GAINESVILLE — When Florida and Wisconsin met last November at the O'Connell Center, Casey Prather was sitting at the end of the bench wearing Gators sweats, unable to play.
The Florida forward was recovering from one of two concussions he suffered last season, another setback in a career filled promise, yet marred by injuries.
But tonight when the Gators play the Badgers at the Kohl Center, Prather will be a healthy starter on his way to proving that good things come to those who wait.
In Florida's season-opener Friday, the senior scored a career-high 28 points and had eight rebounds.
"I'm not surprised," Prather said. "I've always known I was capable of playing well for this team. It was just a matter of, I didn't know when it would come, I didn't know it would take this long, but I had confidence."
Prather, 22, is one of five players from the six major conferences to score 28 points over the first two games of the season. And while it's still early, Florida coach Billy Donovan believes Prather may have finally come into his own — on his own terms.
"I think this is first time since he's been here at Florida that I really feel like he's played with a clear head," Donovan said. "I think a lot of times, even his freshman, sophomore year, he sometimes looked like a deer in the headlights. He was overwhelmed. He didn't want to make a mistake. He thought too much. And for whatever reason, I think his head is cleared.
"Whether it is through experiences, through making mistakes, through having a better understanding of what he needs to do, whatever it is, I feel like he's playing with a clearer head. You don't see him taking a lot of ill-advised shots. … His freshman and sophomore year he had zero awareness. I would say right now he has a clear head because he has a level of self-awareness."
Prather's early-season performance may surprise some, but his teammates saw this in the making.
"In preseason workouts he was looking really good, so what he's doing now is no surprise," sophomore guard Michael Frazier said.
With the Gators still without three suspended players, Prather's 6-foot-6 presence will be a key in helping to defend Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker, who scored 16 in the Badgers' season opener.
"He's a great player," Prather said. "We'll probably put different players on him and just throw him out of rhythm the best we can."
A finalist for Tennessee's "Mr. Basketball" who averaged 29 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks as a senior at North Side High in Jackson, Tenn., Prather played sparingly in 33 games his freshman season. As a sophomore, he made his impact in an NCAA Tournament game against Virginia when he scored a then-career high 14 points and had four rebounds off the bench.
But along the way, there were the injuries. Last season alone he suffered from two concussions, a high ankle sprain and a cut on his lip that required five stitches in the opener.
Ironically, the setbacks may have helped him become the player he is today.
"I definitely sat and had to watch," he said. "It helped me learn a lot. During practice, I wouldn't be able to practice, so I could pinpoint where to be exactly on offense and defense. Just watching a lot of film helped me. I'm pretty healthy now. Looking back, it was pretty difficult just trying to overcome each injury because I felt like they just kept coming and kept coming. I'm just glad I'm able to be out there now."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected]