NEW YORK -- Casey Prather gingerly wheeled his Florida-logoed roller bag down a Madison Square Garden hallway, pausing a few times to rest.
It was just after midnight on Wednesday, following the Jimmy V Classic. He pointed to his knees, on which he'd scored 22 points in a 77-75 win over No. 15-ranked Memphis, and said to a writer walking beside him, "I'm old, man. I'm getting old."
Prather is 22. Old, maybe, for college basketball player. An advanced age, certainly, for someone who all of a sudden becomes a college basketball star. This sort of thing does not happen. A guy who averages 3.1 points per game over his first three seasons does not turn into an 18.3-point scorer as a senior, especially for a No. 16-ranked team loaded with talent.
By Prather's age, a player typically is what he is as a collegian. He is a former top-100 recruit, a 6-foot-6 forward who had a few high-flying highlights and a longer list of injuries. As a junior, he was mostly known for being beat up. He suffered two concussions in that preseason -- one from a Patric Young elbow to the head -- and later broke his nose, suffered a head gash that required stitches and high-sprained an ankle. Prather missed nine full games in '12-13 and was limited in others. He was once again expected to be a role player as a senior.
And then a funny thing happened in the Florida's lead-up to 2013-14, coming off a trip to the Elite Eight: Its projected starting senior point guard, Scottie Wilbekin, was indefinitely suspended, along with prize transfer forwards Dorian Finney-Smith and Damontre Harris. Top freshman pro prospect Chris Walker wasn't eligible to enroll in school until December. The Gators' best shooter, sophomore guard Michael Frazier, came down with mononucleosis in late October. It was unclear who would be the early focal point of their offense.
"Honestly," Prather said, "we had no idea who would [be the leading scorer]. It just had to play itself out."
In the season-opener against North Florida on Nov. 8, Prather, who'd used 19.5 percent of Florida's possessions as a junior, used 33 percent of their possessions and scored a team-high 28 points. He had never scored 20 before in his career, and he has since done it three more times. Even as the Gators crawled back to near full strength -- with Wilbekin, Finney-Smith and Frazier now in the rotation, and recent wins over Kansas and Memphis -- Prather has remained the focal point. And a very efficient focal point at that: He's scoring 1.23 points per possession while using a team-high 28.6 percent of possessions.
The secret to Prather's late-stage evolution, according to coach Billy Donovan, is self-awareness. "[Prather] is playing to his strengths now instead of trying to prove he can overcome his weaknesses," he said following Tuesday's game. "And 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."
Namely, for Prather, it's knowing that he is not a jump-shooter from anywhere far outside the paint, and that if he attacks the basket intelligently (in isolation situations with matchup advantages), he will either score or get to the free-throw line. He's generating 9.7 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes this season and converting at a 75.7 percent clip, compared to 3.7 and 58.3 percent as a junior. Staying in or around the paint and increasing free-throw production has made Prather significantly more efficient. He scored the Gators' final eight points on Tuesday on two layups and four free throws, and his overall shot chart looked like this:
Prather has yet to fully grasp his stardom. When asked what his current role is, and whether it should be classified as go-to-guy, this is what he said: "I don't consider myself a go-to-guy. I'm just trying to be as aggressive as I can."
Yet, on the Gators' most crucial offensive possession, when they were up 73-70 with 1:20 remaining, and coming out of a timeout, what did Donovan dial up? He is not a coach who messes around when it comes to offensive execution. He called an isolation for Prather, putting him on the three-point line just above the right elbow against Memphis wing Geron Johnson, who is 6-foot-3.
It was obvious Prather was going to drive; he has smartly given up on threes unless they're wide open, taking just three all season. But he jabbed right and then drove left so aggressively into the paint that Johnson had to foul him to stop him from scoring. Prather went to the line, made both free throws, and that was the cushion Florida needed (along with a Joe Jackson miss just before the buzzer) to hang on for the victory.
Donovan said that all the suspensions and injuries had "been a real drain on our team, emotionally." Their schedule wasn't easy, and they lost early at Wisconsin and then on a heartbreaking, Shabazz Napier buzzer-beater at UConn. But over the past eight days, Florida has started to flash its top-10, Final Four potential. For an 8-2 team that spent more than a month in flux, there has been just one constant: Casey Prather is good at being old.