After losing strong senior leadership and almost two thirds of their scoring from last season, the Florida Gators came into this season with some huge question marks. With four seniors returning certainly there was some experience, but where would the leadership come from? Point guard Scottie Wilbekin continued to have off court issues that threatened to end his career early and center Patric Young never seemed to quite live up to the expectations that come with being a massive physical specimen and McDonald’s All American. Casey Prather despite being the most athletic player on the team was never more than a bench player for the Gators and Will Yeguete has always been a role player.
When the season opened with a true freshman at point guard due to Wilbekin’s season opening suspension, the Gators could barely field a starting lineup. Injuries, suspensions, dismissals, and the eligibility issues surrounding freshman Chris Walker threatened to derail this team before they ever really got out of the station. In spite of all these issues, the Gators have opened strong posting their best 24 game mark in school history (22-2) tied with the 2006-07 team.
How have they done it? While the reasons are many and varied, one of the biggest has to do with the maturation of point guard Scottie Wilbekin. Wilbekin arrived at Florida as a young (only 16) talented guard who was used mostly as a defensive specialist. His penchant for crossing the line off the court has left him in Billy Donovan’s doghouse on more than one occasion leading to multiple suspensions including a five game suspension to start this season.
Coming into his senior year it was apparent that he would need to step up in a way he had never really been utilized before- as a leader. Gone was four year shooting guard and part time point guard Kenny Boynton, as well as Mike Rosario, and Erik Murphy. Not only did they lose scoring prowess but with them went leadership. Those were the guys the Gators could count on in crunch time to make a big shot. When the Gators faced adversity, those were the guys they could count on to steady the ship and keep the team on an even keel. Now it would Scottie Wilbekin’s turn. This was his team. This was his time. But when the season started he was nowhere to be found. Benched for undisclosed violations of team rules. Not the way you want the incumbent team leader to start the season.
But this isn’t about that. It’s not about what he did or didn’t do to end up in Billy D’s doghouse. It’s not about why he wasn’t on the court when the season started. It’s about what he did do once he was able to return to the court. Whatever message Billy Donovan was trying to send to Scottie by sitting him and banning him from the gym over the summer, it has appeared to work effectively.
Since his return, Scottie Wilbekin has been anything but a bad boy. On the contrary, he’s been a poster boy for hard work, determination, and leadership. He’s the glue that holds this team together. He’s the guy the Gators fortunes rest their hopes and dreams upon. For a team that is quickly gaining momentum as a possible number one seed in the NCAA tourney and a legitimate title hopeful, they will go only as far as Scottie Wilbekin takes them.
Perhaps we should set the stage a little bit. While this team may look like a potential Final Four team now, early in the season they looked anything but. When the season began they had a true freshman at point guard, Kasey Hill, a McDonald’s All American and supreme talent who may very well lead this team to a championship one day but not this season. No, Kasey Hill is definitely not THE guy to lead them to an NCAA championship this season.
At the beginning of the season the only national attention this team was garnering was the suspension of Wilbekin, the dismissal of transfer Damontre Harris, and the drama surrounding Chris Walker. Sure the Gators had four talented seniors returning in Wilbekin, Patric Young, Will Yeguete, and Casey Prather. Sure they had a talented transfer Dorian Finney-Smith and true freshman Hill. Still the questions abounded.
Where would their scoring come from? Would the Gators be able to develop some cohesion on offense with Wilbekin out all summer and early fall? Would the lack of depth hurt their ability to continue their up tempo style of offense and full court pressing defense? Would they be able to survive a very tough non-conference schedule with a limited lineup and no Chris Walker or Damontre Harris?
After two quick early season losses, a tough short-handed road loss to Wisconsin and a buzzer beater on the road at UConn where Scottie was injured and had more turnovers than assists, the question marks became glaringly obvious. A season that had began with some promise with the return of four talented seniors had quickly turned into one in which the fans hopes had plummeted as quickly as the Gators ranking in the polls.
Then came Kansas. It was as if a light bulb had been turned on in Scottie’s head. The Kansas Jayhawks came to town one week after that tough loss at UConn with a diaper dandy lineup featuring the Gerber twins Andrew Wiggins and Gainesville’s The Rock school alum Joel Embiid. The two lineups couldn’t have been more contrasting. Youth versus age. Swag versus experience. Hollywood versus main street. And the Gators punched them in the mouth. Jumping out to a 21 point lead it looked as if experience would dominate in this one. The Gators playing at home in front of the jubilant Rowdy Reptiles and a national ESPN audience were having their way with the inexperienced Jayhawks in the first half and it appeared as if they would run away with it. And it was Scottie Wilbekin leading the way.
He had some fantastic shots from the floor and his athleticism helped the Gators to force 24 Jayhawk turnovers a season high for them. Scottie, however, may have saved his best for last. In the second half as the Jayhawks began to chip away at the lead, Wilbekin would be the steadying force for the Gators. He drained some tough, clutch shots in the second half that kept Florida ahead and helped close out the victory.
“We were teetering there a little bit,”Gators coach Billy Donovan said of the second half Jayhawk run. “He (Wilbekin) made some plays that really helped our team.”
It’s a role that would continue to play itself out continuously as the season progressed. Game after game this season, as the Gators faced extended offensive lulls and defensive lapses, Scottie has come through with clutch shots, mostly great individual plays, great defensive efforts, and free throws.
As recently as their last game against Tennessee, Scottie has continued making clutch plays. As the Gators clung to a one point lead and Tennessee with momentum after a huge three point play on a running hook shot by Jarnell Stokes which got Patric Y9ung his fourth foul, Wilbekin found Michael Frazier in transition following a Tennessee turnover for an open three that gave the Gators a four point lead. On the very next possession after a missed Tennessee shot, Wilbekin manufactured a three point shot of his own as the shot clock was expiring which took the life out of the home crowd, gave the Gators a seven point cushion, and all but put the game away.
The Tennessee game was perhaps the best game of his career finishing with a career high 21 points, 3 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals. Even bigger perhaps was the fact that he had zero turnovers. Last week Tennessee guard Jordan McRae was asked what he thought was the biggest difference in Florida from last season and he responded rather tersely,
After the game on Tuesday, McRae said that Wilbekin
“is the leader of the number three team in the country and played like it tonight.”
ESPN’s Seth Greenberg called him
“The best on-ball defender in all of college basketball.”
Dick Vitale said,
“I love [Scottie] Wilbekin – his toughness and his ability to create problems on the defensive end.”
Some analysts have called him one of the best point guards in America and he’s certainly garnering attention as SEC Player of the Year. Known as a defensive specialist all the way back to his days at the Rock school in Gainesville, Wilbekin is quickly making a name for himself as a clutch shooter and offensive leader. As a byline to Tuesday nights game read,
“Wilbekin started the game with steals and ended it with a three.”
The same might be said of his career. When Donovan had announced the 2010 Gator basketball signing class he took time to mention how young Scottie was (he graduated at 16) and said that he would need time to develop as a person as well as a player. What he meant was Scottie would need to mature on and off the court. Over the last four years, Gator fans have watched that maturation process from the strictly defensive specialist who was given a red light to shoot to the unquestioned leader of this Gator team. He is exactly what the Gators have been missing since the graduation of Taurean Green. A true point guard who can run the offense to perfection, set up his teammates, and hit clutch shots when they need them.
Erving Walker for all his offensive skills and leadership abilities was limited by his height both on the defensive end and when driving into the lane. Wilbekin is a tall point guard who is a fierce defender and can match up with larger guards. Kenny Boynton was a shooting guard who lacked the passing skills and leadership skills needed at the point guard position. Wilbekin has all of the above. He’s a fantastic ball handler with quickness to get into the lane and excellent passing skills, and he can make shots. All of them. From runners in the lane, to free throw line jumpers, to three point shots and he’s almost money from the line, particularly late in the game when teams are fouling to try to stay alive.
Asked to reflect on his time at Florida, Wilbekin responded,
“Like I’ve been saying … just how much of an opportunity it is to be playing at this level, here at Florida, with a great coaching staff and great teammates. I just learned to value that a little bit more. I’m just trying to make sure that I do the right things and put myself in the position to keep doing what I love doing.”
On being a leader, he said,
“I think when you’re a point guard, that’s the kind of position you’re put into. I think I’ve done a better job, a good job, of being more vocal on the court and trying to relay what coach wants as a position on the court. So, just talking to my teammates, encouraging them and trying to get them on the right track.”
Adding, “I’m comfortable with it. That’s been my position ever since high school, so this is really, last year and this year, is really the first opportunity for me to step into more of that role – more so this year. I’d say I’m pretty comfortable with it.”
He also reflected on this group of seniors who came in together in 2010 with much promise and now go out with Florida’s best chance at an NCAA tournament championship since the 2005-06 and 2006-07 teams went back to back.
“That’s something we talked about as freshmen, saying that one day it would be our team and one day our time will come. It’s just funny that it’s here now. Sometimes, we think back to when we were freshmen and kind of laugh to ourselves. We’re definitely cherishing every moment we have this season.”
It certainly is their time but it’s also Scottie Wilbekin’s time and his team. And they will go as far as he leads them.