UF MEN'S BASKETBALL
NCAA tournament path leads Prather back to home state
Published: Wednesday, March 26, 2014 at 7:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 9:39 p.m.
Jeffrey Reid made a careful choice when he purchased a new Honda Accord in 2009.
Reid knew if his stepson, Florida senior forward Casey Prather, decided to play college basketball out of state, he would need something reliable for road trips to watch him play.
“We knew we were fixing to put a lot of miles on it,” Reid said.
But after logging more than 32 hours in a four-door sedan on recent trips to Atlanta and Orlando, Reid and the rest of the Prather family caught a break this week. That’s because Prather, a Jackson, Tenn., native, will return to West Tennessee this week when Florida faces UCLA in the Sweet 16. The game will be held at the FedEx Forum in Memphis, Tenn., 90 miles from where the 6-foot-6 Prather grew up.
Prather went to Memphis Grizzlies games growing up and even played some high school basketball tournament games at FedEx Forum.
“It won’t feel too different, because my family comes to watch me play a lot,” Prather said.
Needless to say, Reid has been flooded with ticket requests.
“So many people have called,” Reid said. “I’ve had to tell them to go to the box office. They understand that tickets are at a minimum.”
These are heady days for Prather, who adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated with the Rowdy Reptiles last week and remains UF’s scoring leader at 14.1 points per game. Prather scored in double figures in the first 18 games he appeared in before being slowed by nagging knee and ankle issues that have hampered him since early February.
The seeds of Prather’s development were planted in Jackson, a town of 65,000 off Interstate 40 made famous by a Johnny Cash song.
“Casey has loved to ball since he was a baby,” Reid said. “Enova (Prather’s mother) would tell the story about when she was at the grocery store, she would have to push the buggy in the middle of the aisle because he was grabbing apples or corn, anything he could get his hands on to play with, or throw with.”
Prather moved on to YMCA and church league basketball. Reid admitted Prather was awkward at first because he was taller than other kids. But once Prather’s coordination caught up to his height, coaches took notice.
Prather latched on with the Nashville (Tenn.) Celtics travel league program in high school and gained notice from schools throughout the country. In high school in Jackson, Prather had free use of the North Side High gym and even played wide receiver for a year with North Side’s football team before devoting his full attention to basketball.
Ole Miss recruited Prather hard at first, but Florida soon followed with a strong push. During an in-home visit with Prather, Florida coach Billy Donovan told the Prather family about a recent trip to Africa in which he went on a safari and swam with sharks.
“Casey and I love shark shows,” Reid said. “He told us that he went in that shark cage and actually, we’ve seen pictures of it. He showed some of that stuff, it was awesome and then the safari hunt when he was on that jeep. But it let me know that he was more than just about basketball.”
That convinced Prather to sign with UF, but his college career didn’t get off to a sterling start. Turnover issues plagued Prather his first two seasons and injury issues (concussions and sprained ankle) relegated him to a bench role as a junior.
But in his senior year, Prather has made the most of his opportunity as UF’s starting small forward, scoring close to twice the amount of points (478) as he did in his first three seasons (276). By making a commitment to drive to the basket instead of settling for jumpers, Prather made first team All-SEC and still leads the conference in field goal percentage (60.7)
“I was so happy to see him reap the rewards of all that hard work because he stuck to it,” Reid said. “We believed in him, he believed in himself and he never stopped.”
Away from the court, though, Prather is uncomfortable talking about his own accomplishments.
“He’d rather put the spotlight on someone else,” Reid said. “He’s always been very humble. Even back when he was here, he wasn’t vocal. He always made it a team effort. He’s a caring kid. He cares a lot. … When he says he’s your friend, he’s devoted to you.”
Deep down, though, Reid said Prather is thrilled for the chance to shine close to home. Prather still has it in the back of his head that Memphis standout guard Joe Jackson barely beat him out for Tennessee Mr. Basketball in high school. When Florida and Memphis met head-to-head in New York City last December, Prather finished with 22 points to Jackson’s 17 points.
“Every time he goes to Memphis, he wants to prove he’s the man,” Reid said.
But Donovan would just take the kind of defensive effort that Prather displayed during UF’s 61-45 win over Pittsburgh (eight points, six rebounds, three steals). When Donovan recruited Prather, he envisioned an athletic player capable of guarding the perimeter similar to another former UF standout from Tennessee — Corey Brewer. While Prather hasn’t emerged as that kind of lock-down defender, he showed that he could impact the outcome of the Pittsburgh game without scoring in double figures.
“He has great ability and great talent in my opinion defensively,” Donovan said. “He's long, he's athletic, he's got good foot speed. But again, I think for him it’s that scenario of focus and concentration that he needs to continue to have at that end of the floor.”
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