Florida is 11-2 and ranked 10th in this week’s Associated Press poll. Back in October, though, it would’ve been easy to predict problems for the Gators. Especially early in the season.
Point guard Scottie Wilbekin was suspended indefinitely along with coveted forward Dorian Finney-Smith. The team’s top three-point shooter, Michael Frazier, had mononucleosis and coveted signee Chris Walker had been deemed ineligible for the first semester.
As they prepared for their Nov. 8 opener against North Florida, an air of uncertainty hovered over the Gators like that cloud of dust around Pig-Pen.
“To tell you the truth,” forward Casey Prather told Bleacher Report Tuesday, “we didn’t know what was going to happen.”
With a future Hall of Fame coach stalking the sideline in Billy Donovan, it shouldn’t be all that surprising that Florida found a way to flourish in the face of adversity.
What’s a bit surprising, though, is that Prather is the one leading the charge.
A 6'6" senior, Prather is averaging 17.3 points for a Gators team that owns victories over Kansas, Memphis and Florida State. He’s shooting 61 percent from the field while contributing 5.8 rebounds and 2.1 assists.
Not bad for a guy who averaged 3.1 points during his first three seasons as a Gator. Donovan said he knew Prather, a former Top 100 recruit, had it in him to succeed at a high level.
“He’s playing to his strengths now instead of trying to prove he can overcome his weaknesses,” Donovan said. “And I think it’s the first time he’s been playing with a clear head, a clear mind, like ‘Here’s who I am as a player, here’s how I need to take advantage of it.’”
For Prather, that means attacking the paint instead of settling for outside jumpers. Prather is a 33-percent shooter from three-point range, but is hard to stop when he uses his 215-pound frame to bully past defenders. Prather is also adept at drawing contact and getting to the charity stripe. He takes an average of 6.2 free throws a game and is making 72 percent of his freebies.
“My biggest improvement just understanding when to drive, when to help on defense, when to go to the offensive glass,” he said. “I just have a better understanding of the game of basketball in general.”
Prather scored in double figures just seven times last season, when injuries limited his progress. He missed the first four games after sustaining two concussions in the preseason and later suffered a high-ankle sprain that kept him out of four games in January.
As a sophomore, Prather had just one double-figure-scoring game in a second-round NCAA tournament win over Virginia, when he tallied 14 points.
Prather said getting off to a good start this season did wonders for his confidence, as he averaged 22.3 points in Florida’s first three games.
“I knew the first couple of games we’d be short a couple of guys,” Prather said. “I just wanted to be as aggressive as I could. (Having success) made me aware of who I was and how I should be playing every game. It made me realize how aggressive I needed to be to help my team.”
Prather’s early-season heroics were hardly a fluke. He’s reached double figures in each of Florida’s 13 games and had 22 points on 8-of-13 shooting against then-No. 22 Memphis. After each game, Prather seeks out Florida media relations director Denver Parler and asks how many rebounds, assists and turnovers he had. The true sign of a leader.
“I’m playing with a clear mind now,” said Prather, who is 22. “I’m having fun.”
Prather is far from the only player who has made a quantum leap from last season to this one. Here are some other notable players who have made significant strides:
Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico—A senior, Bairstow leads the Lobos in scoring with 20.8 points and also contributes 7.7 rebounds. He averaged 9.7 points and 5.9 boards last season.
James Bell, Villanova—The senior forward has keyed the Wildcats’ resurgence by averaging 14.8 points and 6.0 boards, up from 8.6 and 4.2 a year ago.
Perry Ellis, Kansas—The sophomore forward ranks second on the team in points (13.2) and rebounds (6.5) after averaging 5.8 points and 3.9 boards last season.
Justin Jackson, Cincinnati—A senior forward, Jackson’s toughness helps set the tone for the rugged Bearcats. One season after averaging 3.8 points, Jackson is contributing 11.9 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina—One season after averaging 8.2 points on 36-percent shooting, the point guard is scoring a team-high 17.6 points while connecting on 43.4 percent of his shots.
Xavier Thames, San Diego State—The Aztecs point guard is averaging 16.2 points while shooting a career-high 47.5 percent from three-point range. Thames averaged 9.5 points last season.
This Week’s Grades
A: San Diego State
Steve Fisher’s squad is good—and I’m talking about top-10 good. Yes, I realize Kansas couldn’t have hit dirt if it fell off a camel in Sunday’s loss to the Aztecs. The Jayhawks shot just 30 percent, the worst mark ever at home by a Bill Self-coached KU team. Still, credit San Diego State for much of that. Steve Fisher's long, athletic, experienced squad pestered the Jayhawks into their first home non-conference loss in 68 games. In a year defined by parity, there’s not a team in the country that San Diego State—whose only loss was to No. 1 Arizona—can’t beat.
B: Mike Krzyzewski Benching Jabari Parker
Good for Coach K for having the cajones to make the darling of the college basketball season ride the pine. Jabari Parker, for the first time as a Blue Devil, was giving lackluster effort in Saturday’s game against Notre Dame. Krzyzewski noticed it and decided to teach the National Player of the Year candidate a lesson by benching him in the waning minutes of a loss in South Bend. Parker has arguably been the best player in the country thus far, but it’s refreshing to see that Krzyzewski isn’t treating him with kid gloves, as many other coaches would.
C: Marcus Smart
Speaking of National Player of the Year candidates, what was Marcus Smart thinking when he hung on the rim and slapped the backboard following his dunk at Kansas State Saturday. Smart’s showboating earned him a technical and, even worse, forced him to the bench with his fourth foul. With Smart out of the game for nearly nine minutes—and with backup point guard Stevie Clark serving a one-game suspension—Kansas State hung with the Cowboys and eventually pulled away for a 74-71 win in Manhattan. Not Smart, Marcus.
D: Missouri Valley Conference
One of the reasons people believe Wichita State has a realistic chance of finishing the regular season without a loss is the mediocrity of the MVC. Usually one of the nation’s top non-BCS leagues, the MVC took a huge hit when Creighton left for the Big East and stars such as Colt Ryan (Evansville) and Jackie Carmichael (Illinois State) graduated. Indiana State, which defeated Notre Dame earlier this season, may stand the best chance of knocking off the Shockers.
F: Fran McCaffery
I’m all for coaches with fiery passion. I don’t mind when they scream and yell and curse at their players, as long as it’s constructive. And there’s nothing wrong with getting a technical foul on purpose here and there to spark energy on your bench. But Iowa's Fran McCaffery crossed the line Sunday at Wisconsin when he was ejected after receiving a double-technical foul for arguing with officials, one of whom he bumped. McCaffery, who has been suspended one game by the Big Ten, refused to acknowledge after the game that he’d bumped the referee, and on Tuesday, he hinted to ESPN’s Andy Katz that his assistants should’ve stopped him before he reached that point. That’s just ridiculous. Judging by this incident and a handful of other outbursts, I’m beginning to think McCaffery needs professional help for anger issues. He often looks like a man out of control and possessed. He’s an excellent coach, but on Sunday, he may have cost his team a win against the Badgers. The Hawkeyes lost, 75-71.
Starting Five: Coaches Who Should Be on the Hot Seat (If They’re Not Already)
Brad Brownell, Clemson
Don’t let the Tigers’ 10-3 record fool you. Clemson doesn’t have a single impressive win on its resume (unless you count struggling Temple, South Carolina, Davidson and Boston College). And it's toting a horrendous loss to Auburn. I realize this is only Brad Brownell’s fourth season, but the program just doesn’t seem to have any momentum. Clemson went 13-18 a year ago.
Ken Bone, Washington State
The Cougars scored just seven points in the first half of a 60-25 loss at Arizona Thursday. Three days later, they fell to 7-7 after being blown at out by Arizona State. Ken Bone is a good guy who has had some bad breaks (suspensions, transfers, early departures) at Washington State. But it’s time for a change.
Ben Braun, Rice
Ben Braun has 613 career wins (including 185 at Eastern Michigan and 219 at Cal), but he hasn’t been able to get things turned around at Rice, where he had losing records in four of his first five seasons. The Owls went 5-26 a year ago and, somehow, Braun survived. I’ll be shocked if he’s given another chance. Rice is 5-8.
Steve Donahue, Boston College
Not many teams in America have underachieved as much as Boston College. There’s no way a squad with proven players such as Olivier Hanlan and Ryan Anderson should be 4-11 with losses to Auburn, USC and Maryland. The Eagles entered the season with NCAA-tournament hopes. Now, they’ll be lucky to keep their coach.
Mark Fox, Georgia
Mark Fox’s Bulldogs are 6-6 without a quality win. Early in the season, they lost four straight to Nebraska, Georgia Tech, Davidson and Temple. Georgia has made just one NCAA-tournament appearance under Fox and has finished 15-17 the past two years. This season is shaping up to be his worst yet.
Thoughts from Press Row
Down but Not out at Marquette
Marquette entered the season ranked No. 17 in the Associated Press poll. But the Golden Eagles quickly dropped out after losing, 52-35, to Ohio State in the third game of the season.
Buzz Williams’ team has been up and down ever since, with a 9-6 record that includes a 67-49 defeat against Creighton in the Big East opener Dec. 31.
This is somewhat new territory for Marquette under Williams, who has guided the Golden Eagles to at least 22 victories in each of his five seasons. Marquette won a share of the Big East title in 2012-13, when it finished 26-9 overall and 14-4 in league play before advancing to the Elite Eight.
Williams is confident things will improve.
“We have played more top-50 opponents than anyone other than Kansas,” Williams told me in a text Tuesday. “We’ve played six of them and five have been away from home. Four of our first six (Big East) games are on the road.
“We have to continue to fight and find ways to improve...Long ways to go and, because we haven’t been on a run yet, I think we’ve got one in us. We just have to keep working to see if it will unfold."
Tough Times for Tubby
I certainly wasn’t expecting an NCAA-tournament berth from Texas Tech this season, but I thought the Red Raiders would be faring a little bit better under new coach Tubby Smith. Texas Tech went just 3-15 in Big 12 play last season, but it returned four starters and would finally have some direction under one of the country’s more accomplished coaches. Instead, the Red Raiders are just 8-7 overall and 0-2 in league play following Monday’s home overtime loss to West Virginia, one of the worst teams in the Big 12. There’s no excuse for Texas Tech not to win that game at home.
One of the biggest problems lately has been the play of point guard Rob Turner, a junior-college transfer who is averaging just 4.3 points in his last four games. Turner has connected on just 21 percent of his field goal attempts (6-of-28) during that span.
“These games hurt more than losing by 50,” forward Jaye Crockett said after the West Virginia loss. “You fight so hard until the very end. It just kills you.”
Indeed, Texas Tech has improved. It’s just not showing up on the scoreboard.
Colorado is having its best season under fourth-year coach Tad Boyle. The Buffaloes improved to 13-2 overall and 2-0 in Pac-12 play by handing Oregon its first loss of the season in a 100-91 victory Sunday at Coors Events Center.
Boyle said the main thing he likes about his team is its balance. Colorado lost standout rebounder Andre Roberson to the NBA draft. But starters Spencer Dinwiddie, Askia Booker, Josh Scott and Xavier Johnson all returned.
Dinwiddie and Booker combine to average 29.4 points in the backcourt. Scott and Johnson are grabbing a collective 15.7 rebounds per game.
“Our freshmen are playing really well, too,” Boyle said in a text Tuesday, referring to Wesley Gordon, Dustin Thomas and Jaron Hopkins. “I’m a little surprised we’re doing so well so fast with our youth.”
Colorado’s only two losses are against Baylor (in the season opener) and Oklahoma State.
Guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet have been getting a lot of the credit for Wichita State’s 15-0 start, and rightfully so. But the Shockers’ marquee player has always been wing Cleanthony Early, who is starting to heat up at just the right time.
Early is averaging 21.4 points in his last five games and shooting 53 percent (34-of-64) during that span.
Early had a game-high 24 points and 10 rebounds in last season’s Final Four loss to Louisville.
Surging: Air Force
Not enough love for: Illinois
Too much love for: Pittsburgh
Impressive win: SMU over Connecticut
Horrendous loss: LSU to Rhode Island
Give him a raise: Bruce Weber, Kansas State
Put him on watch: Herb Sendek, Arizona State
Please, boss, send me to: Kansas at Iowa State (Monday)
This Week’s Ranking: Point Guards
- Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
- Aaron Craft, Ohio State
- Shabazz Napier, Connecticut
- DeAndre Kane, Iowa State
- Keith Appling, Michigan State
- Xavier Thames, San Diego State
- Jahii Carson, Arizona State
- Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
- Quinn Cook, Duke
- Tyler Ennis, Syracuse
- Marcus Paige, North Carolina
- Spencer Dinwiddie, Colorado
- Chaz Williams, Massachusetts
- Jordan Clarkson, Missouri
- Joe Jackson, Memphis
- Kenny Chery, Baylor
- Kyle Anderson, UCLA
- Chris Jones, Louisville
- Nic Moore, SMU
- T.J. McConnell, Arizona
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.