I spent a fair bit of time a couple of weeks ago trying to come up with a shorthand name for Florida's four-man senior class of Casey Prather, Scottie Wilbekin, Will Yeguete, and Patric Young. (I think someone asked me about it on Twitter, but I can't find that tweet. Mea culpa.) Last year, I dubbed the three-man 2013 class of Kenny Boynton, Erik Murphy, and Mike Rosario the "Reset Gators"; fewer were watching and paying attention to that team than the many watching this one, but I still think that name for those players fit.
When Boynton and Murphy enrolled, Florida had as many NIT appearances as national titles in its last four years. Those two four-year seniors would never miss an NCAA Tournament while in Gainesville; Rosario, in Gainesville for three years and two seasons, never missed the Elite Eight as a Gator or player. They helped reset the standard for Florida basketball, primarily by helping Billy Donovan reset the foundation for his program.
But when Prather, Wilbekin, Yeguete, and Young enrolled, Florida still hadn't won an NCAA Tournament game in three years.
When they came to Florida, Young — the last alphabetically — was first.
Florida's 2010-11 team was senior-laden and expected to challenge for the SEC crown, with Chandler Parsons leading a talented bunch that returned all five starters — Erving Walker, Boynton, Parsons, Alex Tyus, and Vernon Macklin — from 2009-10. That team didn't need much help beyond that starting five, each of whom played at least 24.5 minutes per game, but Young was named a McDonald's All-American in his senior year at Jacksonville's Providence School, and became Florida's first burger boy forward recruit since David Lee in 2001. And off his performance in the dunk contest that happened along with that all-star game, he was expected to contribute extensively as a freshman.
And he did — as a valuable role-playing reserve. Macklin struggled with foul trouble all year, and so Young became a sixth man of sorts, but he played more than 20 minutes just 14 times in Florida's 37 games, starting just twice, and generally being good for a flashy play or two rather than consistency. Things began to click for him late in the year, as he grabbed four or more rebounds in 10 of Florida's final 13 games, but the occasional spectacular play and his obvious athleticism were his calling cards as a freshman.
The most valuable freshman Florida had in 2010-11, for my money, was actually Wilbekin, the only point guard on the team aside from Walker. He played almost as many minutes as Young, getting 17.1 per game to Young's 17.4, and got more publicity than Pat, having foregone his senior year of high school at Gainesville's The Rock School to enroll early at Florida. Young's physique was impressive, even then, and he got his fair share of Dwight Howard comparisons for his flashy blocks and dunks, but Wilbekin's was the more intriguing and rarer storyline.
The rest of Florida's freshmen — Tennessee wing Prather, Floridian (via France and the Ivory Coast) tweener Yeguete, and South Dakota big Cody Larson — struggled to find roles. Prather and Yeguete played capable defense, especially in Florida's press, their quickness and athleticism evident even then, and Yeguete began his reputation as a rebounder by grabbing more than a fifth of the offensive and defensive rebounds available in his limited minutes.
But neither showed much offensive game, with Prather making just four of 15 threes and turning the ball over on an incredible 35 percent of his possessions on the floor, and Yeguete shooting just 40 percent on the year, with similar turnover woes. Larson redshirted, effectively becoming a member of Florida's 2011 recruiting class, as Macklin, Tyus, Young, and Murphy sopped up the minutes available at forward.
Florida won the SEC's regular-season title and made the Elite Eight that year, but it got little from its freshmen in March. Young scored six and eight points, respectively, in Florida's first two NCAA Tournament games, but had just two points in both its Sweet Sixteen win and Elite Eight loss; Wilbekin played extensively in March, but missed all nine of his Tournament shots; Yeguete only played in three of Florida's four NCAA Tournament games; Prather played in just one.
There was promise in that 2010 class, sure, but it seemed tied mostly to Young's development, especially heading into his sophomore year. He would be Florida's frontcourt fixture with Macklin and Tyus off to start professional careers, and he told us about his development goals on Twitter in May 2011, which included being "a double-double machine."
That worked out — Young had double-doubles in Florida's first two games in 2011-12, and four of the Gators' first nine — until it didn't, as foul trouble, fatigue, and nagging injuries sapped his effectiveness late in the season. Young had a strong campaign overall, with 10.2 points (on a very efficient 61.8 percent from the field) and 6.4 rebounds per game, but took his fair share of public criticism from fans for being "soft" then — and the label would stick — but he got similar subliminal criticism from Donovan, who noted on multiple occasions how Young needed to play through fatigue and injury and give consistent effort.
And in 2011-12, Young's talent (and raw rebounding numbers) paled in comparison to Bradley Beal's, while his effort always looked deficient compared to Yeguete's. But whose effort wouldn't have? Yeguete used his pogo stick hops and boundless energy to snare rebounds at an alarming rate — 11.5 per 40 minutes, which led all Gators players, and more than a fifth of the available defensive rebounds while he was on the floor — and became a pesky defender by learning how to do more than just hack while retaining his knack for punching the ball out of opponents' hands. The #WillYegueteFanClub began its long life as a hashtag in late November 2011, and even though some people slept on him even during that season, Yeguete had a fine year — until February, when he suffered a concussion in Florida's game against Tennessee, his second of the year, then broke his foot in his second game back, ending his season.
That injury robbed Florida of its most important individual defender, and led to some of the fatigue and stress that would impact Young down the stretch. But it helped Florida refocus on defense, freed up minutes for Prather, who had been crowded out of Florida's lineup by his own turnover issues (he turned it over on nearly a quarter of his possessions in 2011-12) and the play of Rosario and Beal, who played as third guards in a smaller Florida lineup.
Prather played in just 28 games as a sophomore, and averaged just 9.5 minutes per game, but, after falling out of Florida's rotation entering SEC play, he saw the floor in every game from Yeguete's injury onward, and exploded in both the SEC and NCAA Tournaments. His famous dunk over Kyle Wiltjer came in Florida's valiant SEC Tournament loss to Kentucky, and his next game was his finest in his career to that point, a 14-point, four-rebound day against Virginia in a surprising blowout win by the Gators. Prather wouldn't match that nova in the rest of his NCAA Tournament action combined, but he'd served notice that he was more than he had shown.
Wilbekin, in his sophomore year, didn't have that chance. Walker's senior season brought with it a concerted effort on his and Donovan's part to make him a pass-first point guard, which squeezed Wilbekin's minutes at one end, and the Beal-Rosario rise that cut into Prather's role squeezed Wilbekin at the other. He was still Florida's perimeter defensive stopper, but he also added a lethal three-pointer to his arsenal — Wilbekin made 45.9 percent of his threes in 2011-12, the same percentage Lee Humphrey made in his junior and senior years, and would've made Florida's list of the most accurate seasons from three ahead of Humphrey had he merely taken four more treys and made two of them. And yet, largely because Walker and Boynton never came off the floor, and Beal rarely did, Wilbekin was the only one of Florida's four 2010 enrollees to see the floor as a freshman and see his minutes decrease in 2011-12.
Surprisingly, despite losing the seniors that took it to the Elite Eight in 2010-11, losing 10 games, losing Yeguete in mid-February, relying on Beal as a do-everything player, and entering the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed, the Gators played their way back to the Elite Eight — where Louisville broke their (and our) hearts.
The Gators did so despite getting next to nothing from Larson in his redshirt freshman season, played in the wake of his 2011 arrest (with Murphy) in an incident at a St. Augustine bar. Larson was used primarily as an emergency forward in case of extreme foul trouble and in garbage time, and hardly produced in either role: He managed six trillions on the season, including four in a stretch of five games and one against Virginia in the NCAA Tournament, and did little to inspire anything other than a second use for a hashtag.
It was surprising, but only sort of dismaying, when Larson was removed from his scholarship in the summer of 2012, then removed himself from Florida's roster just before the 2012-13 season, culling Florida's 2010 recruiting class to the four members of the class of 2014.
It was surprising, but only slightly, when Prather returned for his junior year instead of transferring. He could have followed freshman Walter Pitchford, and left Florida for a place where he could have become the player he wanted to be; he didn't.
It was surprising, pleasantly so, when Young decided to return for his junior season instead of entering the 2012 NBA Draft. A fringe first-rounder at best, Young decided to return to Florida and put in more work on his game, and most visibly did so by improving his conditioning with grueling offseason workouts.
But that didn't always translate in 2012-13, especially in the box score, even as Florida surprised the country by getting better without Beal, the No. 3 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, and Walker, a four-year contributor. A year after averaging 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per game as a sophomore, Young had 10.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as a junior, and developed a bad habit of letting his number of offensive touches affect how he played in every other respect.
When Donovan benched him for a December game against Marquette — Young's first healthy scratch since his freshman year — he responded with fury that helped the Gators rout the Golden Eagles, and a 10-10-3-3-2 line that recalled a specialty long-distance number; when SEC play began again, and Young's shots became threes let fly by Florida's band of snipers, he could be strangely passive. And that passivity would be an issue in many of Florida's losses, despite Young's fantastic individual post defense contributing to the Gators' revival on that end of the floor.
If Young anchored Florida's interior defense, Wilbekin led Florida's defense as a whole. After his season-opening suspension, and a failed non-conference flirtation with turning Boynton into a point guard, Wilbekin became Florida's lone trusted floor general, and a fine one. And if his offense was good — Wilbekin's 9.1 points per game weren't a ton, but he was an efficient scorer, making just under 52 percent of his two-pointers and just under 36 percent of his threes, and dished 4.9 assists per game, second only to both of Nick Calathes's campaigns among seasons by Donovan-era Florida players — his defense was phenomenal.
Wilbekin had always been a strong team and individual defender, but his hustle and communication helped make Florida a versatile and fearsome defense in 2012-13, whether that was by locking down the other team's finest shooter, or by playing the middle of Florida's press beautifully, or by being the collapsing defender on the drives Florida made so treacherous for other teams. If he wasn't the best perimeter defender in America as a junior, that was only because Ohio State's Aaron Craft was similarly extraordinary
Per Basketball-Reference's Defensive Rating, Wilbekin, at an 89.3, wasn't even close to the best defender on his own team. That honor, once again, went to Yeguete (a ridiculous 80.9) — with Prather (83.3) and Young (83.8) close behind among players who played more than 15 minutes per game. Defensive Rating, which estimates the number of points per 100 possession given up while a player is on the floor, is flawed, far more flawed than the similar Offensive Rating: Defense is less individual, and Wilbekin's tasks, at the point, are significantly harder than any other player's — especially in Florida's system of presses, traps, zones, and collapses. But Wilbekin sneaking under the 90.0 threshold while his teammates sat comfortably below it was impressive.
So were the junior seasons Yeguete and Prather had, even though both players were still in supporting roles. Yeguete bounced back from his foot injury, virtually matching his rebounding rates despite slightly increased usage, and shot above 50 percent from the free throw line for the first time, before suffering a knee injury in February that required a surgery that cost him a month, reduced his effectiveness significantly after his return, and eventually necessitated off-season surgery.
Prather became a staggeringly efficient slasher — to the point that he was posting better numbers than Michael Jordan did in his college days — making 64.2 percent of his two-pointers and giving the Gators a nightmare change-up from their usual offensive strategy of raining threes by bringing thunder to the hoop — again and again and again. But he remained a change-up.
And Florida, statistically the nation's most efficient team for much of the season, and by far the SEC's best squad, was beguiled by close games, failing to finish repeatedly as shots went cold and leads evaporated, and finished the season 0-6 in games decided by single digits. And another Elite Eight trip ended in another heartbreak, as Michigan bombarded the Gators in Dallas. Through three years, Prather, Wilbekin, Yeguete, and Young are the first Gators to know no floor except the Elite Eight — but they also know no higher stage.
This year, and this Florida team, belongs to the four of them like no other season in their careers has or could have. And it feels different — and better — because of that.
But this season could have been very, very different than it has been, had Wilbekin not been a part of it.
Scottie earned his second suspension from the Gators last summer, and while it was announced as an indefinite one, it came out to six games, double the three games Wilbekin sat for to start 2012-13, and consistent with the suspension for 20 percent of a season given to Florida athletes found to be in violation of the University Athletic Association's drug policy.
When he incurred that suspension, it was long after his first had faded from memory, after he had promised up and down to never let it happen again. And it put him in Donovan's doghouse and on the verge of a transfer: For Wilbekin to stay and complete his senior season as a Gator, he would have to keep his nose clean and to the grindstone for the 2013 offseason, and then, maybe, he could earn his way back into his coaches' and teammates' good graces, and the Florida rotation. The decision to transfer would have been easy.
The decision Wilbekin made was harder. But it was also better.
Made some much needed changes in my life the last 2 months...
— Scottie Wilbekin (@scottiew_5) August 25, 2013
Wilbekin stuck it out at Florida and did what he had to to stay a Gator, and he's had his best season because of it, averaging 12.9 points and 3.9 assists per game while leading the nation's No. 1 team, playing his signature smothering defense, and becoming the front-runner for SEC Player of the Year.
Young, too, made a choice to stay at Florida, but his was, in a sense, easier: He merely decided to return to Gainesville for his senior season, instead of making a foolish choice to go pro after stagnating statistically in his junior year.
Young has largely been viewed by Florida fans as a future NBA player, but the NBA has viewed him differently, and his slide from potential lottery pick as an incoming freshman to a four-year player has been one aided by the NBA losing interest in power forwards who lacks elite size or a face-up game. The game of basketball has moved away from players like Young, especially at the professional level, and he hasn't been able to keep up with that trend.
But Young has gotten better each year at Florida, and is now as good and fully actualized as he's ever been. He's a monster down low on both offense and defense, and has shored up his weakness from the free throw line — Young is shooting 61 percent from the stripe in 2013-14, but also hasn't missed more than three free throws in a game in 2014, and has made the same 68 free throws he did in 2012-13 on 28 fewer attempts. He's diversified his offensive game, adding running hooks and better rebounding to a repertoire that drew the wrong kind of Dwight Howard comparisons for years, and remains an immovable object that frustrates even the best post players he sees.
Most importantly, his flying layout for a loose ball rebound against Tennessee was the showiest moment of his senior season so far — well, either that was, or the running hook over Willie Cauley-Stein he converted into an and-one at Kentucky in Florida's next game was — and his effort has never been an issue in this senior year, though his numbers — 10.7 points per game, 6.2 rebounds per game — have remained virtually unchanged from his sophomore and junior years.
Wilbekin and Young have both figured out the people they want to be, which has helped make them the players they ought to be.
So has Prather — by figuring out he's always been this guy.
Usage has been the major difference for Prather from his junior year to his senior season: His minutes have approximately doubled and his percentage of Florida's shots has swollen, so he leads Florida with 14.5 points per game, but he's shooting approximately the same percentages, dunking as often, and still murking the less athletic. His game hasn't changed, except for some refinements: He's still a slasher, just a supremely efficient one who isn't trying to be anything else, and has ditched the iffy threes and too-cute dribbling that he thought he needed earlier on. Like Wilbekin and Young, Prather's enjoying his finest individual season in his final year at Florida.
Will Yeguete is not having his best individual season as a senior. Florida's indomitable man may be enjoying it more than anyone anyway.
Yeguete was able to shake off the effects of his broken foot entering 2012-13, and I had hoped he would be able to be the same player he was in that year after an offseason of rehabbing his surgically repaired knee. Put simply, he hasn't been: He lacks the ability to elevate that made him extraordinary as a rebounder, and has been reduced to simply above-average in that respect, and, because of his knee and bulk he has added to compete with post players as a power forward, lacks the quickness to be as pesky as he was while defending wings or as efficient as he was making quick post moves or scoring off putbacks in years gone by.
Yeguete's averaging his fewest rebounds and steals per 40 minutes of his Florida career, and has the "worst" offensive and defensive rebounding rates of his career, and is shooting just 43.6 percent from the field; his additions to his game are slightly better passing and an awkward three-point shot that is rightly rarely used. The cruelty of injury has robbed him of the best parts of his game, and the rise of Dorian Finney-Smith (and, to a lesser extent, Chris Walker) has eaten into his role.
If he were anyone but Will Yeguete, he would probably rightfully find this season bittersweet.
Fortunately, he's Will Yeguete, maybe the best person who has played sports at the University of Florida in my memory. (Yes, including Tim Tebow.) He sends a morning tweet of gratitude to God every day, makes time for so many fans and children, and cares so very deeply about helping people and making the world a better place with his every day that I know there's no way I'll ever be as kind a person as he is. He will give his all on the court, and his all off the court, and make us all proud by being nothing more or less than the wonderful person he is.
More than anything else, 2013-14 season is defined by Yeguete's soul, the senior class it animates, the intangibles it brings to this team, and the traits this team has finally taken from him. These Gators now play as hard for each other as he always has; it has helped them earn unprecedented glories, and the front seat on the long road to the national championship.
Not long ago, I called these Gators the "Heart and Hustle Gators," after the 1999-2000 Orlando Magic that played with no stars and no fear, and that makes sense as a sobriquet for all of them, mostly because of how Yeguete's heart and hustle have rubbed off and helped create a team that I suspect plays as desperately and ferociously as it does partly because his teammates know he can't play as desperately and ferociously as he used to.
And people liked that nickname. But Heart and Hustle was the Magic's thing, and these Gators deserve something slightly more original.
The Perfect '10s — a riff on the Oh-Fours we came to love — doesn't work for the same reason; it's not a creative enough twist. Sure, this team plays as hard, maybe harder, than Florida's two national championship squads, but it also deserves a name that doesn't derive from the past it has built on, or one that does them the disservice of calling them perfect when we and they know well that they're not. (Though, well, Florida is unbeaten this season when all four seniors are around to start and finish games.)
I considered Redeem Team, considering this quartet's instrumental role in getting Florida back to the elite of college hoops, but that's taken. The Oh-Fours were the History Boys, too, at least if you believe Florida's media guides, so even making more history can't secure that as this team's honorific. And I could get cute with the names — Prather, Yeguete, Young, and Wilbekin could be the PYYW Crew, much like a great UConn women's team was memorably the TASSK Force — but that feels cheap for this team.
So I circled around to the simplest, easiest, purest possible nickname, at least for now: The Four.
It's descriptive: There are four members of this senior class that have played four years each at Florida. It plays off the Oh-Fours, but emphasizes this team staying for its four years, a major difference about it, and the. And it plays well in context beyond its name alone: They're The Four we've been waiting for, The Four to fear. The best part, though? It works well now, and lends itself to the easiest possible honorific if this team should end up with the sort of titles that come with trophies.
For now, Casey Prather, Will Yeguete, Patric Young, and Scottie Wilbekin are The Four, Florida's Four, our Four.
Before long, they could be Forever's Four.