UF not lacking in leadership
Published: Thursday, February 13, 2014 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 14, 2014 at 12:16 a.m.
It's easy to look at Saturday's prime-time matchup between No. 3 Florida and No. 14 Kentucky as a battle of experience against youth.
Florida starts four seniors. Kentucky starts five freshmen.
But part of the reason the Gators (22-2, 11-0 SEC) are taking a 16-game winning streak into their matchup with the Wildcats at Rupp Arena has been the evolution of UF's seniors as leaders.
It comes not by words, but by example. It's Florida senior center Patric Young diving past two flat-footed Tennessee players for a loose ball. It's Florida senior guard Scottie Wilbekin making smart decisions and making big shots down the stretch. It's senior forward Will Yeguete sacrificing his body for another charge, or senior forward Casey Prather fighting through ankle problems to grab rebounds in traffic against players three or four inches taller than him.
“One of the thing that young people struggle with — and our guys are pretty good with this is before you can lead, you've got to be responsible for yourself and accountable to yourself,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “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.”
There was no finger-pointing on Dec. 2, when Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier was left open for a putback shot at the buzzer that beat the Gators 65-64. Since then, the Gators have gone more than two months without a loss. During that span, Florida has won eight games by single digits and two games by five points or less. After going 0-6 in games decided by single digits last year, Florida is 10-2 in single-digit games so far this season.
“I think it has a little bit to do with experience, four seniors,” Wilbekin said. “It's been a while since we've had four seniors on a team. Just stepping up and making big plays on the offensive side and the defensive side, especially just staying locked in and not letting up.”
Donovan said he doesn't expect his seniors to be perfect every time they step on the court. He just wants their focus to remain on the team over the individual.
“When you do that, you build trust, you build confidence, you build connectivity inside of your team, and I think these four guys — Prather, Yeguete, Wilbekin and Pat — have displayed that,” Donovan said. “None of them are perfect. They all make mistakes, but I don't think you can ever question their heart in terms of where it is, and their heart is for the team and trying to do whatever they can to help the team.”
Donovan said it has also helped this season to have good followers, noting that sophomores Dorian Finney-Smith, DeVon Walker and Michael Frazier II and freshmen Chris Walker and Kasey Hill have been receptive to listening and learning from UF's upperclassmen.
“The problem comes in when you've got guys that are following bad leadership and your team gets taken off a cliff,” Donovan said. “That's not good, either. But if you've got good guys that are about the right things and they're talking to young people about helping them, those guys have got to be responsible for wanting to be led.”
Donovan pointed to freshman McDonald's All-American forward Chris Walker as an example of a player embracing the advice from UF's seniors.
“Chris Walker has been very, very open to listen to Patric, to Yeguete, to Prather, to Wilbekin, to have those guys help him,” Donovan said. “He's been a very, very good listener. He doesn't come across like he has all the answers and solutions and knows everything. Chris has been patient listening to those guys, and those guys have been patient trying to help Chris.
“There's times where Patric Young needs to be led, Wilbekin needs to be led. But when you're in a role like that, you have to have guys who follow and good followers too. And good followers to the right message.”