UF MEN'S BASKETBALL
Florida's senior class on verge of milestone vs. Wildcats
Published: Friday, March 7, 2014 at 6:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 7, 2014 at 6:59 p.m.
The accomplishments have piled up — 112 wins, three Southeastern Conference titles, three Elite Eight appearances and counting, 54 SEC wins.
Who: No. 1 Florida Gators (28-2, 17-0 SEC) vs. No. 25 Kentucky Wildcats (22-8, 12-5)
Where: O'Connell Center, Gainesville
Gainesville-area radio: AM-850, 103.7 FM
Florida's four senior starters have created a winning culture in four years on campus.
"Hopefully the greatest thing hasn't come yet,” Florida senior center Patric Young said. “But as of now, this class has gone through a lot, from guys thinking about transferring to staying in school, to not playing games with injuries, all those things. This team, this senior class, has persevered, stuck together and won."
More history could come for the Gators when they host No. 25 Kentucky in an emotional Senior Day on Saturday afternoon at the O'Connell Center. With a win, the Gators could become the first team in SEC history to finish a perfect in 18-0 in league play. The No. 1 Gators are vying for their 23rd straight win, 32nd straight win at home and first regular-season series sweep of Kentucky since 2007.
The buildup for UF's regular-season finale has been immense, with students camping outside the O'Connell Center for prime spots in the student section and tickets going for as high as $500 on secondary markets for the sold-out game.
Florida coach Billy Donovan said he's already concerned about how his seniors will channel their emotions after pregame ceremonies.
“The rest of the guys can't let whatever moment it is be bigger than the big game we have to play,” Florida senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin said. “That's what we've been trying to focus on.”
The four seniors have taken different paths to success. Wilbekin dealt with a pair of suspensions and had to work his way back into the good graces of the program following his junior season. Senior forward Will Yeguete broke his foot following his sophomore year, then underwent two knee surgeries to repair cartilage during his junior year. Senior forward Casey Prather spent three years coming off the bench before making the most of his chance to start, scoring in double figures in UF's first 18 games this season.
Young, the lone former McDonald's All-American of the group, learned as a senior he could impact games more through his hustle than his scoring.
“We fought through a lot of adversity we had and just stayed connected,” Yeguete said. “That's pretty much how we'll be remembered.”
Through it all, the four seniors have created a bond on and off the court. They've taken pride in defense, with UF leading the SEC in scoring defense each of the last two seasons by playing a blue-collar brand of basketball that relies on constant communication and player rotation. Wilbekin and Young were on the All-SEC defensive team last season and will likely be there again this season.
“We're a really tight team,” Young said. “We don't necessarily live together because I'm not going to call any names, but some of those guys are slobs. But this team this year has definitely taken a lot of steps as a whole just to be more connected and to know each other more.
“It's just the steps we take to really be open and honest with each other and just to realize it's not about the individual; it's about the team and the common goal.”
Donovan has watched UF's seniors grow and jell together from bench roles as freshmen to starters four years later.
“None of them are perfect,” Donovan said. “They've all made mistakes. They've all been through their ups and downs, but I think at the heart of who they are, they're really great kids.
“The other thing that I would say is that this institution means an enormous amount to them personally. Them putting on a Florida uniform, them playing here, has meant a lot to them and something they will carry with them for the rest of their lives. And then I think the other part of it is their teammates have been equally important to them as the institution has been.”
Playing their final games at the O'Connell Center, in front of a frenzied sold-out crowd, should fuel even more motivation for UF's seniors.
“I'm expecting a pretty good atmosphere,” Wilbekin said. “It'll be loud. Hopefully we can go on some runs to make it even louder.”
FLORIDA PROBABLE STARTERS
G Michael Frazier II 6-4 So. 13.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg
G Scottie Wilbekin 6-2 Sr. 12.9 ppg, 3.9 apg
F Casey Prather 6-6 Sr 14.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg
F Will Yeguete 6-7 Sr. 5.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg
C Patric Young 6-9 Sr. 10.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg
KENTUCKY PROBABLE STARTERS
G Aaron Harrison 6-6 Fr. 13.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg
G Andrew Harrison 6-6 Fr. 10.9 ppg, 3.5 apg
G James Young 6-5 Fr. 14.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg
F Julius Randle 6-9 Fr. 15.4 ppg, 10.5 rpg
C Dakari Johnson 7-0 Fr. 4.7 ppg, 3.5 rpg
Notes: Florida is looking to finish its second straight undefeated season at home. The Gators have won 31 straight at home, with their last home loss coming March 4, 2012 against Kentucky (74-59). … Florida is 35-94 all-time against Kentucky and 15-24 against the Wildcats under Billy Donovan. Donovan is 3-8 against Kentucky coach John Calipari. … Florida is vying to become the first SEC team to go 18-0 in league play and just the 16th team in Division I history to finish off a perfect conference record when playing 18 or more games. … Florida is averaging 20 bench points per game over its last four games. … With four steals against South Carolina, Florida freshman point guard Kasey Hill has 30 steals in 23 games this season. … Kentucky is 5-3 on the road this season, with losses at South Carolina, at Arkansas and at LSU. … The Wildcats enter the matchup with top-ranked Florida 6-13 all-time against No. 1-ranked teams.
Three things to watch
1. How Frazier responds
Florida sophomore guard Michael Frazier II is coming off a career-high 37 points against South Carolina. Frazier is 15 for his last 24 beyond the arc and currently ranks first in the SEC in 3-point field goal percentage at 44.1 percent. Frazier struggled in his first meeting against Kentucky (1 of 5 from field, 1 of 4 from 3-point range), but did hit a big 3-pointer against the Wildcats in the closing minutes at Rupp Arena. Florida coach Billy Donovan said coming off the big game against South Carolina, it will be important for Frazier to strike a balance between being productive and not trying to force his own offense. “When players have a game like he had, you've got to understand that you've got to play within yourself,” Donovan said. “You've got to basically take what the defense gives you, and he's got to be really, really smart in terms of shot selection, what he's doing, having an awareness of how he's being played, how he's being defended, what's available, what's not available.”
2. Battle on boards
Kentucky enters the matchup with Florida first in the Southeastern Conference and second in the nation in rebounding margin at plus-10.1. Florida held its own on the boards in the first meeting, with Kentucky outrebounding the Gators 31-28 and scoring just eight second-chance points in its 69-59 win at Rupp Arena. The Gators will need a similar effort Saturday at the O'Connell Center. Kentucky freshman forward Julius Randle has posted 17 double-doubles this season. “We have to do a good job helping one another and a good job rebounding,” Florida senior forward Will Yeguete said. “We know he's going to try to go one-on-one, so we're going to just try and guard him and be there to help and rebound the ball.”
3. Big Blue revenge
Kentucky's loss against Florida on Feb. 15 at Rupp Arena still stings. The Wildcats come into the matchup having lost two of their last three games and are shooting just 31.9 percent from the field during that span. But it's still Florida-Kentucky, the most fierce basketball rivalry in the SEC. With a win against Florida on Saturday, Kentucky can spoil Florida's perfect SEC season and Senior Day. “That's kind of the motivation of what we're trying to do,” Kentucky sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein said.
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