When his basketball career ends, Patric Young wants to go into sports broadcasting. If that doesn't work out, Florida's senior center can always find work as a human jungle gym. Young and several teammates visited an after-school program at Gainesville's Lake Forest Elementary recently. Within moments of walking into a room full of fourth-graders, Young had them dangling from his limbs. "You work out too much," student Gerald Campbell said, eyeing one of Young's softball-sized biceps. Then Campbell lowered his voice to tell a secret. "My sister liiikes you."
A few minutes later Young leaned against the driver's door of his banged-up 2006 Honda Accord and marveled that his unexpectedly long college basketball career has produced days like this one. "I knew I wasn't going to be one-and-done," he said. "But I didn't know I was going to be here for four years. I'm glad I am, because I wouldn't trade this time for anything in the world."
The current college basketball culture worships the Diaper Dandy. The best players usually bolt for the NBA before they shed their Pampers. Seniors? They lead mid-major teams such as Saint Louis, which starts five. At the high-major level, senior-heavy teams are rare. Of the 73 teams in the six conferences that have produced the last 23 national champions, only 12 teams start three seniors. And only the Gators start four. So how did a quartet that had never cracked Florida's top three in scoring suddenly emerge as the nucleus of a 27--2 team that is the likely top overall seed in the NCAA tournament?
In a lot of ways, the on- and off-court growing pains of Young, point guard Scottie Wilbekin and forwards Will Yeguete and Casey Prather mirror those of many college students. Young had to be humbled. Wilbekin had to learn to handle freedom. Yeguete had to break out of his shell. Prather had to learn who he was so he could stop trying to be who he wasn't.
Young had to realize he wasn't the next Dwight Howard, even if they both have the bodies of Stan Lee characters made flesh. But Young is only 6'9", and he lacks Howard's hops. To be his best, Young had to learn to channel his athleticism into finishing at the rim and beating opposing big men down the floor. Now he can outmuscle and outhustle teams, the way he did at Tennessee on Feb. 11 when he looked like Iron Man (no suit required) in the final minute as he dove to rip an offensive rebound away from two Volunteers. Kentucky coach John Calipari was so impressed with Young's effort that he showed a clip of the play to inspire the Wildcats before Florida visited on Feb. 15. (It didn't work; the Gators won 69--59.)
Wilbekin had to nearly get kicked off the team to tap his potential. While starring at The Rock School in Gainesville, he committed to join Florida's class of 2011. But when it appeared the Gators would need extra help at the point heading into the 2010--11 season, Wilbekin graduated at 17 and joined the class of '10. Struggling without parental supervision at UF, he was twice suspended for unspecified violations of team rules. The second time, during the summer of '13, coach Billy Donovan gave Wilbekin two choices: He could transfer, or he could accept a list of punishments both traditional (early-morning runs) and nontraditional (living with his folks). Wilbekin chose to stay, and Svend and Katy Wilbekin's eldest of three boys moved back home, where Mom makes Scottie do his own laundry. "Always," Katy says. After his second strike, Wilbekin has not only behaved but also morphed into a leader. A lockdown defender and unselfish distributor (3.9 assists per game through Sunday), Wilbekin has also developed into a reliable scorer (13.4 points per game) who can get to the rim or to the foul line in crunch time.
Prather, meanwhile, has become Florida's leading scorer, averaging 14.8 points after never exceeding 6.2 in his first three seasons. The 6'6" native of Jackson, Tenn., stopped trying to be the long-range bomber he thought he needed to be to make the NBA and instead harnessed an innate slashing ability that left teammates slack-jawed during pickup games last summer. "It's really cool seeing him going out there and being carefree," Young says. "He's not worrying about shooting threes and other things that aren't his role. Now that he's able to do that, he's flourishing."
Thousands of miles from his family, speaking his second language, Yeguete needed time to overcome his shyness. The 6'7" power forward spent his childhood in the Ivory Coast and France before moving to Melbourne, Fla., at 16 to pursue a basketball scholarship. A classic glue guy who favors rebounding, setting screens and defending, Yeguete quickly earned the respect of his classmates, and they have helped him become more comfortable off the court. Making friends started to come easily, including one he met a year ago while visiting the university's Shands Hospital. Kaedyn Ballew—who was born in 2009 and diagnosed with leukemia when he was nine months old—had a 50% chance of survival after undergoing a bone marrow transplant last March. Yeguete began meeting with Kaedyn and his mother, Shelsie, when Kaedyn came to Gainesville for weekly follow-up appointments. Kaedyn's cancer is now in remission, and before he had his port removed last week, he made clear the identity of his favorite basketball player. "Will!" Kaedyn yelled.
"I have pictures in my head of when he wasn't able to smile that much," Yeguete says. "I'm just so thankful to be able to see him growing."
All four of Florida's senior starters are thankful they stuck around. Young probably could have entered the draft. A frustrated Prather could have transferred. Wilbekin could have turned down Donovan's deal and left. Yeguete could have gotten homesick and returned to France. Now they have one more month to show how much they've grown together. "I want to have a senior night," Young says. "I want to win a national championship. I want to go out with these guys."
WILBEKIN HAD TO LEARN TO HANDLE FREEDOM. PRATHER HAD TO LEARN WHO HE WAS. YEGUETE HAD TO BREAK OUT OF HIS SHELL.
"IT'S REALLY COOL SEEING HIM GO OUT THERE AND BEING CAREFREE," SAYS YOUNG OF PRATHER, THE GATORS' LEADING SCORER. "HE'S FLOURISHING."
"I HAVE PICTURES IN MY HEAD OF WHEN [KAEDYN] WASN'T ABLE TO SMILE THAT MUCH," YEGUETE SAYS. "I'M JUST SO THANKFUL TO SEE HIM GROWING."
1.Prather relaxed in his dorm room amid a sea of sneakers.
2.Kids are drawn to Yeguete, who chatted with Braxton Burno, 2, while icing his knees.
3.The Gators receive a brick for every SEC win.
4.Wilbekin (red shirt) lives with his parents eight miles from campus, which gives him time for Ping-Pong with his younger brother Mitchell.
5.Young always attracts attention, even in his media ethics class.
1.Yeguete strolled past Century Tower, at the center of the Gainesville campus.
2.A diehard roller skater growing up in Tennessee, Prather prepared to show off his moves at a local rink.
3.Yeguete (black shirt) and Young helped first-graders with math at Littlewood Elementary.
4.Young got a trim at UF's Reitz Union.
5.Decker surveyed the fridge with Young.
1.Yeguete makes time to visit with Kaedyn, a leukemia survivor, almost every time the four-year-old comes to Gainesville for checkups.
2.Wilbekin and his fellow seniors, who have been to three consecutive Elite Eights, have one last chance to exit on top.
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BILL FRAKES/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TIME TO SHINE Young, who showed off his broadcast-ready smile and his moves at Lake Forest Elementary School, has no regrets about the extra years he's spent in Gainesville.