Florida basketball begins the 2013-14 regular season against North Florida on Friday at 3 p.m. facing a number of questions about its roster and how the year will play out. Inside the Gators takes a closer look at the squad and dishes out some preseason superlatives.
While head coach Billy Donovan has spent most of the offseason trying to take pressure of his shoulders and downplaying how important he could be to the Gators this year, redshirt sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith has the intangibles that could make a huge difference for Florida as it looks to end its streak of three-straight Elite Eights and reach the Final Four for the first time since 2006-07. The No. 31 overall player in the Class of 2011, Finney-Smith flashed as a freshman at Virginia Tech when he averaged 6.3 points and 7.0 rebounds in 2011-12. Unlike his fellow transfer, he spent his redshirt season practicing daily with the team and improving his game. He is suspended to start the season but should be back by Wisconsin (or soon after), and the Gators could certainly use his versatility.
Point guard. Though senior Scottie Wilbekin is suspended for up to the first six games of the season, he remains a team leader on the court and has, by all accounts, taken his latest discipline to heart. Wilbekin has been laser-focused on basketball, and it has only improved his game in the offseason. Behind or next to Wilbekin, however you want to see it, is five-star freshman Kasey Hill, who will be charged with leading the team in his absence. Once Wilbekin returns, the players will likely start next to each other or at least spent plenty of time on the court together. Florida has not had two capable point guards on the same roster in a long time. Wilbekin can dish and has continuously improved his three-point stroke. Hill can spread the ball around as well and brings a slashing element that the Gators have been missing for years. They should be a dynamic duo as soon as Wilbekin gets back. His practicing with the team throughout the fall should help him fit right in as soon as he's allowed to play.
With so much time spent worrying about Florida's injuries and suspensions, the slow but steady emergence of senior F Casey Prather has been an afterthought for most. Starting with his breakout performance in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, when he scored 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting against Virginia in the first round, Prather has been gaining confidence and using it to improve his overall game. In just over 17 minutes per contest last season, Prather averaged 6.2 points and 3.7 rebound while shooting 62.2 percent from the field. Another year older, wiser and more experienced, he has also benefitted from being one of the few healthy players on the roster this fall. Top-notch athleticism and an improved basketball IQ should allow Prather to help the Gators more than some may expect.
HEART AND SOUL OF THE TEAM:
More than one-third of Florida's losses over the last two seasons have come without senior F Will Yeguete on the court. The Gators are a combined 45-12 with Yeguete in the rotation and 10-7 without him during his sophomore and junior seasons. Simply put, UF is better with Yeguete on the floor, and it is easy to understand why. He provides energy unlike anyone else on the roster and is notorious for doing the dirty work of being a stellar rebounder and excellent defender. He also sacrificed his health for Florida last year, undergoing minor surgery that would allow him to return for the final 10 contests of the season rather than major surgery that would have forced him to miss the last 16 games of the 2012-13 campaign. Yeguete's heady plays give the Gators energy when it is otherwise lacking, and he also stands out as the most resilient players on the roster. Yeguete doesn't need to speak to get his point across; his actions do all the talking for him.
Hill could have been honored with at least half of the superlatives here, as he is certainly a breakout candidate and may even have the opportunity to become Florida's best player (see below) before the season is out. But seeing as he is the only freshman on the roster and a quite talented one at that, there is no question Hill will be the impact first-year player the Gators last had in Brad Beal. As mentioned earlier, Hill will start at point guard and has already commanded a lot of respect from his teammates and his coaching staff. Like Beal, he has remained humble inside the locker room and is just trying to do what he can to help keep Florida intact early in the season. As the year progresses, Hill will likely spread his wings a bit more, which if his exhibition performance is any indication of his potential impact, could land him a spot on plenty of regular season awards lists.
Simply put, Florida does not have one - at least not yet. No one player on the Gators' roster is so complete as to stand head and shoulders above the rest. There are talented shooters and capable defenders, solid rebounders and unselfish ball handlers, but Florida will ebb and flow this year as a team, not individuals. Perhaps that is what makes this Gators squad so unique and their potential so great. Senior center Patric Young has taken it upon himself to step up as a team leader after a trio of upperclassmen graduated last season. Credit him for that. Young has also, apparently, worked hard on his free throw shooting in the offseason, one of the two biggest flaws in his game. The other, of course, is consistent energy and effort, which Donovan correctly points out is a mental characteristic. That being said, when Young is on in a game, he is unstoppable. There is no other player that can be as dominant at his position as Young has proven to be at times. To that end, Florida and Donovan also need to be consistent with how Young is used in games and certainly need to feed the big man when he's rolling in the post.