College Basketball Nation: Casey Prather

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Florida is 36-3, but UConn is playing Monday night. Five things on UConn's 63-53 win in AT&T Stadium, a victory that puts it one win away from a national title every bit as unlikely as 2011's Kemba Walker-led sprint:

1. UConn beat Florida at its own game. Which is to say: defense. The Gators entered Saturday with the top-ranked adjusted efficiency defense in the country; the Gators had allowed just 0.94 points per possession in their four NCAA tournament games. Much less was made of UConn's defensive prowess, but the Huskies were no slouches on the defensive end in their own right: They entered Saturday ranked 10th in adjusted defensive efficiency thanks to their combination of perimeter pressure and interior shot-blocking.

That's exactly what they unleashed on the Gators on Saturday. Freshman guard Kasey Hill -- who had 10 assists in the Elite Eight against Dayton -- looked in over his head. Sharpshooter Michael Frazier II made his first 3-pointer of the game -- the first shot of the game, which put Florida up 3-0 -- and was never heard from again.

SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin was hampered by cramps and couldn't shake Ryan Boatright or Shabazz Napier. Wilbekin finished with three turnovers, one more than he had in his first 212 tournament possessions. One, with about seven minutes left in the first half, saw him leave the ball out in front of his body, practically begging for Napier to swipe it. Napier happily complied. Wilbekin's best look of the night came down 12 -- Florida's biggest deficit of the season, by the way -- with 49.9 seconds left. He barely grazed the rim. Florida scored less than a point per possession.

In short, UConn locked Florida down on the perimeter. It was the kind of disruptive, comprehensive performance we'd come to expect from the Gators -- the type of game in which you can't fathom the opponent scoring with any regularity. Only this time, in their first Final Four since 2007, the Gators were on the receiving end.

2. The Huskies were awfully good on the offensive end, too. UConn had polished off 1.10 points per trip by the time final buzzer sounded, the most any team had scored on the Gators in weeks. Some of those points came in transition, but a fair number came in the half court, with Napier and Boatright breaking down the Florida perimeter and finding open shooters for quality 3-point attempts. UConn shot 5-of-12 from 3 for the game -- a tidy, efficient 41 percent. Coupled with its defense, it was enough.

3. UConn's start gave no hint of what would come next. In the first 8 minutes, 49 seconds, the Huskies scored a grand total of four points. They didn't make shots, obviously, but the issues were deeper than that: UConn couldn't create any shots to take. Every ball screen was greeted by a Florida defender. Every attempt at penetration was halfhearted and tentative. Florida's defense was smothering, the Gators were scoring with relative ease on the other end and the energy in AT&T Stadium was nonexistent. It looked like we were in store for a dud. Not so much.

4. DeAndre Daniels is on a tear. Remember Daniels? The guy who came out of relative (though not total) obscurity to pour in 27 points in UConn's Sweet 16 win over Iowa State? He was great again Saturday night, shooting 9-of-14, scoring 20 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and making life immensely difficult for a Florida defense already scrambling to catch up with the UConn guards. Daniels makes UConn a nightmare to guard.

5. Casey Prather and Patric Young gave Florida a shot. Prather, a former role player turned star, was Florida's best player all season; Young was a four-year contributor with more than 3,600 minutes on his legs. Both will be heartbroken by the loss, but at least they can say they played well: Young had 19 points on 13 shots and added five rebounds, while Prather scored 15 points on 6-of-10 from the field and added six rebounds.

So, now that we're a week away from the Wooden Award luncheon in Dallas, how does the Los Angeles Athletic Club and its Wooden Award advisory board actually go about deciding this thing? Helpful explanation from the club itself is provided here:

Voting is opened to the national voting panel prior to the First Round of the NCAA Tournament. Voters may vote via an online system that allows them to evaluate players up until just after the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. The official accounting firm of the John R. Wooden Award, Deloitte, tabulates all votes.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesCollege basketball had to say goodbye to Doug McDermott after Creighton's early exit from the NCAA tournament.

In other words, the votes are already in, but that doesn't mean voters can't take the NCAA tournament into account. Do they? Hard to say. Should they? Your mileage might vary. Either way, let's take a quick look at how the Wooden candidates might -- or might not -- be affected by their tournament performances.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Cue up Boyz II Men's "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday" for this one. Last week, McDermott finished his college career with 3,150 points, fifth all time on the scoring list, but his team played -- and shot -- its worst game of the season against Baylor's long, tricky zone and couldn't press effectively to try to get back in the game when it was over. The result was an 85-55 blowout, and a tearful McDermott exited to a standing ovation. The only thing more of a bummer than the way McDermott ended his career was that he had to end it at all. We'd happily sign up for another year. In any case, he's still your runaway Wooden Award favorite.

2. Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith hasn't played particularly well in the NCAA tournament thus far, which is just like him. As much as Smith has frustrated coach Rick Pitino in his mostly brilliant Louisville career, he is just as frustrating for pundits who go all-in on praise, because he usually follows that praise with a quirky off night under the bright lights. For most of this season, though, he's been brilliant. How he plays in the Cardinals' Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky could define his legacy.

3. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Speaking of legacies, how about the one Napier is putting together at Connecticut? In last week's upset of No. 2-seed Villanova, Napier was lights out before bruising his shin. He left the game in "excruciating" pain. He later reentered, finished a couple of insane drives that only he can make and led UConn to a victory after all. What a player.

4. Jabari Parker, Duke: Parker's freshman season, and almost certainly his college career, ended with a whimper. That was true of his team, which made 15 of 37 shots from 3 and still lost to 14-seed Mercer, and Parker himself, who scored 14 points on 14 shots. That finale might hurt him in the final awards voting, to say nothing of his defensive issues, but overall? As single seasons go, Parker's was pretty great.

5. Nick Johnson, Arizona: It has taken most of the country a few months to figure out why Aaron Gordon is so valuable to the Wildcats (because he is a complete athletic freak who can guard every position on the court for the best defense in the country, naturally). But Johnson has kept showing why he's so important, too: Not only is he Arizona's most reliable and versatile scorer, he's a crucial perimeter defender in his own right. Arizona is still in the title hunt as well.

6. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: When was the last time a player on a No. 1 seed saw his draft stock leap this much in a loss? Early was legendary in Wichita State's loss to Kentucky last weekend. His cool, comprehensive, 31-point performance wasn't enough to get the Shockers past soaring UK, but it was enough to simultaneously validate his team's season and his own individual primacy even though Fred Van Vleet 's shot missed right.

7. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: It's a safe bet that much of the country's casual college hoops fandom had no idea who Thames was before the tournament. They figured it out pretty quickly. Thames was great in the first weekend and arguably even better in SDSU's back-and-forth rumble with Arizona on Thursday night.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
Kevin Hoffman/USA TODAY SportsShabazz Napier won't win the Wooden Award, but he's putting quite the finish on his UConn career.

8. Casey Prather, Florida: Florida is so deep and talented that when Prather and forward Patric Young sat on the bench with four fouls apiece late in Thursday night's win over UCLA (and Scottie Wilbekin was struggling through one of his worst games of the season), no one in Memphis, Tenn., actually thought the Gators were going to lose. That depth has overshadowed Prather's contributions at times -- Wilbekin, after all, was the SEC player of the year. But from November until now, Prather has been the best and most important player on the best team in the country. Without him, Florida wouldn't be Florida.

9. Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati: Kilpatrick and Cincinnati had a rough go in their only NCAA tournament game, falling victim to Harvard and the strange curse of the No. 5 seed. (Seriously, why do so many No. 5s lose to No. 12s? Doesn't that mean the teams are improperly seeded? Something doesn't compute here.) But, as with Creighton, the Bearcats' early end shouldn't overshadow the magnificent season their star player had in the three dozen games that preceded it.

10. Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle has been Kentucky's consistent force all season long. That hasn't changed. He's still beasting the glass on both ends of the court. What has changed are the conditions around him -- better, headier play from the Harrison twins, smart shot selection from James Young, increased energy from Alex Poythress and great defensive contributions from centers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein. For much of the season, Randle's remarkable frontcourt work was Kentucky's best and only option. Now, it's just the tip of the sword.

Honorable mentions: Nik Stauskas (Michigan), Aaron Gordon (Arizona), Scottie Wilbekin (Florida) Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Marcus Paige (North Carolina), Bryce Cotton (Providence)

A look around the South Region ...


What to watch: An offense-defense matchup for the ages. The Gators are one of the nation's two or three best defenses. They enter Thursday's game ranked No. 2 in adjusted defensive efficiency (and sixth in pure points allowed per possession). UCLA is one of the nation's best, most efficient, most finesse offenses. The Bruins don't rebound their own misses or draw fouls, but they shoot so well that they usually don't need to.

Who to watch: UCLA guards Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson are two of the nation's best players, and they may be the two most talented players on the court in Thursday's game. But the Gators have some talent of their own and are one of the few teams capable of throwing multiple matchups and looks (Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, even Patric Young) at Adams and Anderson for 40 minutes.

Why watch: Can anyone stop Florida's march to the Final Four? With Kansas at No. 2 and Syracuse No. 3, the Gators' regional could have been as daunting as any other team's. Now it's up to the Bruins to halt Florida's machinelike run -- or leave it up to Dayton or Stanford on Saturday night.


What to watch: Statistically speaking, the two least likely Sweet 16 participants are also the most well-matched: Each team's offensive and defensive adjusted efficiency ranks overlap with the other. But that tells only part of the story. Dayton is a physical and athletic but largely perimeter-oriented team, while Stanford uses its size to hunker down and prevent easy baskets on the defensive end. Can the Flyers shoot over the top?

Who to watch: Dayton's guards and wings have earned the lion's share of praise in the lead-up to this game, and rightfully so -- Vee Sanford, Jordan Sibert, Dyshawn Pierre and Devin Oliver make the Flyers go. Which is why it will be so crucial that Stanford gets a good game out of point guard Chasson Randle on both ends of the floor.

Why watch: Neither of these teams is a true mid-major, and neither is exactly an underdog, either. Dayton is a basketball-obsessed town with a dedicated fan base, and Stanford is, well, Stanford. But basketball-wise, these are still the two teams making the most surprising runs of the tournament to date, and now at least one of them will reach the Elite Eight. That's March at its best, right?

ATLANTA -- Florida center Patric Young felt weird about things even before the opening tip Friday.

It wasn’t a desperate Missouri opponent that had him jittery, it was the SEC regular-season champions trophy that commissioner Mike Slive presented to the Gators.

“It’s weird to be awarded with a trophy before a game you have to play,” Young said.

Twenty minutes of playing time later and Young felt even more weird, as No. 1 Florida -- riding a school-record 23 straight wins -- was tied with Missouri at 29 and looked completely out of sync. There was no energy or passion, and a handful of uncharacteristic Gators mistakes kept what should have been an overmatched Missouri team in the game.

[+] EnlargeKasey Hill
AP Photo/Steve HelberKasey Hill scored 7 points off the bench for the Gators in their rout of Missouri.
But as the Gators have been prone to do during such a special season, they regrouped, relied on veteran leadership, and calmed their nerves with a 72-49 rout of the Tigers in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament. It would have been so easy for the Gators, who have all but clinched a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, to lie down and get some rest before the Big Dance.

It would have been easy for them to panic against a team that needed this win. But after leading scorer Casey Prather, Young (the SEC Defensive Player of the Year) and valuable big man Will Yeguete combined to shoot a paltry 1-for-7 from the field with six points in the first half, the Gators stayed calm before getting hot in the second half.

“We never really panic when we’re in these situations,” said Young, who finished with nine points. “Panicking is the worst thing you can do. We just think about what’s next, how can we get out of this slump or whatever funk we’re going in, and pick it up on the defensive end because that’s the side we’re the most consistent at.

“We have a veteran group of guys … any situation we’re in we’re going to push through and persevere.”

The Gators, experienced with four senior starters, went to work with a 7-0 run to start the second half but put the game away with a 12-0 run midway through the second frame that was created when they started working together.

The first half was muddled by careless possessions, lazy shot attempts and soft play inside. With about 10 minutes remaining in the second half, however, the Gators utilized each other and wore Missouri down.

They became a team again, and, of course, it started with two vets.

First, Yeguete flicked in an easy layup off a nice dish from guard Kasey Hill to give Florida a 40-36 lead with 10:04 left. Then, the real orange-and-blue avalanche started when senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin stole an inbounds pass and then threw it in to Yeguete while falling out of bounds. Yeguete then found Wilbekin in the corner, where he nailed a monster 3-pointer that electrified both Florida’s team and a small contingent of Gators fans behind UF’s bench inside the Georgia Dome.

“If they were going to give me space, I was going to take it,” said Wilbekin, who finished with 15 points and went 5-of-6 beyond the arc.

From there, he and the Gators continued to take it. Their defense smothered an exhausted and frustrated Mizzou team -- which shot just 31.6 percent in the second half -- and their offense found the shooting edge. The Gators hit 4-of-5 shots during their run and missed just one shot after, closing the game hitting eight straight.

Just to make sure Mizzou had no prayer of any sort of miraculous comeback, four of the Gators' last nine buckets were 3-pointers.

“I think we have got a group that is pretty cerebral,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said of his team, which shot just 34.6 percent in the first half. “You can talk about things that we need to change or adjust, and they're pretty good at doing that.”

When a team outscores an opponent 43-20 in the second half, it has made a pretty strong statement about making a second-half adjustment.

The Gators have done that all season. It’s why they’re the No. 1 team in the country and will likely leave Atlanta with the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. This team has had ugly first halves before but has the maturity to forgive and forget. The frustration that lingered during the first half of Friday’s game vanished when the second half began.

There are still free throw issues (the Gators made only 10-of-20), and sleeping in the first half could always catch up with them against the better teams.

“Maybe we just weren’t ready to believe this game,” Young said. “I think we were more ready for Missouri to lay down and just be like, ‘Oh, they’re going to win this game.’”

It appears that this attitude forced Florida to wake up. The kind of spark the Gators got Friday won’t always be there, but maybe a lull during this impressive run is what this team needed after making things look so easy for most of the season.

“Whoever we play tomorrow, we’re going to have to come out better than we did today -- more energy, more passion, more fire -- and be focused and locked in on defense, and the offense will take care of itself,” guard Michael Frazier II said.

Tournament preview: SEC

March, 11, 2014
Mar 11

This season started with talk about a special group of classmates in this league, one so talented and exceptional that it just might go undefeated.

Which is exactly what happened, only not with the team or the group anyone expected.

Kentucky and its ubertalented freshmen grabbed the headlines in the preseason, a squad so once-in-a-generation special it spawned silly talk of a 40-0 season. The Wildcats instead endured the reality of growing pains, and they have yet to realize their potential.

[+] EnlargeCasey Prather
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesSenior Casey Prather leads the No. 1 Gators in scoring with 14.6 points per game.
In the meantime, Florida, with its ubertalented seniors, finished the SEC regular season undefeated, the first in the conference to go 18-0 and only the fourth team from a major conference to finish a league slate unscathed in the past 15 seasons.

Were it not for a certain team in Wichita, Kan., we might be singing more loudly the praises of Florida and its consistency. This college basketball season has been anything but stable, marked by strange upsets, wild rants and teams that, for one reason or another, could never find their footing.

Florida, with its own set of issues, hardly faltered. Despite problems both accidental (injuries) and self-inflicted (suspensions), the Gators lost only two games this season, finishing the regular season with 23 straight wins. Within the SEC, their average margin of victory was a gaudy 13 points per game.

It is worth noting, as well as impossible to ignore, that, in a year and a sport dominated by freshmen, Florida succeeded with and because of seniors. Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete and Patric Young already have racked up 113 wins in their career, with two tournaments left to break the school record (117).

“When you invest four years like these guys have invested, it means something to them," Florida coach Billy Donovan said after his team's season-finale win against Kentucky.

What’s at stake?

Conference pride. The SEC has a legitimate national title contender in Florida, but other than that, it has a lot of "meh." No team outside the Gators has done much all season to distinguish itself, with more teams trying, it would seem, to stay on the bubble than get off it.

The SEC needs three teams especially to prove their worth -- Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri. The Razorbacks, seeded fifth, lost a dismal regular-season finale against Alabama to put them back in the bubble conversation.

Meanwhile, in a pick 'em NCAA game, Tennessee did everything right and Missouri everything horrifically wrong in a 72-45 Vols win.

All three have been woefully inconsistent this season, putting together questionable résumés that have made for that uncomfortable bubble perch. Arkansas managed to sweep Kentucky but lose to both Alabama and Texas A&M. Tennessee, the least guilty of the three culprits, has no real notable wins but some bad losses (A&M, Vanderbilt). Missouri beat UCLA way back when and lost to Vandy, Georgia (twice) and Alabama.

To avoid an uncomfortable viewing party on Sunday, all three need to make sure they don’t have any more awful losses, not just for themselves but for the sake of their league.

The football kingpin SEC continues to promise an improved product on the hardwood but, season after season, coach after coach, struggles to make it happen. It’s time the teams helped the league office out.

Team with the most to gain

Kentucky. Yes, the Wildcats are firmly in the NCAA tournament, but if there is a team that can use a dose of feel-good medicine, it is the Wildcats. Kentucky ended the regular season with a 19-point loss to Florida, the disheartening exclamation point on a season that never quite became what anyone expected.

The Wildcats, the preseason No. 1 team in the nation, needed a tiebreaker to beat out Georgia for the No. 2 seed in the SEC tournament.

But nothing cures the November-December-January-February blues quite like a good month of March. Kentucky is one good run from becoming a very dangerous team, and a hot start at the SEC tournament could be the spark.

This is a team that needs to believe in itself as much as anything. The only way for the Wildcats to do that is to start stringing together wins.

1. Doug McDermott, Creighton: Tuesday night wasn't exactly Creighton's best showing. The Bluejays were outplayed for pretty much all 40 minutes at Georgetown, as the Hoyas' seniors -- especially Markel Starks -- fought desperately to improve their bubble lot. It was bad on both sides of the floor for Creighton. There were uncharacteristic offensive struggles: Grant Gibbs turning the ball over, Ethan Wragge going 1-for-6 from 3, Jahenns Manigat made a nonfactor through foul trouble, and so on. Worse, the Bluejays reverted to the liability-level defense that held them back in past years: Georgetown shot 65 percent from 2 and scored 1.23 points per trip. A lot of those looks were open.

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
Geoff Burke/USA TODAY SportsHow good has Doug McDermott been? He scored 22 points and had 12 boards against Georgetown and it was considered a bad game.
Two McDermott possessions cemented the off night. The first, in the first half, was a relatively open 3 that missed the rim by a wider distance than maybe any McDermott miss ever. The second, in the second half, was a baseline drive in which McDermott -- who was guarded well by Jabril Trawick for most of the game -- got the matchup he wanted against Nate Lubick, and pivoted past him to the baseline, and then just plum missed a wide-open layin. McDermott finished with 12 rebounds, but just 22 points on 23 shots, and he needed a late batch of last-ditch 3s to get there. It was a rough night for the Arbitrarily Capitalized Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker.

And you know what? It doesn't matter. McDermott has had this award sewn up for weeks. We're just going through the motions. When 22 points and 12 rebounds is considered a so-so game -- or, say, when those 22 points make you the first person since Lionel Simmons (1987-88, 1988-89, 1989-90) to score 750 in three straight seasons -- your Wooden Award isn't going to be threatened by a late-season loss to a desperate bubble team.

In any case, here's the mother of all ACMcDAT sirens: Creighton's final home game of the season, the last of McDermott's career, comes Saturday against Providence. McDermott needs 34 points to reach 3,000 for his career.

On Tuesday, a reporter asked his father and coach, Greg McDermott, if he would let his son go for the record if he was close with enough time on the clock.

"If his mother has anything to say about it, probably,” McDermott said.

2. Jabari Parker, Duke: Like McDermott, Parker saw his team lose a road game in the final week of conference play, an 82-72 loss Wednesday at Wake Forest. The Blue Devils allowed 46 points in the second half at Wake, which likewise hints at some of the defensive issues they (like Creighton) have had at various points with this configuration. And like McDermott, Parker still had a pretty solid outing relative to just about any player in the country -- 19 points, 11 rebounds, 7-of-11 shooting. McDermott has been our obvious No. 1 for a while, and remains so this week. Parker is a similarly codified consensus No. 2. Also, he makes a mean dessert bar.

3. Russ Smith, Louisville: The Cardinals unleashed perhaps their best performance of the season Wednesday night at SMU, and got arguably the best of Smith's season, too. Russdiculous' line -- 26 points on 15 shots, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals -- was a perfect microcosm of what he's done all season, and what makes him so valuable: efficient scoring, timely distributing, unyielding perimeter defense.

4. Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: Napier was an early front-runner for the Wooden Award this season before a couple of bad early conference losses knocked him off our radar. UConn has had its blips, but Napier has been steadily great, averaging 17.8 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game as the Huskies' anchor.

5. Sean Kilpatrick (Cincinnati): Kilpatrick is having his worst mini-stretch of the season these past two weeks, including a 3-for-14 3-point performance in a close loss to Louisville and Saturday's 2-for-8, seven-turnover struggle in 37 minutes at UConn. But Kilpatrick did still have 28 points in that loss to Louisville -- 28 of his team's 57, no less -- and even when he's not scoring, he's still one of the best guard-defenders in the country.

[+] EnlargeNick Johnson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNick Johnson has been a force on both ends of the floor, and a big reason why Arizona's defense is among the nation's best.
6. Nick Johnson, Arizona: Our ability to track defensive metrics at a glance still lags way behind our ability to track offense, which is why it can be difficult to factor defense into national player of the year and All-American award discussions. But many of the players in this top 10 are here because they excel on both ends of the floor, and Johnson is a key example. Arizona's defense still allows the fewest points per trip of any team in the country, even without Brandon Ashley, and not all of that is due to Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon in the lane. Johnson is a fantastic gap defender in Sean Miller's pack-line hybrid defense, and a major factor in for the post-Ashley Wildcats.

7. Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Missouri Valley Conference voters awarded Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet with the league's POY trophy this week, and it's hard to argue with the reasoning. VanVleet has been great. So has guard Ron Baker. And Darius Carter. And Tekele Cotton. When you go 31-0, you tend to get a lot of really great individual performances. We'll still take Early, Wichita State's most-used player by a fair margin and its most important all-around offensive and defensive contributor.

8. Casey Prather, Florida: It's hard to believe Florida's last loss came all the way back on Dec. 2, but it's true. That game, at UConn, took place when the Gators had, like, six available players, back when Prather was still surprising us with his sudden scoring turn as a senior. Prather's usage has dropped as the Gators have gotten healthy (Kasey Hill) and eligible (Chris Walker), but his efficiency has held firm, and more than any other Florida player he's the reason why Billy Donovan's team managed to overcome so much personnel drama in the first place. The breadth of his season deserves honorifics.

9. Xavier Thames, San Diego State: We thought about dropping Thames from the list after a brutal 10-for-50 slump bracketed the Aztecs' losses to Wyoming and New Mexico. But Thames got back on track against Fresno State Saturday and kept it going Wednesday when his 19-point effort keyed a comeback win at UNLV. Like Prather (and not unlike Kilpatrick), his whole-season contributions to an SDSU team without another consistent offensive option are too great, in aggregate, to overlook.

10. Kyle Anderson, UCLA: "Slo-mo" has numbers that are kind of crazy. He's averaging 14.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game on 49 percent shooting from the field and from 3. That is exactly the kind of game the 6-foot-8 Anderson's unique skill set promised when he entered college a year ago. It took him a little bit, but he got there this season. He does it all.

Honorable mentions: Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), Julius Randle (Kentucky), Nik Stauskas (Michigan), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), T.J. Warren (NC State), Bryce Cotton (Providence), Billy Baron (Rhode Island Canisius)

Video: Underappreciated players

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19

In his weekly report, Jay Bilas identifies a handful of college basketball players who are not getting the credit they deserve.

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week 9

January, 16, 2014
Jan 16

We are well past the two-month mark of the season, and we’re really moving now -- barreling down the Gregorian highway toward March like characters in a Tom Petty song. It feels so good, like anything is possible. Hit cruise control, and rub your eyes. Yeah, we’re running down a Wooden Watch. Going wherever it --

I think you get the point. Let’s begin.

Doug McDermott, Creighton: This week’s Doug McDermott Awesomeness Tracker (trademark pending) is Awesomer than ever: McDermott is averaging 25.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game; shooting 52.6 percent from 2, 43.4 percent from 3, and 89.6 percent from the free throw line; posting a 121.6 offensive rating on 33 percent usage; and taking 37.3 percent of the shots on (easily) the nation’s best and most efficient offensive team. McDermott is guaranteed to finish his career as the first three-time first-team All-American since Patrick Ewing and Wayman Tisdale. He likely will finish with more career points than Oscar Robertson, and could well get to 3,000. The chase, as we wrote Monday, is on.

Projecting the Wooden Award winner involves recognizing which players are playing the best basketball, sure, but it also -- perhaps more than anything -- requires a constant scoring of public perception, having a feel for if and when the consensus has shifted. After this week’s dominance against Xavier and Butler, the consensus around McDermott is officially unanimous -- he is both narratively fascinating and statistically unimpeachable. He, like Ferris Bueller, is very popular, Ed: Stats geeks, don’t-glance-until-March-then-pretend-to-be-an-expert aging sportswriter dudes, nostalgic defenders of the value of a four-year education and/or misguided deriders of the NBA, plain old fans of beautiful offensive basketball, Creighton fans, Big East fans, Iowa natives -- they all think he’s a righteous dude.

There’s plenty of season left, but the POY award is McDermott’s to lose.

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: Now that Duke is reeling from losses to Notre Dame (meh) and Clemson (ack!) within the past two weeks, the Jabari Parker heat has officially begun to cool. But for a minute there in December (after he shot it so well in the first Memphis game, specifically) Smart’s case has been burning at a consistent, productive temperature all season long. On Saturday, Smart has a chance to put a dent in the McDermott unanimity when the Cowboys land in Lawrence, Kan. Last season, Smart helped lead Oklahoma State to its first win in Allen Fieldhouse since 1989. If he can double-down this season, well, look out.

[+] EnlargeNick Johnson, Tony Parker
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillArizona's Nick Johnson is the most important player on the nation's No. 1 team.
Nick Johnson, Arizona: Last week, we subbed Johnson in for Aaron Gordon. Why? Gordon, for all of the things he brings to the table -- some of which, like the way his athleticism helps translate into so few good interior shots for Arizona’s opponents, can be invisible on paper -- really isn’t as important to his team. The most important and productive player on the nation’s best team is their guard Johnson, who boasts a 121.7 percent offensive rating, shoots 25.8 percent of his team’s available shots, and is the perimeter linchpin in what could otherwise be a one-dimensional Arizona attack.

DeAndre Kane, Iowa State: Some of the Kane-related excitement may have cooled this past week, when the Cyclones lost their first two games of the season -- at Oklahoma, and at home to Kansas -- in consecutive outings. Kane’s seven turnovers at Oklahoma held back his otherwise stellar performance (he scored 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting from 2-point range, plus nine rebounds and four assists). The injury Kane suffered late in that game looked likely to keep him out against Kansas, but he played and played well (21 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals, 3 assists), save his 50 percent mark from the free throw line. We’ll see how Kane progresses from his ankle injury in the weeks to come, and how Iowa State holds up its end of the Big 12 contender bargain, too.

Casey Prather, Florida: This is me putting a hold on my Prather stock for the week. Prather suffered a bruised knee against South Carolina on Jan. 8 and hasn’t suited up for the Gators since. If he can’t get back on the court soon, he’ll have to come off the list, but let’s keep him around for now. I’m nice like that. Also, before his injury, Prather was really, really good.

Jabari Parker, Duke: Don’t let Duke’s 69-65 win over Virginia Monday trick you into thinking the Blue Devils are suddenly figuring out their defensive woes (again). As is typical of the Cavaliers, the two teams traded just 61 possessions, and Duke won because it was just a bit more efficient on offense, not the other way around. The Blue Devils’ ongoing defensive woes are hurting Parker’s player of the year status in a big way, not only because they’re making Duke vulnerable to teams like Notre Dame and Clemson on the road, but also because they accentuate Parker’s already noticeable deficiencies on the defensive end.

Tyler Ennis, Syracuse: Ennis was a first-time addition to the list last week, and the argument between him and teammate C.J. Fair is really an argument about usage. Fair plays 90.4 percent (!) of Syracuse’s available minutes and uses 26.9 percent of available possessions. Ennis touches the ball less frequently, but when he does have it, he’s an immensely efficient dual offensive threat who creates 5.3 steals per 100 possessions on the other end. And his minutes count is rising, too. Let’s stick with the kid for now, but you can make a compelling case for either.

Julius Randle, Kentucky: The Wildcats are 12-4 and coming off an overtime loss to Arkansas suffered at the hands of a last-second rebound tip-dunk, which is not something you see every day. Whatever the Wildcats end up being, they’d be nowhere without Randle. The Wildcats don’t shoot the ball well, and they turn it over a lot, but they rebound more of their misses than any team in the country, and their ratio of free throws to field goal attempts is through the roof. That’s thanks to Randle. The second half of the Dec. 28 Louisville game aside, it’s a bit difficult to picture this team without the occasionally ugly but typically effective work he does bulling his way around on the low block.

Russ Smith, Louisville: Smith’s turnover rate is beginning to track upward, which will hurt his efficiency and could make it more difficult to advocate for him. That said, Smith is still assisting on 34.5 percent of his possessions, still shooting the ball better and still playing smarter than he ever has in his career, and he’s still taking on 32.1 percent of his team’s usage load. He’s still been great.

Joel Embiid, Kansas: Don’t let the Wiggins Disappointment Narrative cloud your thoughts: Andrew Wiggins has been very good this season, and never better than against top competition. But Embiid is moving at a jaw-dropping learning curve. It’s like watching a piano prodigy with perfect pitch: If he figures something out, it is put to immediate use. The biggest question is whether Embiid can learn to play his devouring brand of interior defense without fouling 6.8 times per 40 minutes, a habit that has kept him on the bench far more than anyone would prefer. If that doesn’t change, he won’t hold this spot. But the dude’s already throwing in dream shakes and post-foul dance moves, so it’s probably unwise to count him out.

Honorable mentions: Keith Appling (Michigan State), Shabazz Napier (Connecticut), Xavier Thames (San Diego State), Cameron Bairstow (New Mexico), Adreian Payne (Michigan State), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), Kevin Pangos (Gonzaga), Andrew Wiggins (Kansas), JayVaughn Pinkston (Villanova)

What's missing for Florida? Nothing

December, 18, 2013

NEW YORK -- Suspensions and injuries, so forth and so on.

The song of this Florida basketball team has been played on the strings of a tiny violin. Not that the Gators were courting sympathy they wouldn't get, anyway.

This season thus far has been about what the Gators didn’t have because of injuries, both real and self-inflicted.

Let’s, however, talk about what Florida has -- perhaps the most complete team since Billy Donovan won back-to-back championships.

Solid big man? Patric Young. Check.

Inside presence? Will Yeguete. Check.

Shooter? Michael Frazier II. Check.

Wing player who can go inside or stretch you outside? Dorian Finney-Smith. Check.

[+] EnlargeScottie Wilbekin
Elsa/Getty ImagesScottie Wilbekin's heady play at point guard adds to a Florida team that seems to have all the necessary components.
Savvy point guard? Scottie Wilbekin. Check.

Gifted, impossible-to-stop athlete and potential wild card? Casey Prather. Check.

Defense? Check.

Great coach? Check.

Potential wunderkind freshman-in-waiting? Chris Walker. Check.

Florida has been to three consecutive Elite Eight games, but in each of those runs, something was missing.

What’s missing now?


“Florida is an elite team," Memphis coach Josh Pastner said after his team lost to the Gators 77-75 in the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday. “We’ve played two elite teams -- Oklahoma State and Florida."

What makes Florida all the more intriguing, though, is that which you can’t quantify.

The Gators have scars, which Donovan talked about after the Gators' win Tuesday night.

He didn't speak as if his team is hung up on what it hasn’t accomplished, but it knows what it means to have scars.

Nobody has those anymore. Teams don’t cart painful memories around because players don’t last long enough to build up memories together. What you did lately has the shelf life of maybe six months. It’s all about muscle memory, not collective memories.

But the Gators have four seniors, which essentially qualifies them for AARP benefits. These are guys who remember the successes of three consecutive Elite Eight runs but also the flip side of three could-be Final Fours that ended short of the doorway.

“They’ve got a lot of scars on them; they’ve been through a lot," Donovan said. “And maybe it’s because they’ve been scarred enough and wounded enough, they understand that this is a journey."

The journey, however, could be another awfully good one for Donovan.

What he’s done at Florida is nothing short of exceptional. Pastner said after the game that the Hall of Fame should just bypass whatever grace period it has and induct Donovan immediately.

He was being flip, but the reality will be there someday.

This is a man who came into a football school, won two titles and watched that entire roster leave, only to rebuild the team into an elite winner again.

Yet because those successes ended in regional final berths and not the last weekend, Florida gets pushed back into the pack of good teams, not great ones.

That could change this season. Kentucky waltzed into the season as the prohibitive favorite in the SEC, but compare the Wildcats to the Gators right now. Each has been through its own share of hard luck and trials, yet Florida has emerged much more cleanly.

Why? Scars and experience. Losing a player to an injury and waiting for your point guard to serve multiple suspensions is nothing when you’ve been through things together. You get by.

“We’re just focused on right now," Prather said. “That’s all we think about is right now."

That doesn’t mean the Gators will march to the title. If this early season has proven to be anything, it is wildly unpredictable. Asked if he could exhale after coming through a run of four ranked opponents with a 3-1 record, Donovan said with utmost seriousness that he already was worried about Fresno State.

Nothing is in the bag. Florida isn’t so good that it can just kick back and wait for March to roll around.

Joakim Noah isn’t walking through that door, and so forth.

But this Florida team has the blocks upon which a champion can be built, the core fundamentals that we see more often than not (Kentucky and Anthony Davis being the anomaly).

Florida lost two games -- one by six at Wisconsin and one on a buzzerbeater at Connecticut. Neither time did they have their full roster.

And now they do.

"This is our team now; this is our core," Donovan said.

The rest of the world might be breathlessly awaiting the NCAA to allow Walker to make his debut because, after all, what are you these days without a stud freshman? Everyone has one!

But Donovan isn’t waiting on Walker, who enrolled in school this week. He watched him get eaten alive by Young in practice because he's a wide-eyed teenager going up against a man.

Walker is not the savior. And more importantly, he doesn’t need to be.

Florida has plenty just the way it is.

Brennan's Wooden Watch: Week 3

December, 5, 2013

The third week of Wooden Watch (or as I like to call it, "Wooden Watch 3: The Watchening") brings with it more tumult than its preceding editions.

From sheer math alone, this makes sense. The Thanksgiving schedule pushed last week's Watch up to Tuesday, which has given us a nine-day stretch of uninterrupted basketball on which to base our way-too-early national player of the year prospectus. But pound-for-pound, those nine days were, I'd argue, every bit as good and every bit as tumultuous as any stretch that came before. Word to North Carolina.

The losses suffered by top teams -- and players on the POY contention short list -- do shake things up a bit, but it's important not to go too far. One loss does not a Wooden campaign ruin. (You're thinking of the Heisman.) We've been couching these early rankings with all sorts of disclaimers about just how early in the season it is, and that remains true -- even as we barrel headfirst into December. Let's see where we are, shall we?

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: After a brilliant start, Smart's first regression of the season came in Kissimmee, Fla., at the Old Spice Classic last weekend. Smart had 17 points and eight rebounds in a shaky 69-67 semifinal win over Butler, but the five turnovers he committed on Friday foreshadowed the five he would commit Sunday. That game, against Memphis, saw Smart stifled by a suddenly coherent Tigers perimeter scheme, and while Smart finished with 12 points and eight rebounds, he missed all five of his 3-point attempts. And yet, he retains his spot atop this list. Why? For one, Smart was clearly sick. I'm not offering excuses (nor taking credit away from Memphis, because the Tigers were great), but I am acknowledging realities. Second, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.

Russ Smith, Louisville: The North Carolina loss might have thrown people off Louisville's scent, but now that Michigan State is the latest to get a front-row seat to the Tar Heels' ongoing Jekyll and Hyde performance piece, let's go ahead and remind everyone that Louisville is playing top-10 offense and top-three defense, and that Smith, while maintaining his high usage and shot rates, has thus far pumped his assist rate to 37.5 percent (from 21.1 a year ago), shot 58.2 percent from 2-point range and kept his steals rate (4.1 percent) totally steady.

Doug McDermott, Creighton: I'm not willing to get too worked up about McDermott's one loss, either. Yes, I know Creighton fell to San Diego State and George Washington this week, but only one of those losses should be an indictment. Against San Diego State, Creighton was, well, Creighton: McDermott scored 30 points and shot 6-of-10 from 2 and 5-of-8 from 3, and the Bluejays' porous defense cost them the game anyway. Three years on, that's what you sign up for with the Bluejays -- same as it ever was. George Washington was a different story: McDermott was stifled by the Colonials in wholly unexpected fashion (seven points, 2-of-12 from the field, a tidy 54.0 offensive rating -- yikes). But, well, it's one game. It's fine. Dude's really good. Moving on.

Jabari Parker, Duke: I downgraded Parker's status last week because of Duke's putrid defense, but now that the Blue Devils have submitted two slightly better defensive performances -- one in a 72-66 loss to Arizona on Friday, the other in a 79-69 win (in 67 possessions) against Michigan on Tuesday -- it's time to elevate Parker once more. The ironic part? These last two games have been his worst offensively, the first two in which he failed to score at least 20 points (and less efficiently, too). But Parker is gobbling up defensive rebounds for a team that desperately needs him to be a stud on both ends of the floor, and he'll get his points, rest assured.

Julius Randle, Kentucky: Randle hasn't been quite as efficient as he was at the start of the season, but he is still plugging along, dominating unsuspecting helpless interior defenses and gobbling double-doubles like some sort of mystical Norse basketball god. UK's 79-65 win over Providence on Sunday was Randle's first game of the season -- eight games in -- without a double-double. He had 12 points and eight boards. Even Thor must rest sometimes.

Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: The nice thing about Napier's player of the year candidacy is that it need not rest on a fuzzy term like "clutch" alone. Napier has been ruthless late in games, to be sure: His late winner against Florida on Monday required plenty of luck, but you knew he was going to ice that second chance as soon as the ball bounced to him. But you can also build Napier's case on the breadth of his point guard play, which has been as comprehensive as any guard's to date.

Casey Prather, Florida: In March, Billy Donovan may look back at the Gators' injury-riddled November and thank his lucky stars, for that was the month that Prather turned into a star. Prather makes his first appearance here this week, but it probably should have come sooner. In eight games to date, he's registered a 121.5 offensive rating while using 30.1 percent of his team's possessions; he's shot nearly 64 percent from the field; and he's rebounded 10.6 percent of Florida's available misses. Watching Prather, a three-year glue guy, slice defenses with Euro-steps and quick-twitch offensive rebounds has been an alternately confusing and thrilling process. Either way, he doesn't look like he's slowing down.

Nick Johnson, Arizona: Aaron Gordon gets all the attention, and he'll surely be on this list more than any Wildcat this season. But Arizona feels as much like an ensemble cast as any elite team in the country, and Nick Johnson is perhaps their most indispensable player -- the lone true shoot, drive or pull-up, all-court-style threat who makes Arizona more than a collection of impressive bigs.

Keith Appling, Michigan State: Appling can stay, despite Wednesday night's home loss to UNC, because, well, again: It's one game. Before Wednesday, Appling had been peerless, and he wasn't that bad Wednesday night, either. The current line is 57.1 percent from 2, 48.3 percent from 3, a 28.4 assist rate to just 13.0 turnover percentage, and more generally, an engaged, comfortable and balanced player on both ends of the floor.

Jahii Carson, Arizona State: Carson had his first comedown of the season at Miami on Sunday, when he somehow went 0-for-10 from inside the arc. That, plus Arizona State's sub-Duke defense, is reason for slight downgrade this week. (If this were a list of the most entertaining players, Carson would probably be No. 1 every week. He's fun to watch miss.)

Honorable mentions: Marcus Paige (UNC), Tyler Ennis (Syracuse), C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Gary Harris (Michigan State), Joseph Young (Oregon), Anthony Drmic (Boise State), Chaz Williams (UMass), Melvin Ejim (Iowa State), Tim Frazier (Penn State), Jordan Adams (UCLA), Roberto Nelson (Oregon State), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Caris LeVert (Michigan), Cleanthony Early (Wichita State), LaQuinton Ross (Ohio State), T.J. Warren (NC State)

It's one thing to lose. It's another to fall victim to a cliché. One bounce. Ugh. How many times does the game really come down to one bounce? One slight, imperceptible angle? One unwitting deflection?

"Almost never" is the answer. Less than the cliché implies, that's for sure. And yet there Florida was Monday night, losers at the last second thanks to a combination of Shabazz Napier's lights-out jumper, his unyielding winning-time confidence and -- yes -- a singularly unlucky bounce.

That bounce, the one that started as a wayward Napier jumper and careened off center DeAndre Daniels' left hand en route to Napier's wide-open second chance, proved the difference between what would have been a hard-fought, 64-63 Florida win and the Napier walk-off, the Gampel Pavilion standing ovation, the drowned-out Kevin Ollie interview and the 65-64 loss it became.

[+] EnlargeShabazz Napier
AP Photo/Jessica HillShabazz Napier puts up the jumper that made the difference for UConn over Florida.

"It was so slim [a margin], I just thought if I give it a chance, I'm going to try to make it," Napier said on the floor after the game. "I got the good bounce after I missed the shot. Good thing I missed it terribly."

Gut-punch circumstances aside, there is plenty of good news for Florida. The randomness involved, and the impressive performance Billy Donovan's team put together before the final possession robbed them of the victory, is reason for optimism in and of itself.

Because the Gators were mostly excellent Monday night, and that transition be followed by mention of Casey Prather, who suddenly, stubbornly refuses to play anything but brilliant basketball.

For three years, Prather was never more than a role player; he attempted 127 field goals as a junior in 2012-13. A year later, he is playing like an All-American: Prather went 8-of-13 Monday night, making him 55-of-85 (64.7 percent) from 2-point range this season. He exploits angles and gets his 6-foot-6 frame to the rim at will; he grabs offensive rebounds and outmuscles mismatches; and he draws 7.1 fouls every 40 minutes. Whatever questions Florida fans might have had about the team's secondary offensive options should be quashed by now. Prather has the look of a star.

Though the putative primary option, center Patric Young, wasn't far off either Monday night. He finished 6-of-10 from the field with 17 points and seven rebounds, and, even more impressive, scored 10 of Florida's final 13 points, taking the game over in the final minutes. Young is a tireless interior defender who turns stops into secondary sprints and early posts. (He is as much fun to watch run as he is with the ball in his hands, I reckon.) And now, four years into his career, he's better when the ball arrives than ever before.

Point guard Scottie Wilbekin, back in the fold after an offseason spent in Donovan's doghouse, was very good, too. He is Florida's best defender and one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, period. But an ankle sprain that kept him off the floor for the final three minutes proved crippling to the Gators.

"I was concerned coming down the stretch with Scottie being out," Donovan told the Associated Press. "I didn't think we could guard Napier at least for that three minutes. So we decided to play 1-3-1 zone and try to use our length. … We went man on the last possession."

Which brings us to the pessimistic upshot: Florida can't keep losing players. One more is too many. Freshman point guard Kasey Hill's high ankle sprain in mid-November was bad enough, but Wilbekin came back in time to alleviate the loss. Now Wilbekin is facing a similar issue, with no sign of Hill just yet. Would-be freshman star Chris Walker is still trying to get eligible for the spring semester. Dillon Graham and Eli Carter are, in the words of Alligator Army's Andy Hutchins, "so hurt they need to redshirt." Donovan last week said he has "no hope" Damontre Harris will return from suspension, saying there was "no level of accountability on the things that he needs to do on a regular basis."

All of these woes have left Florida with, in effect, six players Donovan feels comfortable playing big minutes, a number that shrunk to five when Wilbekin left the game Monday night. How long before the losses become too much? How frightening must it be, living one injury away from desolation?

Still, if I'm a Florida fan, I'm excited. The Gators are talented enough to be this depleted and this competitive at the same time? That bodes well. Things haven't gone as planned for one of the nation's most talented teams since about July, and yet Donovan's group is taking Napier and company to the wire in Storrs, Conn. as early as the first week of December.

Actually, check that: Florida took Napier to the final bounce. That they were on the wrong end of the cliché says less about their outlook than the personnel woes they so badly need to put behind them. There are only so many Gators to go around.

Florida's Prather steps in, steps up

February, 12, 2013
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Casey Prather left the Florida locker room after the Gators’ 69-52 victory over Kentucky with a small red bump on his lower lip near the corner of his mouth.

That wasn’t a lot of damage for the 6-foot-6 swingman despite an evening of playing inside against the nation’s top shot-blocker and a 7-footer. The Gators hope he can hold up that well throughout the rest of the regular season.

That’s pretty much the only way UF can weather the loss of Will Yeguete and put itself in position to make another deep NCAA tournament run.

[+] EnlargeFlorida's Casey Prather
AP Photo/Phil SandlinCasey Prather scored 12 points and took three charges for the Gators.
"It [stepping in for Yeguete] wasn’t really in the back of my mind," Prather said after scoring 12 points, grabbing three rebounds, blocking two shots, and dishing out two assists. "I would just say I was trying to give the team a big boost, big energy boost, and so I was just glad to help the team out any way I could."

The 6-7 Yeguete -- the Gators’ second-leading rebounder, best post defender, and the key to UF’s full-court press -- underwent surgery last Friday to clean out loose bodies in his right knee. Replacing part of Yeguete’s production fell to Prather, and he has embraced the challenge. He had 12 points and five rebounds in the Gators’ rout of Mississippi State last Saturday, but the Bulldogs sit in the SEC’s cellar and have won just seven games. It was going to be a much bigger task to do it against Kentucky and 6-10 Nerlens Noel, the nation’s leading shot-blocker (4.5 per game), and 7-foot center Willie Cauley-Stein.

Prather not only held his own, he drew three charges and had a big first half to help the Gators rally from a slow start. With Erik Murphy on the bench for much of the first half with two fouls, Prather scored eight points -- two of which came on a dunk in front of Cauley-Stein.

"It's just a matter of confidence with that guy," UF center Patric Young said. "Because, I know he can do that day in and day out. He's just really athletic with really active hands. It was a night where he could show what he can do."

Prather has had limited opportunities to do that in his three seasons. He had trouble getting off the bench because he turned the ball over too much and just didn’t fit in the backcourt. He also has battled injuries throughout his career, including two concussions and a sprained ankle this season. He has played well in spurts -- he had 14 points in an NCAA tournament victory over Virginia last season -- but struggled with consistency.

Florida coach Billy Donovan, though, challenged Prather after Yeguete’s injury, and so far he has responded the way Donovan wanted.

And Prather relishes the task.

"I kind of like the challenge because I’m not as strong as them, or tall as them [inside], so I just take the challenge and try to use my quickness to my advantage," he said. "I like being able to just help the team. Coach challenged me so I had to just take it on to myself as a challenge."

The key will be Prather duplicating what he did against Kentucky -- not necessarily the points, but his defensive effort and work on the boards -- the rest of the regular season, beginning with Saturday’s game at Auburn. The hope is Yeguete will be able to return for the SEC tournament March 13-17.

After the past two games, he’s got his teammates’ confidence.

"I commend Casey a lot because he had a lot of bumpy roads since he’s been here and I feel like this is his opportunity to step up and he’s taking advantage of that," guard Mike Rosario said. "And I commend him because he never lost sight of getting better every day. And even though he went through his little injuries and he missed a couple games, he bounced back for us, especially when we needed him to. That shows a lot about his character and how much he cares about the team"

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- A quick look at No. 7 Florida’s 69-52 victory over No. 25 Kentucky on Tuesday night at the O’Connell Center:

Overview: Florida got off to a slow start, but quickly recovered and rolled past Kentucky to snap a five-game losing streak to the Wildcats -- and secure first place in the Southeastern Conference at the same time.

UF missed its first five shots, fell behind 4-0, and Patric Young wen to the bench with an early foul in the game’s first three minutes. An 8-0 run -- started by an Erik Murphy 3-pointer -- erased that deficit and the Gators (20-3, 10-1 SEC) never trailed.

The 17-point margin is tied for the second-biggest margin of victory for Florida in the series. Five UF players scored in double figures.

Florida now has a two-game lead over Kentucky (17-7, 8-3) in the SEC standings.

Turning point: Kentucky was in position to cut Florida’s lead to less than 10 points with eight minutes remaining in the game, but an injury to Wildcats forward Nerlens Noel sapped UK’s momentum. Noel, who had posted double-doubles in his last previous games, smashed his knee on the basketball support after blocking Mike Rosario’s attempted layup. Florida was leading 57-45 at the time of Noel’s injury. Noel finished with eight points and six rebounds.

Key player: Florida G/F Casey Prather gave the Gators great minutes off the bench, especially in the first half. The 6-foot-6 Prather has been pressed into playing power forward because of the loss of Will Yeguete, and he responded with 8 points, 1 rebound, 1 block and 1 assist in the first 20 minutes. He also drew a pair of charges.

Key stat: As usual, the Gators feasted on turnovers. UF scored 20 points off 17 Kentucky turnovers.

Miscellaneous: UF coach Billy Donovan is now 2-7 against Kentucky under John Calipari. … The 25 points Kentucky scored in the first half was tied for the fewest the Wildcats have scored in a first half this season. … Florida improved to 12-0 at home this season.

Next game: Florida plays at Auburn on Saturday; Kentucky plays at Tennessee the same day.

OMAHA -- Quick thoughts from Florida's 71-45 victory over Virginia Friday at the CenturyLink Center.

Overview: Florida advanced to the round of 32 of the NCAA tournament, but the Gators probably didn't throw much of a scare into their future opponent. At least not in the first half.

With the Missouri Tigers watching from the crowd, the Gators missed their first 15 3-point attempts before finding their groove in a 26-point dismantling of Virginia. As lackluster as Billy Donovan's squad was in the first half, Florida caught fire in the second. The Gators shot 69.6 percent after intermission in what turned out to be one of the more lopsided games in the NCAA tournament thus far.

Florida's performance was good enough to get past an injury-riddled, overmatched Cavaliers squad that hadn't defeated a high-quality team since beating Michigan on Nov. 29. But Donovan knows it will take a much better effort to get past No. 2 seed Missouri if the Tigers advance as expected by beating No. 15 Norfolk State.

Casey Prather and Bradley Beal had 14 points each for No. 7 Florida while Patric Young added 13. Virginia senior forward Mike Scott, an All-ACC performer, had 15 points in his final game as a collegian.

Turning point: Virginia opened the game on 10-2 scoring run, but not much went right for Cavaliers after that. Florida went on a 28-12 tear that resulted in a 30-22 halftime lead. It was never close in the second half.

Key player: Beal chipped in 11 rebounds to go along with his 14 points -- an impressive total for a guard.

Key stat: Florida and Virginia combined to miss their first 20 3-point attempts before Gators guard Scottie Wilbekin finally connected from beyond the arc late in the opening half. The teams were a collective 1-for-22 on 3-pointers before intermission.

Miscellaneous: Virginia was making its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007. ... Tony Bennett's father, Dick Bennett -- the former Wisconsin head coach -- was in the stands Friday to support his son. ... Florida is now 26-9 in NCAA tournament games under Billy Donovan. ... The Gators advanced to the Elite Eight last season. ... Florida had lost four of its past five games before Friday.

What's next: Florida improves to 24-10 and advances to play either Missouri or Norfolk State on Sunday. Virginia ends its season 22-9.

Summer Buzz: Florida Gators

August, 6, 2010
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject? Florida. Up next? UCLA.

The 2010-11 Florida Gators are an interesting proposition.

Kenny Boynton
Richard C. Lewis/Icon SMIKenny Boynton averaged 14 points per game for the Gators last season.
In many ways, this is the same team that had an improved 2009-10 season. Last year's Gators were better than recent incarnations, and their season culminated with the program's first appearance in the NCAA tournament since the Joakim Noah-led glory years.

But that improvement, while real, was merely marginal. The Gators were a bubble team for most of the season, and they weren't especially impressive on either side of the ball. Florida ranked No. 32 in adjusted offensive efficiency (112.6 points per 100 possessions) and No. 67 in adjusted defensive efficiency (94.9 allowed).

Nor were the Gators at all deep. Four players -- Erving Walker, Kenny Boynton, Chandler Parsons, and Alex Tyus -- played more than 70 percent of the Gators' available minutes last season, and all four used more than 21 percent of their team's possessions. All four are back in 2010-11.

In other words, if you're trying to project the 2010-11 Florida Gators' season, you'd do well to start in 2009-10. This year's Gators are going to look a lot like last year's.

That doesn't mean fans should necessarily expect the same season, however. For one, Boynton is taking the freshman-to-sophomore leap that can oftentimes yield a player's greatest stretch of improvement. Boynton is a skilled scorer who can get his shot against anybody; if his jumper becomes more efficient, he could have a big-time sophomore season.

It's also worth noting that, you know, sometimes veteran cores with years of experience playing together just ... get better. It's much harder to quantify than pace or adjusted efficiency, of course. But it is something.

Also, Chandler Parsons is (somehow) getting taller. So there's that, too.

More than anything, though, the Gators' chances of improving will rest largely on the contributions they get from yet another talented Billy Donovan recruiting class -- on the defensive end, specifically. The Gators will welcome 6-foot-9 forward Patric Young, the No. 13-ranked player in the 2010 class, as well as the No. 35-ranked Casey Prather, a 6-foot-6 small forward. ESPNU's recruiting analysts have raved about both players' defensive abilities, calling Young "the best all-around post defender" in the 2010 class. Prather, meanwhile, is "one of the top on-ball defenders in this class nationally."

That qualifies as very good news for the Gators. Florida was efficient enough on offense last season, but it was merely mediocre on defense. In fact, were it not for a very impressive ability to keep its opponents away from the free throw line -- Florida was the No. 13-ranked team in opponents' free throw rate -- the Gators would have been downright bad.

Adding two players of Young and Prather's skills -- especially Prather, who can add defensive skill and depth to Florida's backcourt in one fell swoop -- is exactly what the Gators need.

If those recruits can blend into what is already a well-defined Florida core, and that core improves as it should, Florida could have its first legitimate postseason run since the title years. Last year was nice, but the 2010-11 Gators -- much the same, but, as Florida fans will hope, a little different, too -- ought to be worth the watch.