SEC basketball preview: Experienced Gators defend league title

Billy Donovan has an experienced squad that features four seniors in the starting lineup, including senior forward Casey Prather, left, senior guard Scottie Wilbekin (5) and senior center Patric Young, right. Senior starter Will Yeguete is not pictured.

Matt Stamey/staff photographer
Published: Monday, January 6, 2014 at 8:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 6, 2014 at 8:55 p.m.

When Florida begins Southeastern Conference play this week, the defending league champion Gators will once again try to prove that experience can trump one-and-done talent.

The league heavyweights are Florida and Kentucky, in no particular order, with Missouri running a close third.

Florida has won two of the last three league titles (2011, 2013) with veteran teams that have featured three senior starters. In 2011, it was Chandler Parsons, Alex Tyus and Vernon Macklin. In 2013, it was Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy and Mike Rosario.

This season, Florida starts four seniors from its fruitful 2010 class. Center Patric Young, forward Will Yeguete, forward Casey Prather and point guard Scottie Wilbekin have combined for 445 career games, 171 career starts and 2,505 points entering UF's SEC opener Wednesday against South Carolina.

“Having those four guys, they understand the league and what league play is all about,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said.

And UF's four seniors are starting to click at the right time. In his first full year as a starter, Prather scored in double figures in all of UF's 13 non-conference games and is 10th in the SEC in scoring at 17.3 points per game. Young is coming off back-to-back 15-point, 6-rebound games against Richmond and Savannah State and, according to Donovan, is having “his best season.”

“One thing that's helped him is going from 250 pounds to 240 pounds,” Donovan said. “I think he's in better condition. I think he's running the floor better. I think he's chasing balls better. I think he's doing a lot more things that we would like to see him do that maybe were missing the last couple years. “

Wilbekin remains one of the toughest perimeter defenders in the country, while Yeguete, who is coming off offseason knee surgery, is still trying to round into form.

“Coach D has done a really good job of keeping his guys and making sure they're improving,” Yeguete said.

Yeguete recalled the value of having Tyus, Parsons and Macklin as senior starters when he was a freshman.

“You could see in their eyes how much they wanted to get it in their last year, and we want the same things for us,” Yeguete said. “We have a good group of guys. We just have to keep on improving every day.”

Kentucky will try to follow its formula of 2012, when three freshmen starters (Center Anthony Davis, forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and point guard Marquis Teague) led the Wildcats to not only an SEC title, but an NCAA title as well. This season, the Wildcats have added a freshman class with six McDonald's All-Americans. Four of the six freshmen (forward Julius Randle, guard James Young, guard Andrew Harrison and guard Aaron Harrison) are starting.

Florida won't face Kentucky until Feb. 15 at Rupp Arena, which will give UK's freshmen more time to jell. The rematch between the two schools will be an emotional Senior Day at the O'Connell Center when Florida hosts Kentucky on March 6.

By then, Donovan said he thinks it will be important for his younger players to grow and develop as well. Sophomore guard Michael Frazier II has cemented a starting job for the Gators by shooting a league best 49.3 percent from 3-point range. Freshman McDonald's All-American point guard Kasey Hill and sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith, a Virginia Tech transfer, also will need to adjust to SEC play.

“Michael Frazier is in a different role,” Donovan said. “Kasey Hill is a freshman getting a chance to play a bit more. DeVon Walker didn't play at all last year and now he's a year older. We still have some younger guys who are going to have to step up and contribute with those guys and we're going to need leadership from those four guys. We're going to need those four guys to set the stage for our team going forward.”

2014 SEC Preview

Projected order of finish by Sun Sports Writer Kevin Brockway


Record: 11-2

Key additions: Kasey Hill, G; Dorian Finney-Smith F

Key losses: Erik Murphy F, Kenny Boynton G, Mike Rosario G

Outlook: Experienced Gators will defend, but can they score enough consistently and take care of the ball well enough to overcome challenges on the road? Defending league champs won't go down easily.


Record: 10-3

Key additions: Julius Randle F, Aaron Harrison, G, Andrew Harrison G, James Young G-F

Key losses: Nerlens Noel C, Kyle Wiltjer F, Archie Goodwin G, Julius Mays G

Outlook: Randle is a beast inside, but it's taken a while for Kentucky's six McDonald's All-American freshmen to jell. Sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein is a shot-blocking machine inside, but doesn't score much. Kentucky-Florida regular-season finale at O'Connell Center in March could determine league title.


Record: 12-1

Key additions: Jordan Clarkson G, Johnathan Williams III F

Key losses: Phil Pressey G, Laurence Bowers F, Alex Oriakhi F

Outlook: A Tulsa transfer, the 6-foot-5 Clarkson is second in the SEC in scoring (19.3 ppg) and assists (4.3 apg). The Tigers have posted nice non-conference wins over UCLA and West Virginia. Missouri lacks depth inside but has plenty of quality guards led by Clarkson, senior Earnest Ross and junior Jabari Brown.


Record: 9-3

Key additions: Jordan Mickey F, Jarell Martin F

Key losses: Charles Carmouche G, Andrew Del Piero C

Outlook: LSU is starting to get more comfortable playing up-and-down the court under second-year coach Johnny Jones. With center Johnny O'Bryant and point guard Anthony Hickey, the Tigers have an excellent inside-out combination capable of piling up league wins. Depth and defense remain issues that LSU will need to conquer going forward.


Record: 9-4

Key additions: Antonio Barton G, Darius Thompson G

Key losses: Skylar McBee G, Trae Golden G

Outlook: The Vols looked downright ugly in non-conference losses to Xavier, UTEP and North Carolina State. But Tennessee bounced back nicely with a big home win against Virginia. Senior swingman Jordan McRae is a player of the year candidate and Jeronne Maymon and Jarnell Stokes are load to handle in the post. But until Tennessee gets consistent point guard play, the Vols will struggle to contend for a league title.


Record: 11-2

Key additions: Bobby Portis F, Alandise Harris G-F

Key losses: B.J. Young G, Marshawn Powell F, Hunter Mickelson F

Outlook: The Hogs have continued their recent trend — world-beaters at home, also rans on the road. In his third season at Arkansas, Mike Anderson is finally getting all the pieces together on his roster to fit his team's running, pressing style. Portis is a potential star and will try to lead Arkansas to its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2008.

Ole Miss

Record: 9-4

Key additions: Sebastian Saiz F

Key losses: Murphy Holloway F, Reginald Buckner F, Nick Williams G

Outlook: With Marshall Henderson, the Rebels will always be entertaining. Jarvis Summers also has greatly improved this season. With Summers and Henderson, Ole Miss may have the best backcourt in the SEC, but questions remain up front replacing Buckner and Holloway.


Record: 6-7

Key additions: Algie Key G, Jimmie Taylor F, Shannon Hale F

Key losses: Trevor Lacey G, Devonta Pollard F, Moussa Gueye C

Outlook: Trevor Releford is among the best point guards in the SEC, but needs more production from his supporting cast for the Tide to succeed. Alabama challenged itself with a tough non-conference schedule that included losses to Duke (in Preseason NIT in New York City) and at UCLA. Like Ole Miss, Alabama is relying on too many young bodies inside. Could be another tough season for former Florida assistant Anthony Grant, who is 92-59 in four-plus seasons as coach of the Tide.

Texas A&M

Record: 9-4

Key additions: Jordan Green G, Jamal Jones F, Davonte Fitzgerald F

Key losses: Elston Turner G, Ray Turner F, J'Mychael Reese G

Outlook: Reese was recently dismissed from Texas A&M for violation of athletic department rules and regulations, taking away some potential scoring punch in the backcourt. Texas A&M lacks depth in the frontcourt but can cause teams problems by spreading the floor with three and four-guard lineups.


Record: 8-4

Key additions: Damian Jones C, Eric McClellan G

Key losses: Kedren Johnson G, Kevin Bright G

Outlook: Kevin Stallings in one of the most underrated coaches in college basketball, but the cupboard is bare here from a talent standpoint. With G Kederen Johnson dismissed from the team, it puts more pressure on F Rod Odom to handle the scoring load night-in, night-out. Losing C Josh Henderson for the year with a knee injury also will be tough for Vandy to overcome.


Record: 8-3

Key additions: KT Harrell G, Tahj Shamsid-Deen G

Key losses: Frankie Sullivan G, Rob Chubb C, Shaquillle Johnson G

Outlook: Auburn could surprise some teams if Harrell, a Virginia transfer who leads the SEC in scoring at 19.4 points per game, continues to play at a high level. Auburn coach Tony Barbee is coaching for his job after three subpar seasons. The Tigers lack depth up front but have some talent in the backcourt led by Harrell and senior Chris Denson.

Mississippi State

Record: 10-3

Key additions: I.J. Ready G

Key losses: Jalen Steele G, Wendell Lewis C

Outlook: Ricky Ray is a good coach ,but Mississippi State still needs more time to blossom. Sophomores Gavin Ware (F), Craig Sword (G) and Fred Thomas (G) form a solid young nucleus that should improve as the season progresses. An NIT berth is a worthy goal to shoot for.


Record: 6-6

Key additions: Juwan Parker G

Key losses: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope G, John Florveus F

Outlook: Caldwell-Pope earned SEC Player of the Year honors before bolting as a sophomore to become a lottery pick (9th overall in the NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons). Without Caldwell-Pope, Georgia has struggled in non-conference play. Fifth-year coach Mark Fox simply hasn't recruited well enough.

South Carolina

Record: 7-6

Key additions: Sindarius Thornwell G, Tyrone Johnson G, Demetrius Henry F-C

Key losses: Lakeem Jackson F, Brian Richardson G, Eric Smith G

Outlook: Hard team to figure out, but at its worst, South Carolina is pretty bad. Second-year coach Frank Martin still needs time to bring in the talent that fits his running, pressing system.

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