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Casey Prather’s star turn a boon for Florida

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NEW YORK — Billy Donovan said that this season, for his Gators, has been exhausting.

Between the injuries and the suspensions and the academic issues, the status of Florida’s roster has been a bigger story to date than their performance against teams like Wisconsin or UConn or Kansas.

“I almost keep looking around to see who is going to be walking through the door that I don’t know about,” the Florida head coach quipped after his No. 15 Gators held off No. 16 Memphis 77-75 in the nightcap of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. “It’s been a real drain on our team emotionally.”

I can imagine. Scottie Wilbekin was suspended for five games, leaving Florida with a freshman, Kasey Hill, starting at the point. Hill sprained his ankle before Wilbekin returned, and when Wilbekin finally did make it back to the court, he sprained his ankle in a game at UConn that Hill was unable to suit up. Michael Frazier had mono. Dorian Finney-Smith was hurt. Eli Carter is redshirting. Chris Walker is just now getting back to practice, something that may never happen with Damontre Harris.

Did I miss anything? Probably.

The irony of it all? All of those off-the-floor issues and all of that time in the training room may have actually been the best thing that could have happened to the Gators this season. You see, while Donovan was busy trying to figure out who will run the point or what his front court rotation will look like or how the heck he is going to be able to scrimmage 5-on-5 in practice, senior Casey Prather has quietly turned into one of the nation’s best scorers.

“I am just trying to do what needs to be done for the team,” said Prather, a former top 50 recruit that’s humble enough to perfect every press conference cliché you can think of.

Prather entered the season having spent the past three seasons filling a role for the Gators (8-2). He was a defensive stopper. He was a finisher in transition. He was glue-guy, a blue-collar scrapper that picked up more floor-burns than he did buckets. As a junior, he averaged career-highs of 6.2 points and 17.1 minutes. He was an afterthought. In previews of Florida’s team, he was the guy that was mentioned in passing at the end, with a note about how he’ll add to Florida’s versatility and depth.

No one saw him becoming a leading candidate for SEC Player of the Year as we head towards the holidays.

Entering Tuesday night, Prather was averaging 18.2 points, 6.1 boards and 2.3 assists while shooting 61.3% from the floor and getting to the charity stripe 7.6 times per game. Against Memphis, Prather finished with 22 points and four boards, hitting 8-of-13 from the floor and 6-of-6 from the charity stripe. He scored the last eight points for the Gators, twice having plays run for him in the half court while knocking down four straight free throws in the final 80 seconds.

Again, no one saw this coming.

And I’m not sure it actually would have happened had the Gators been at full strength entering the season. Florida had a void to begin the year, and Prather simply stepped up and played his part. “I took it upon myself to be a leader,” he said, “to hold myself accountable for my mistakes and for my actions that helps us win.” The missing players “freed him up to evolve into this position,” Donovan said.

The difference in Prather isn’t that he has become a totally different player this season. He didn’t magically transform into Paul George during the offseason. He isn’t the second-coming of Kobe Bryant. No NBA scouts are going to be confusing Prather with Andrew Wiggins or Marcus Smart. It’s actually quite the opposite. Prather has learned to trust his ability, to embrace his strengths and take advantage of what he does best.

“Sometimes guys, when they get in there and want to have an opportunity to play at the next level and they’re 6-foot-5 or 6-foot-6, people say, ‘he’s got to shoot the ball better,'” Donovan said. “When he was a freshman and sophomore, he was so consumed with his jumpshot. That’s all he wanted to do. It was probably seven or eight things he did better than shoot the basketball. He’s not a high-volume three-point shooter. He slashes to the basket. He offensive rebounds. He gets on the break. He can go off the dribble. He can play off the bounce. He’s playing to his strengths instead of trying to prove he can overcome his weaknesses.”

“It’s the first time I feel like he’s playing with a clear head and a clear mind. ‘Ok, here’s who I am as a player. Here’s how I can take advantage of it.'”

According to Synergy, Prather had taken just seven jump shots on the season entering Tuesday night, with the rest of his field goals either coming at the rim, on post-ups, runners or in transition. I’d call that playing to his strengths.

And it came at a time where the Gators needed him the most.

Prather didn’t remake himself in the offseason. He simply took advantage of an opportunity, and Florida is currently reaping the benefits.

Because with Prather playing this way, the Gators are a legitimate title contender.

Kawhi Leonard to be inducted into SDSU Hall of Fame

Kawhi Leonard (Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard (Getty Images)
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Kawhi Leonard is, and probably always will be, the greatest player to ever come through the San Diego State ranks.

And this week, the Aztecs announced that they will be honoring the all-NBA wing due to his accomplishments in Viejas Arena: Leonard will be enshrined in the SDSU Hall of Fame this October.

Leonard is a terrific story, one that most people probably already know. A former Mr. Basketball in California, Leonard was somewhat under-recruited, winding up at SDSU where he proceeded to post monster numbers for an Aztec team that climbed into the top five in the country his sophomore season. He went pro after just two years with the program, getting picked 15th by the Spurs due to concerns about his ability to adjust to the perimeter full-time.

And we all know how that worked out.

VIDEO: South Dakota walk-on Logan Power get surprised with a scholarship

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Logan Power, a 6-foot-4 redshirt sophomore from Nebraska, landed a scholarship at the end of South Dakota’s trip to Spain.

You can see the video of it above. Power played in 14 games last season, averaging 2.5 points as he played a real role for the Coyotes down the stretch of the season.

Sometimes moments like this can feel like artificial, like a production designed to boost a coach’s Q rating as much as it is to award the player that scholarship. This doesn’t feel like that at all, as head coach Craig Smith barely can even offer a speech about the player as he fights to hold back tears.

It’s a touching moment.

Well done, USD.

Why did Trevon Duval list Seton Hall, St. John’s and not Duke, Kentucky?

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Trevon Duval is the reason that mixtapes were created.

A top five player and the top point guard in the Class of 2017, Duval is 6-foot-3 and super-athletic, boasting the kind of handle that would make Uncle Drew blush. It’s not possible to do any kind of scouting off of a mixtape; judging what a player can and can’t do based off of a highlight package doesn’t happen.

But given what Duval is capable of doing, it makes him the perfect player to have game film cut and edited so that his highlights fit seamlessly within the beat of an instrumental.

That’s why this mixtape is so good.

But unlike a lot of mixtape phenoms, Duval’s game goes beyond the tricks that look good in slow motion.

His ranking isn’t a fluke. He’s far and away the best point guard in 2017, but you wouldn’t know that based on his offer list.

On Monday, “trimmed” his list to ten schools: He’s not following a typical path for the top point guard in the class. Much has been written in the last six months about how Duke and Kentucky, the two preeminent programs on the recruiting trail, have been targeting second tier point guards in the Class of 2017, the likes of Trae Young and Quade Green and Tremont Waters.

Young and Green and Waters are all terrific players, top 30 recruits with a shot at becoming McDonalds All-Americans, but Duval is in a tier all by himself. He’s the only surefire one-and-done point guard in the class.

And he listed Seton Hall and St. John’s in his final ten.

He didn’t list Duke and Kentucky.

What do Seton Hall, St. John’s and Trevon Duval all have in common?

Under Armour.

Duval plays for We-R-1 on the travel circuit, a program that is sponsored by UA. He played his junior season at API, a high school program in Texas that was sponsored by Under Armour. Emmanuel Mudiay and Terrence Ferguson, the last two elite prospects to forego college to head directly to the professional ranks overseas, both came from API and reportedly signed sponsorship deals with UA. If UA has a reputation at the grassroots level, it’s that they’re as loyal as any of the three major shoe companies. They do everything they can to keep it all in the family.

The best example of this?

Diamond Stone, a product of the Under Armour Association circuit and Wisconsin native that bucked in-state powers Wisconsin and Marquette to play for Maryland, the program that is to UA and Oregon is to Nike.

It doesn’t always work that way — see: Josh Jackson — and of the final 10 schools on Duval’s list, only four are programs sponsored by Under Armour.

But it’s not an accident that Seton Hall and St. John’s made the cut, and it’s not a coincidence that UCLA — who just this summer signed a massive sponsorship deal with the apparel company — is now considered to be the favorite to land Duval.

The idea that shoe companies control where elite prospects go to school is a bit overblown in this day and age. If it wasn’t, Kansas, an adidas school, wouldn’t have landed Andrew Wiggins or Josh Jackson, two of the last four No. 1 players in the country, neither of whom played with an adidas sponsored team before college.

But it does happen.

And when it does, it’s not all that hard to identify.

Trevon Duval (Kelly Kline/Under Armour)
Trevon Duval (Kelly Kline/Under Armour)

Report: CBE Hall of Fame Classic headliners set

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The headliners for the 2017 CBE Hall of Fame Classic have been set.

UCLA, Baylor, Wisconsin and Creighton will highlight the bill for the annual event in Kansas City, according to a report from CBS Sports.

The CBE Hall of Fame Classic historically has included on-campus games and a flagship four-team championship round at the Sprint Center. This year’s headliners include Kansas, Georgia, George Washington and UAB.

Certainly securing four high-majors is a significant get for the event, which will also likely coincide with the induction of the 2017 class of the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. The 2016 class is highlighted by Mark Aguirre, Doug Collins, Dominique Wilson, Jamal Wilkes and Mike Montgomery.

Coach Cal softball game raises $300K for La. flood relief

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John Calipari is known for his ability to amass talent. Over the weekend, that quality helped raise $300,000 for Louisiana flood relief.

The Coach Cal Celebrity Softball Classic brought Kentucky stars like Keith Bogans, Andrew Harrison and Karl-Anthony Towns and the likes of former UK quarterback Tim Couch and NFL Hall of Famer Chris Carter to Lexington to help aid Louisiana in conjunction with the Red Cross after the area suffered major flooding earlier this month.

“I didn’t want to really do a softball game,” Calipari said according to his website, “but then we decided to do it and then Louisiana happens and now you have a cause. … It’s kind of neat. You have a cause, you have a why.”

Towns’ team was the 18-12 victor over Team Calipari on the day.

“This is amazing,” Towns said on CoachCal.com. “This is something that we get a chance to rarely do. We get to help the community out but at the same time have fun. There’s nothing better than doing something that we would do for free but for charity. This is something we’re going to have a lot of fun doing today.”

The softball game was played the same weekend as the John Calipari Basketball Fantasy Experience which generated $1 million that will be shared with 14 charities.