GAINESVILLE — Sitting in the O’Dome Saturday afternoon, as I watched the four seniors on the Florida Gators basketball team get honored, it hit me.
It was Senior Day. One by one, players were called out of the tunnel to various hip-hop tunes, presented a framed jersey, hoisted it into the air as the Rowdy Reptiles — and the remaining 12,000 fans — cheered loudly.
Then they’d smile for pictures before the next senior was announced.
Coach Billy Donovan gave hugs to Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, Scottie Wilbekin and Patric Young — the four seniors that have set numerous marks donning the orange and blue.
The team was getting ready to tip off against one of its biggest rivals: Kentucky. It was ironic, really.
Kentucky rarely has a Senior Day. That’s largely in part to the way coach John Calipari recruits: He goes for the one-and-done players, meaning they leave for the NBA after one season, maybe two.
But on Saturday, Donovan, the four seniors and a crop of underclassmen showed Kentucky what it means to build a program. They proved to Kentucky — and the nation — that it’s not all about having five Top-10 recruits. Buying into a coach, a style and a system can translate into wins. A lot of wins, actually.
This crop of seniors has been to back-to-back-to-back Elite Eights in the NCAA Tournament.
They have won 113 games, including this year’s 29-2 mark and a record-setting 18-0 in Southeastern Conference play following Saturday’s 84-65 win over the Wildcats.
But it didn’t come easily. Prather averaged 1.2 points/game as a freshman, 2 points/game as a sophomore and 6.2 points/per game as a junior. This year, he will likely go down as the most improved player in the SEC — maybe the country — averaging 14.6 points and 5.2 rebounds a game. He’s a slasher, he’s efficient and he’s waited his turn.
Wilbekin, one of the best on-ball defenders in the NCAA, has overcome adversity and off-court challenges. Donovan essentially kicked the Gainesville native off the team numerous times over the four years. But he has accepted the blame and, as a result, has grown as a player and a person because of it.
Yeguete does the dirty work. He rebounds and bounces around inside the paint with the opposing big men. His work isn’t pretty, but it’s a necessity.
And Young. What is there to say? He’s one of the most popular players on the team. He scores, he rebounds, he bleeds orange and blue. He hustles. Young is the epitome of what Florida big men do.
The Gators have gone 18-0, but, like the signs said in the O’Dome on Saturday, they have more to go.
Florida plays in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament at 1 p.m. Friday.