By BUDDY MARTIN
Even though these guys really haven’t won the ultimate prize yet – and may not – I feel compelled to confess today that of all the sports teams fielded by the University of Florida over the past 60 years, Billy Donovan’s 2013-14 basketball squad is one of my all-time favorites. And really it has nothing to do with being the nation’s No. 1 team because, as everybody knows, such a distinction this time of year is usually fool’s gold.
No matter what awaits them in March Madness, this team will be on my Mt. Rushmore of Gator hoops. I love the way these Gators have bonded, the way they grew together and approached every game as if they were underdogs. The way they carried themselves with confidence, composure and countenance in crunch time.
But it didn’t come easily. Every game, it seems, was another chapter in “The Little Engine That Could.”
It’s easy to love the championship basketball squads like the ones which won back-to-back national titles in 2006 and ’07 and had three members drafted in the Top 10 of the NBA Draft.
The memories still resonate of Joakim Noah blocking a shot, snatching the ball in mid-air and dribbling on a beeline to the middle of the court to lead the fast break. The nimble giant would dish off to skywalking Corey Brewer on the mega-dunk or Al Horford taking it hard to the rack, or pass to a trailing Taurean Green who would knock down the trey.
Who wouldn’t have been inspired watching theatre and ballet unfold on the hardwood before your very eyes to say nothing of the trophies that were produced?
This 2014 team is not about aesthetics and bling, however. It is neither Picasso or Michelangelo, nor the grace or beauty of the triple axle.
It’s maybe more like MacGyver doing graffiti, a bunch of egoless blue-collared guys with lunch pails doing an honest day’s work. No convergence of art and music these days as much as it has been “Please be patient: Our site is under construction.” Divas need not apply.
There’s not much pretty about Scottie Wilbiken deking on his cat-and-mouse routine, darting in and then pulling back almost like a semi-do-over, dumping a ball-screen pass to Will Yeguete, a guy who only shoots as a last resort. Yeguete more than likely hands off to Casey Prather, who either drives to the hole or dishes to mammoth Patric Young. And sometimes on a hot night, Michael Frazier will be sweet-stroking 3s like buttah.
The heart of their offense is their pressing defense, the zone trap, turning over an opposing player and attacking their will.
They’ve come a long way since Donovan had to scour the parking lot for a quorum to hold practice. And even then it took his former team manager to fill the void and walk-on Jacob Kurtz has wound up playing significant minutes.
If it is true, as the experts say, that success is 90 percent about showing up, then the firm of Wilbiken, Young, Prather & Yeguete will all graduate magna cum laude from Donovan’s School of Grit & Determination.
These. Gators. Always. Show. Up. And. Play. Hard. Period.
In a year when some of the hard-core Gator football fans are flying their flags at half-staff and licking the wounds from a 4-8 campaign, they can proudly beam, “Well, at least we are a BASKETBALL school!” They then can proudly point to The Four Who Stayed For Four who amassed 113 wins, an annual invitation to the Elite Eight and a perfect SEC campaign.
Young, Prather, Yeguete and Wilbiken, through their loyalty, recharged the Gator Nation, raising the spirits of The Boys From Old Florida.
1. We all love Patric, whose guns are superseded only by his supersized heart. But isn’t every one of those jump hooks a hold-your-breath adventure? He lumbers downcourt like an 18-wheeler with one tire low on air, always pedal-to-metal. He goes up for rebounds like a starving lion after red meat and flings himself toward loose balls as if falling on a grenade for his best friend. Yet his signature moment of the season was his lunge for the errant ball against Tennessee and subsequent on-his-butt outlet pass that iced the clock. And let’s not forget that Young has become the most improved free-throw shooter on the squad. He knew if he didn’t become more accurate that his team would be hurt late in games because foes would turn him into a Hack-A-Pat target. He wasn’t the two-time SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year for nothing. Thank you Patric.
2. As much as Young has improved his free-throw shooting, Prather has improved his game times 10 over in the last four seasons. Either that, or when the equipment manager wasn’t looking, a clone of Kevin Durant slipped into that No. 24 uniform. There were times when Prather wanted to transfer, discouraged by his inability to shoot the 3-pointer and lack of scoring to help his team. He was a bit of a loner. So he worked through it only to be injured earlier in this year. Prather more than doubled his 6-point scoring average to lead the team in that department. His defense also became a huge asset. He delights in slapping the ball away for a steal and finishing the break, sometimes with a soft-butterfly landing to avoid the charge. Thank you Casey.
3. Yeguete does the dirty work – whatever scraps are left by Young. He boxes out, sets the picks, takes the charge or sometimes defends the low post. It’s easy to lose sight of Will because he’s not flashy and tends to blend into the background. Yet during high school at Florida Air Academy, he was known as a player who could “dominate a game without scoring,” according to an opposing coach. He was so shy four years ago that he practically needed to re-introduce himself to the team in practice. The fact that he spoke French and his family lived on the Ivory Coast didn’t make for an overnight relationship of sitting around the campfire singing Kumbaya and roasting marshmallows. After a slow start with tendonitis, Yeguete has become one of those unsung heroes you hear about. And he’s sort of the glue. Thank you Will.
4. If it seems like Wilbiken has been playing for Florida since the 1990s, it’s because he was so young (17) when he virtually walked across the street from The Rock to play four more years in his hometown. Yet he almost didn’t play that last season because he was in an eyelash of getting booted off the team late last summer for violation of a team rule. It was the second time in 18 months he broke a team rule and was sat down. His coach invited him to transfer unless Scottie was willing to move back in with his parents and follow a strict conditioning regimen. He also was required to apologize to his teammates and the fans. Even then he was suspended until further notice and didn’t come back until Game 6. Then he suffered an injury. Somehow it made him more resolute. When this team is struggling, needs a bucket but nobody else can throw it in the ocean, Wilbiken is money. He also plays belly-button defense, picks the pocket of his man often and has been known to shut down some of the SEC’s top scorers. If Patric Young is the heart of this team, Scottie Wilbekin is its guts. Thank you Scottie.
They went against the one-and-done philosophy of the basketball mercenaries. Long after any NBA riches might have come and gone, their names will be uttered in respect and Gator basketball lore will likely pay homage to The Four Who Stayed For Four.
In the end, these seniors leave behind a meaningful legacy. They’ve already bequeathed a 32-game homecourt winning streak at the O’Connell Center, not to mention the establishment of the record 18-0 standard in league play.
“They’re going to carry this with them for the rest of their lives,” says their coach. “They’re going to have their children and they’re going to come back here and they’re going to be remembered for what they’ve done. They’ve done something that’s not happened here before.”
Notice how Billy Donovan sort of left himself out of all of this success.
Despite some of the travails earlier in the season, I’ve got a pretty good idea that one day Donovan will admit that this has been one of his most rewarding seasons, because it might be the best coaching job he’s ever done. For right now, however, he’s got another hill to climb with “The Little Engine That Could.”
(Email Buddy Martin at email@example.com)