Monday, November 20, 2017
Sports

Senior-laden Gators aim to take next step to NCAA title

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ORLANDO

Florida center Patric Young never really had much intention of spending four years with the Gators. Expectations were that he would be NBA-bound long before then. Casey Prather's first two seasons were so rocky that he briefly thought about leaving for somewhere he thought better-suited for his talents. • Scottie Wilbekin's career nearly ended after two disciplinary suspensions in less than a year, including the start of this season. Will Yeguete's career has been marred by knee injuries and a broken bone in his foot. • Yet all have persevered, and when Florida (32-2) opens second-round play today in the NCAA Tournament against Albany (19-14) at the Amway Center, the four are on a final quest to leave Florida with a national championship after three Elite Eight appearances. • "What fuels us is just our last opportunity to win a championship," said Wilbekin, the SEC player of the year. "We want a championship. If we fall short of it with the Sweet 16, the Final Four, it won't be what we wanted."

In an era where four-year players are a rarity in college basketball, this class has proven there is value in veterans. They've won 55 regular-season SEC games, most in the conference during that period. And their 117 total victories matches the most for any senior class in UF history.

It is, Florida coach Billy Donovan said, a process that has come nearly full circle.

"I think it was a maturation process for them to learn and grow through some of those things," Donovan said. "It's really been a process for them over four years, and they have steadily gotten better. The thing that I'm most proud about them is they've stayed the course."

The result has been an unprecedented season for the Gators, who are the tournament's No. 1 overall seed and on a 26-game winning streak.

"We've been through so much together, we know each other so well, and I think that's what you've been seeing out on the court this year," Young said. "It took us a while to get here, understanding the process of what it takes to know your role on the team and what it takes to win."

Those lessons are now being passed down in a way that the four seniors didn't necessarily get when they were underclassmen.

"They've been through pretty much everything," freshman guard Kasey Hill said. "Whatever I can learn from them, that's what I try to do. All of them are great leaders, very encouraging. They're just all great guys to look up to."

For Prather, who played sparingly the first two seasons, success is even sweeter.

"We're so close," Prather said. "From the first day we met, we just clicked. I don't know what it was about it, but we clicked instantly. Since then we've just improved our relationship on and off the court. I'm just proud of the things we've accomplished together."

For those picking the Gators to make a long tourney run, it's the veteran leadership that is expected to provide an edge.

"I think those four seniors give them substance, give them character, give them toughness, give them leadership," ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg said. "I call it invested in winning. That team is invested in winning. They understand who they are, and I think the greatest thing about Billy Donovan to me is that team plays with great confidence, but they play without ego. They not only embrace roles, but they champion roles. And that's really hard. It's easy to give a kid a role as a coach, it's harder to get a kid to embrace it and champion it."

Antonya English can be reached at english@tampabay.com.

     
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