotating, moving, understanding scouting – they really, I thought, did a much, much better job in this game then maybe they had the last couple.”
» On Wildcats F Nerlens Noel’s gruesome knee injury: “I admire the way he plays, and I admire his energy. Really, if you think about it, I don’t know how badly he’s hurt, but the injury came from a hustle play. It kind of embodies who he is as a player. He’s a hustle-play guy and you just feel sad if there’s any kind of length or duration that he’s out. Because I think everybody admires – in this league, coaches-wise – the way he plays the game.”
» On what went wrong during Florida’s bad stretch of games: “We just didn’t have that laser focus. We seemed distracted. We were not locked in on things that we needed to do. … If you don’t come out and play well, there is a good chance you’re gonna get beat. To stay at that mental and emotional high, game in and game out, is very difficult. I thought we lost a little edge there the last week to 10 days. Whether or not we have it back, I don’t know. I think the length of the season is a mental drain when you’re trying to get your guys to play at a certain level. We need to do that to become a good team because we don’t have a lot of depth, and I wouldn’t classify us as a team that’s overly talented more than anybody else. But we’ve been able to do it by collectively playing together on both ends of the floor.”
» On now having 15-straight 20-win seasons with the Gators: “I think the biggest thing you always try to do when you’re at a school for a long period of time or anywhere at a long period of time is to have a level of consistency. Be able to do something for a consistently long time. … The hardest thing to do here at a place like this is try to maintain a level of consistency. And that’s what you just try to do. To be able to do that for whatever many years it is, I always say it’s a reflection on the school, the administration and also the players that are here.”
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