Through the weekend, OnlyGators.com will take a look at each of the four seniors that will be honored on Saturday afternoon when the men’s basketball program celebrates Senior Day at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
It started in the season opener against North Florida when senior forward Casey Prather, leading the Florida Gators while half of his team was out of action due to either injury or suspension, doubled his career-high with 28 points in 34 minutes.
What was thought to be an aberration was quickly realized to be the new normal for Prather and the Gators as he scored 19 more points in five of the next nine contests and received well-deserved praise for carrying Florida to an 8-2 record in a difficult 10-game stretch to open the 2013-14 campaign.
And while he appeared to blossom overnight, his elevation from energy roleplayer to efficient scorer was more accurately a well-planted seed that head coach Billy Donovan watered, nurtured and watched as it slowly grew over a four-year period.
A highly-rated prospect out of Jackson, TN who was considered one of the 75 best high school players in the country in 2010, Prather barely saw the court in his first two seasons and mostly watched from the bench as his veteran teammates advanced to and fell in consecutive Elite Eights.
“Maybe the lowest moment [was] my early years – as a freshman – not playing as much as I thought I should or not contributing as much as I thought I could,” he admitted on Monday when he also noted that transferring was at one point a consideration.
“It came across my mind but not to the point where I was that serious about transferring. Just more of a conscious thought,” he explained. “I mean, I was frustrated, but I like I said, I never really was that serious about transferring. I decided to stick with it and give it my best shot.”
That patience and internal drive helped Prather take his first major step as a junior when he doubled his minutes and shooting percentage, tripling his scoring in the process. Prather took fewer long jumpers and concentrated more on playing inside the arc, which led to him attempting just two more three-pointers (seven) than he did as a sophomore (five) despite playing 231 more minutes.
“Prather’s another [guy with a] clear understanding, a guy that wanted to be a jump shooter when he first got here and never played to his strengths,” Donovan explained on Monday. “It was a part of him that had stubbornness, which makes him a good player. He wanted to prove that he could shoot jump shots. But when he got to a place that he says this is not who I am, I’ve got to do other things, his game started to take off.”
As well as Prather played, the Gators met an all-too-familiar fate once again in the NCAA Tournament, falling for the third-straight year in the Elite Eight round and giving the players plenty to think about over the ensuing months.
A second offseason with that mindset being ingrained into his head led Prather to bring his shot attempts in even closer. A jumper, even mid-range, for Prather is rare this season; he has preferred to utilize his athleticism while attacking the basket for high-percentage shots.
The result is Prather averaging 6.3 more points per 40 minutes of playing time. He’s also attempting four more free throws per game compared to last season and hitting them at a 67.9 percent clip, nearly a 10 percent bump from a year ago.
“I’m smarter, more aware of what goes into winning, what goes into doing my job,” said Prather. “I just feel like I had a lot of help with the seniors and coaching staff. I just feel like I’ve matured a lot.”
Donovan has everything to do with that maturation process.
“As a coach, you’re always trying to create an epiphany,” he explained. “You’re trying to create something for them that you can see the things that are getting in the way of them being good players – or a team being a good team – and then try to create something where they can kind of change. Not just change their actions but change their beliefs and what they feel internally and how they do things.”
Prather credits Donovan for helping him transition into a go-to player for Florida (28-2, 17-0 SEC) and a key part of the Gators rise to a No. 1 national ranking, calling him a “great mentor who has prepared me for the games and for the future.”
Despite his massive improvement, Prather has not been struggle-free this season.
After scoring in double-figures in 18-straight games to start the 2013-14 campaign, he has only managed to do so in four of the last 10.
Nagging injuries have noticeably affected him.
Prather missed two games in January (during the aforementioned scoring streak) due to pain and swelling in a bruised right knee. His minutes have been up-and-down ever since with as his teammates have picked up some of the slack and managed to pull out victories in a couple of close games.
None of that will be on Prather’s mind Saturday when he rides a wave of not just emotion but also substantial pride into Senior Day against No. 25 Kentucky.
It will not be a token celebration for Prather, which it might have been had he not adjusted his mindset and changed his game at the direction of his coach.
He will be honored not just for being a member of the team but an impact playmaker, not just a four-year student but someone who used that time to develop, mature and grow.
After all, isn’t that the point of college in the first place?
Photo Credits: Jake Roth/Associated Press, Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press