The Forsaken Four

Adversity continues to mount for Florida’s historic four seniors Young, Yeguete, Prather and Wilbekin, following the NBA Draft. But this is the way it’s always been, and if you know their stories, maybe this is how it has to be.

The locker room beneath AT&T Stadium was quiet, eerie even. Revelry didn't ensue among reporters and players as it normally did; there was no rap music playing or coaches yelling in the background. You could almost hear pens writing over the diminutive volume level. It was an environment I’d never encountered with this group. I was lucky. The 2013-2014 Florida Men’s Basketball Team filled my feature articles and post-game notes with encouragement, joy and success for most of the year. This was my first up-close encounter with their disappointment, a moment when adversity seemed to get the best of them — an unfamiliar concept. What may have hurt the most was knowing that moment, that clock-stopping moment, was their farewell to each other and an illustrious chapter of their lives.

The Florida Gators certainly had their fair share of success during the 2012-2013 college basketball season, reaching the Elite Eight for the third consecutive year. But their road to glory came to an end at the hands of Trey Burke and the Michigan Wolverines in AT&T Stadium in the final game of the South Region.

Seniors Erik Murphy, Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton would be on their way out, but all eyes fell on (then) junior Patric Young and whether he would be joining his former teammates by putting his name in the 2013 NBA Draft. As a five-star recruit coming out of high school, the NBA temptation was always there for Young, but each year it became harder to postpone — fans knew.

However, on Monday April 8th, 2013 Young made a decision that, though he didn't know it at the time, would make history.

“I have the chance to finish my degree and play another season for Coach Donovan with great teammates and friends at a place I love. These first three years have gone by in a flash, and I can’t believe it is my senior year already. I have gotten better as a player and better as a man at the University of Florida. I believe God has my future in his hands, so all I am worried about now is getting better this summer and making it the hardest I have trained in my life.”
Florida’s Four were back for one more ride.

UF’s basketball program reloaded with seniors Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, and now a confirmed Patric Young, assuming starting roles. Newcomers Kasey Hill, Dorian Finney-Smith and Eli Carter would add to an already proven roster, making Florida’s bench one of the deepest in the country.

“Florida could have one of the better front lines in the SEC in rising senior Patric Young… Mix in returning forward Will Yeguete, who was playing as well as any Gator at the end of the season, and Billy Donovan’s squad should be strong down low. The perimeter will be solid, too.” — Jason King, ESPN

The revamped roster approached its first hurdle for the upcoming season when, on June 10, 2013, starting point guard Scottie Wilbekin was suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules. This was Wilbekin’s second time being suspended indefinitely and put, not only his starting spot, but his collegiate career in jeopardy.

The Gators were forced to play their first few weeks without their senior point guard, their two top transfers (Dorian Finney-Smith and Damontre Harris), and with early injuries to key players Kasey Hill, Eli Carter and Dillion Graham.

But the unfortunate events never got in the way of the team’s mindset for success, even after their first loss of the year to Wisconsin.

“No moral victories here,” Florida guard Michael Frazier said. “We didn’t come up with the win. That was our only goal. The guys we had out there, we were fully capable of winning.”

After the game, I got a preview of what covering this team would be like when Billy Donovan, who ripped his players after their season opening win versus North Florida for not playing well, came to the podium and was asked if he thought his team regressed again — this time after a loss.

He smiled.

“I think we got better tonight. We made some strides.”

It’s that kind of mindset that made this team fight over every obstacle. It allowed them to become who they were as players and men when it was all said and done.

Wilbekin’s six-game suspension would end before the team faced two in-state opponents Jacksonville and Florida State (which they won) and then next on the road at Connecticut (which they lost at the buzzer).

When reminiscing on the tale of 2014, Wilbekin’s suspension lasted just long enough, as he watched his team fall to Wisconsin without him. He soon felt the pain of his own first loss at UConn.

Later down the road, we found out Wilbekin was barely allowed back on the team. As a result of his second indefinite suspension, the senior guard had a meeting with head coach Billy Donovan where Donovan advised Wilbekin to transfer.

“I think he realized I was serious when I told him he needed to transfer and just move on and start fresh somewhere else,” Donovan said.
That was the wake up call.

Wilbekin said he’d never been that low in his life. The thought of no longer being a Gator was too much for him, and he told Donovan he would do anything to continue his career at Florida. Donovan made sure when Scottie said that, he meant it.

The senior guard was told he could no longer live on campus; he was forced to live back at his parents’ home in Gainesville. He was also required to attend separate practices at 7 a.m. every day with a trainer. No coaches, no teammates.

After a long separation from his team — more accurately, his brothers— Wilbekin’s adversity transformed him into one helluva basketball player, and even he knew it.

“I had to learn how to lead.. I’m just trying to get better in the little areas, the small stuff,” Wilbekin said.

Following the loss to Uconn, Florida would fall to No. 19 in the the AP Top 25, but that would be the lowest they would ever be over the course of the season. In fact, they would ascend national polls each following week for eight straight weeks all the way up to the No. 3 team in the country.

Though Florida proved to be one of the nation’s most complete teams — thanks in large part to their four seniors — they never seemed to get the credit they deserved. Even as Arizona and Syracuse would drop games, Florida remained at No. 3. But this team never worried about the recognition, just the results — typical for a Billy Donovan coached team.

This embodied who Casey Prather and Will Yeguete became to the Gators.

Prather and Yeguete were role players for most of their time at Florida, often coming off the bench in relief or in mismatch situations, but make no mistake, the records that were captured during Florida’s magical 2013-2014 run were in equal part to whom they became in their final seasons.

Prather’s contribution came in spurts. The most points he’d ever scored in a single college game leading up to his final year was 14, but in Florida’s 2013 regular season opener, he doubled that with a 28-point performance — and that was just the beginning. Prather went on to average nearly 20 points per game during Wilbekin’s absence, and come February, he was named to the Naismith Midseason top 30 — an award crowning the best player in the country. The work proved to be worth it, but that doesn't mean it wasn't frustrating.

Prather admitted his time as a basketball player was tough at UF. When he came in as a freshman, he thought he was going to be a spot-up or off-the-dribble shooter. To his surprise, he was left on the end of the bench when his shot never developed. Practice didn’t seem to equal playing time as Prather was never given the green light to shoot during his first couple years. So he began to completely change his game and swore he’d do whatever he had to to get on the floor for his final two seasons. Ultimately, Prather’s game became one of effort, high intensity and athleticism — and thank goodness it did.

“[Prather] is playing to his strengths now instead of trying to prove he can overcome his weaknesses,” Donovan said. “I think it’s the first time I think he’s been playing with a clear head, a clear mind and [knowing], here’s who I am as a player, here’s now I need to take advantage of it.”

In his senior campaign, Casey Prather gave the Gators a weapon no one else on the team could give as an attacker on the drive. He led the Gators in points per game, blocks per game, shooting percentage (among players with more than 10 minutes per game) and was third on the team in average minutes played. He had grown into the player he needed to be, but only because his original plan was foiled and he was forced to adapt.

“I never really thought about how many points I could score this year or that year or any year,” said Prather. “But I always felt I was capable of some really good things.”

Will Yeguete was another player who did whatever he needed to do to get on the court; health became his nemesis.

After suffering a broken foot that ended his sophomore season prematurely, Yeguete had to have arthroscopic knee surgery the following year, which carved a four-month chunk out of his junior season.

The Bordeaux-born, undersized power forward was an after thought in the game plans of most opposing teams, but to Billy Donovan, Yeguete became a center piece in 2014. Yeguete established the middle of Florida’s renown full court press. He was the effort man on all offensive set pieces and a key presence rebounding on both sides of the floor.

“You can’t put a price tag on how important this guy is to our team,” senior center Patric Young said.

It was a long journey for Yeguete to finally see his work pay off consistently — mostly for health reasons — but after every injury he fought back from, he got a little wiser. Without his battle-tested basketball IQ, many of Florida’s close wins could’ve turned to nail-biting losses.

“He’s the epitome of a guy that when you look down at the stat sheet it’s hard to have a level of appreciation for him,” Donovan explained. “But I’ve always tried to talk to Will about how much I appreciate him, because he really impacts winning. He really impacts the game in a very, very positive way for us. What he does is really, really rare.”

The accolades of 2013-2014 speak for themselves:

- Most regular-season wins in program history (29)

- Longest home-winning streak in program history (32)

- Longest winning streak in program history (30)

- First SEC team ever to go unbeaten in conference play (18-0)

- Regular season and tournament SEC Titles

- No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament

- Fourth consecutive Elite Eight

- Final Four appearance

The last item on that list would’ve been a National Championship, but as we all know, that final page was never written.

Silence dominated the next hour of our time in the locker room. As I went from player to player, I asked the question I didn’t want answered: “What was it like playing with the four seniors? What will you miss about them?”

The answers, though varying in length, were unanimous: family.

You see, adversity isn't something you always have to go through alone, but that’s also not a lesson everyone has the fortune of learning so early in life. For this team, and those four seniors, it was that lesson that led them to those locker rooms in Atlanta, Orlando, Memphis and all the way to Arlington, Texas. Their era as teammates was over, but their time leaning on each other and learning from each other was just beginning.

The next step was a big one — the NBA draft and a possible future in basketball. The four would individually workout with various teams over the next few months, but for Gator fans, all eyes were once again on Patric Young, as they were when this unprecedented year of Florida basketball (fantastic!) began.

Young had the best chance, of the four, at getting drafted, with ESPN’s Chad Ford putting Young at the very end of the first round in his last mock draft. But as the day arrived, the time came and the picks went, all four names were left uncalled.

So that was it? A No. 1 overall seed that reached the Final Four had zero upperclassmen drafted? That’s how their stories would end? Not even close.

Yeguete has yet to sign with a summer league team, but the Orlando Magic was one of the teams showing interest in the pre-draft process.

It has been reported Prather will be joining the Atlanta Hawks’ summer league team. Atlanta could utilize an offensive weapon with his kind of effort and athleticism.

Wilbekin is scheduled to play for the Memphis Grizzlies for the Orlando Summer league and then

for the Philadelphia 76ers in the Las Vegas Summer league. This announcement was made soon after the draft, and had been in the works before the draft even began.

Young will play for the New Orleans Pelicans in the Las Vegas summer league. He’ll have to battle for a spot on the roster against Jeff Withey, Ryan Anderson and Omir Asik.

These four young men know the feeling of being counted out; they’ve overcome it before. It was a set of unique obstacles that made them who they are now, and it’s future obstacles that will again mold them into better learners, teachers, human beings and, yes, even basketball players.

Their journeys together are inspiring and their careers are just beginning, whether in the NBA, or not, whether playing basketball professionally… or not.

Adversity is nothing new to Florida’s Four, and if you know their stories, maybe this is how it has to be.

And more to go….