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.

Roach scores 20 as Texas beats No. 8 Texas Tech 67-58

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AUSTIN, Texas — Kerwin Roach II scored 20 points in a surprise return to the lineup and Texas got another home win over a Top 25 opponent in a week, beating No. 8 Texas Tech 67-58 Wednesday night.

Roach, who had missed the previous two games with a fracture in his left, non-shooting hand, was expected to miss a few more. But he suited up for pregame warmups and was cleared to play right before tipoff.

Roach gave the Longhorns a new threat both inside and out with his 3-point shooting and aggressive drives to the basket. The Longhorns — who beat then-No. 16 TCU 99-98 in double-overtime last Wednesday — also played their best defense in weeks, anchored by freshman center Mo Bamba under the basket. Bamba had 15 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks.

Texas (12-6, 2/3 Big 12) led by 13 early in the second half before the Red Raiders rallied to get within four. But the Longhorns got two big 3-pointers by Eric Davis, Jr., including one with 3:28 left that pushed the lead back to 10.

Jarrett Culver scored 16 points to lead Texas Tech (15-3, 4-2).

BIG PICTURE

Texas Tech: The Red Raiders are having their best season in years and second-year coach Chris Beard has the program contending for the Big 12 title. But they missed a chance to pick up an important road win and dropped their 22nd consecutive game in Austin. The Red Raiders haven’t beaten Texas in Austin since 1996, when both programs were in the old Southwest Conference.

Texas: The Longhorns will get a shot of confidence in an inconsistent season with another big win. Most of all the Longhorns showed they can protect a big lead, even if just barely. Texas let a double-digit second half lead get away in a crushing road loss at Oklahoma State last week.

UP NEXT

Texas Tech plays at Iowa State

Texas plays at No. 6 West Virginia

SMU lands massive résumé win at No. 7 Wichita State

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It’s too strong to say that SMU saved their season on Wednesday night.

The Mustangs already own a neutral court win over No. 14 Arizona. They also knocked off USC, Boise State and UCF, all of which will be varying degrees of “good win” come Selection Sunday. That loss to Northern Iowa doesn’t look good today, and it’s hard to imagine losses to Tulane and Temple – the latter of which came at home – are going to age gracefully, but in a year where it seems like everyone is mediocre at best, a marquee win combined with a stable of solid résumé wins could end up being enough.

That said, on Wednesday, SMU sure went a long way towards making sure they won’t have to sweat out the bracket reveal, as the Mustangs went into Koch Arena and knocked off No. 7 Wichita State, 83-78. The win snapped a three-game losing streak for SMU.

The star of the show was Shake Milton. A player that has had NBA hype for what seems like the better part of a decade, Milton had a career-high 33 points on Wednesday night, the best game of his career in what has been a breakout junior season. He did it on 11-for-14 shooting, making 5-for-6 from three and outdueling fellow NBA Draft prospect Landry Shamet, who finished with 20 points and 10 assists.

SMU now has two elite wins to pin at the top of the tournament profile – both of which came away from home – and it affords them a bit of breathing room as they matriculate through American play.

This win isn’t just a big deal for SMU.

It matters for the American has a whole as well.

Heading into today, it looked like the conference was trending towards getting just two bids to the Big Dance – Wichita State and Cincinnati – and that, in turn, created a problem for everyone else in the conference. If there are only two good teams in the league then there are only two teams that American bubble dwellers can beat and improve their résumé. We won’t know how much this affects SMU’s computer numbers until they update, but it is safe to assume that a win over a team that is top 20 in both the RPI and KenPom will help significantly. Entering Tuesday, SMU was rated 83rd in the RPI.

Assuming that Jarrey Foster’s knee sprain doesn’t turn out to be serious – he left the game after six minutes and did not return – than this day could not have possibly gone better for the Mustangs.

On the other hand, it does raise some questions about this Wichita State team.

Specifically defensively.

As we noted earlier today, Wichita’s defense hasn’t exactly been great this season. They entered today ranked outside the top 25 in defensive efficiency, and the return of Markis McDuffie, who has yet to return to the starting lineup, has not exactly helped matters.

But it really came to a head on Wednesday night. SMU scored 83 points on 60 possessions, or 1.383 points-per-possession, which is the worst ass-kicking that the Shockers have received under Gregg Marshall, who has been employed by the school for a decade. The only time anyone came close to that involved Doug McDermott going for 41 points and shooting 15-for-18 from the floor.

And that game came on the road.

I wrote a column earlier this season wondering whether or not we could start discussing Wichita State as potentially the best team in the country. That column was predicated on the idea that the Shockers were going to be one of the nation’s best defensive teams.

Because they always are.

During this six-year run of consecutive NCAA tournaments, the Shockers have never finished lower than 26th in defensive efficiency. The last four years they’ve finished in the top 15, and that is despite playing in the Missouri Valley. (KenPom adjusts his efficiency numbers for opponent strength.)

Wichita State was 26th entering today.

They’re now 55th.

Only two teams have ever reached a national title game with a lower defensive efficiency.

This is a problem that badly needs fixing, but if McDuffie wasn’t the answer, is there one?

Texas Tech honors Andrew Jones before game against Texas

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Texas Tech became the latest team to show support towards Texas sophomore Andrew Jones, who was diagnosed with leukemia last week.

The Red Raiders are facing the Longhorns on Wednesday as they wore shooting shirts with Jones’ No. 1 and name on the back, joining Oklahoma State as recent opponents to show support.

So far, over $104,000 has been raised in just over five days for the Andrew Jones and Family Support Fund, which has been started by the University of Texas to help the family pay for medical expenses.

No. 1 Villanova leads by 44, beats Ewing, Georgetown 88-56

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WASHINGTON — Top-ranked Villanova led by as many as 44 points — 44! — and gave Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing a rude welcome back to the schools’ rivalry, handing the Hoyas their worst loss in more than 40 years, 88-56 on Wednesday night.

Jalen Brunson led the way with 18 points and seven assists for Villanova (17-1, 5-1 Big East), which finished 17 for 33 on 3s, while Georgetown went 4 for 15.

Mikal Bridges scored 17 for the Wildcats, winners of seven consecutive games against the Hoyas, Villanova’s longest streak in a series that dates to 1922.

The last time Ewing faced Villanova in any capacity was in the last game of his college playing career at Georgetown, a surprising 66-64 victory for the underdog Wildcats in the 1985 NCAA championship game. It was quite clear, quite quickly, on Wednesday that there would be no such tight outcome —nor any chance of an upset by Georgetown (12-6, 2-5).

This is Ewing’s first season as a head coach at any level, and he opted to go with an easy-as-can-be non-conference schedule to try to build his players’ confidence. Now that league play is underway, especially against a foe like Villanova, the gap between the Hoyas and the best teams is obvious.

It was 42-20 at halftime, and Georgetown to that point had more turnovers (nine) than made baskets, shooting 8 for 26, including 0 for 8 on 3s.

Villanova just kept pushing the margin after the break, going up by 30, then 40, and then reaching the apex at 88-44 on a layup by Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree with about 3½ minutes remaining. Less than a minute later, Villanova coach Jay Wright finally sent on the subs and pulled any remaining starters.

INJURED AND ILL

Villanova: Reserves Tim Delaney and Jermaine Samuels sat out with a virus.

Georgetown: Backup PG Trey Dickerson left in the first half with a back spasm and did not return.

BIG PICTURE

Villanova: Since its only loss, 101-93 at Butler on Dec. 30, Villanova has won four games in a row, propelled by an efficient offense that gets a lot of its work done from beyond the arc.

Georgetown: This was the Hoyas’ largest margin of defeat since a 33-point loss to Maryland, 104-71, on Dec. 10, 1974.

UP NEXT

Villanova: Travels to UConn on Saturday in a matchup between former Big East rivals and the Wildcats’ first game at Hartford in five years. Villanova is 12-0 in non-conference games heading into the last one on their schedule.

Georgetown: Hosts St. John’s on Saturday, the teams’ second meeting in less than two weeks. The Hoyas won 69-66 at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 9

NCAA pushes up college hoops start date as Champions Classic will open the season

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The NCAA is pushing up the start of the college basketball regular season to begin on the Tuesday before the second Friday in November.

That means the Champions Classic will open the college basketball season in 2018-19 as announced in an official release on Wednesday. So now, we get Duke vs. Kentucky and Michigan State vs. Kansas in Indianapolis at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to open the college basketball regular season?

Yes, please.

This is a very smart move for the NCAA as men’s and women’s basketball can now open the regular season a bit earlier. The made-for-TV, neutral-court spectacle of the Champions Classic is also the perfect programming to get casual sports fans to tune in for the opening night of college basketball.

There will also be a new level of intrigue for the Champions Classic with all four superpowers making their season debuts in the event next season. Instead of getting a regular-season tune-up to begin to campaign, all of these teams will get thrown straight into the fire.

Hopefully, the sport can continue to make moves like this to generate casual interest and develop more intriguing non-conference possibilities. College basketball’s regular season has suffered from too many lulls in the past. At least now the regular season will start with a bang.