Patric Young, Florida Gators Escape Auburn for Record 18th Consecutive Victory

Cue the Pat Benatar music.

Hit me with your best shot
Why don’t you hit me
With your best shot
Hit me with your best shot
Fire Away

Patric Young had a monster second half helping the Florida Gators to escape the Auburn Tigers for their 18th consecutive victory. (Getty images)

Patric Young had a monster second half helping the Florida Gators to escape the Auburn Tigers for their 18th consecutive victory. (Getty images)

The Auburn Tigers came into the O’Connell Center on Wednesday night with a 4-8 conference record and barely over .500 overall at 12-11 seeking to hit the Gators with their best shot. A young team with nothing to lose they fired away from start to finish and it was almost enough as they came within 40 seconds and a couple of bad plays of upsetting the #2 team in the country on the road.

Behind freshman Tahj Shamshid-Deen’s hot three point shooting (5-8) the Tigers outplayed the favored Gators all evening before a couple of bad plays and some opportunistic free throw shooting by the Gators doomed them down the stretch. The Gators escaped with a 71-66 victory and kept their hopes of an undefeated conference season alive. It was the middle game of a tough 5 game stretch and only home game during that span, the one many expected to be a cake walk. It was anything but for the Gators.

The game started well for the Tigers as they hit their first three point shot and went 5-9 from beyond the arc in the first half taking a quick lead which they maintained for most of the first half. They continued their hot shooting fending off a 12-0 Gator run to take a 38-30 halftime lead, the largest halftime deficit the Gators faced all season.

The Gators defense simply wasn’t up to standard in the first half and, of course, that probably had as much to do with how well the Tigers were playing as anything else. For his part, Donovan warned his team of complacency in the face of a hungry team which is better than it’s record might suggest.

 “Coming into the half, we were not there like I thought we needed to be,” head coach Billy Donovan said afterwards. “All the things you can imagine coming out of last week I hit these guys with in terms of being able to prepare, start over, the process of going into the next game. I felt like this game was going to be a battle. They’d won four out of their last six. I think they’re playing well, they’ve got two of the best scorers collectively in the country. They run really good stuff. They’ve been in basically every game.

Suddenly, the Gators were in a ballgame and whatever they talked about in the locker room at half time appeared to go in one ear and out the other as Shamshid-Deen hit his fifth three pointer of the game less than a minute into the second half forcing head coach Billy Donovan to call a quick timeout. He appeared to be highly upset with forward Casey Prather who had been guarding Shamshid-Deen and an adjustment was made. The timeout and adjustment was successful as Shamshid-Deen would not score again.

“Yeah I had enough of watching him (Shamshid-Deen) constantly shooting threes over him (Prather),” Billy Donovan said. “I told him, I said ‘I’m taking you off him’ and he wanted to guard him. I basically said ‘if he gets one more off you’re coming off him and, matter of fact, you’re going to come out of the game’. “

The Tigers continued to battle however, not backing down and running their offense effectively all evening. When they weren’t shooting threes over the top of the Gator defense, they were driving through the teeth of it. But it was their three point shooting that did the most damage. They finished 22-46 (47.8%) overall from the field and a sparkling 10-19 (52.6%) from beyond the arc. For sure it wasn’t one of the Gators best defensive efforts of the season.

“One of the things we had talked about with these guys was the three point line because you have two problems guarding them,” said Donovan. “The first thing is, we did a phenomenal job on Denson and Harrell of keeping them out of the lane. The bad part of that was when we did do that and they skipped it and moved it to the next guy we did not react quick enough to take away threes. So we did a much, much better job against those two guys than we did the first time but where they really hurt us was from the three point line.”

Donovan was very unhappy with the Gators effort as they were outplayed for most of the game by the inspired Tigers team who are much better than their 12-12 record would suggest. All the talk the past week about how well the Gator defense had played in tough road victories over Tennessee and Kentucky went out the window with the quickness of a Tiger three point shot.

“I think, first, I thought Auburn outplayed us,” Donovan admitted. “Saying it like it is. We did not do a very good job defensively. This is kind of some of the things I have talked about in the past, when we get all this praise for how good our defense is, and it’s really not something that just you’re always great defensively. And give Auburn credit because they really shot the ball extremely well. They were averaging about five made threes per game, they obviously made ten. And what makes it even that much more difficult is they only needed nineteen shots to do it.”

Donovan added, “Auburn came in here with great energy and fire. and our guys, there’s some uncharted territory here, where you got to be able to handle some of this stuff that’s been thrown at these guys.”

Despite the lack of a collective team focus, the Gators did battle back all night and there were some strong individual play particularly on the offensive end. Casey Prather finished with 16 points, nine rebounds, and 2 steals barely missing a double-double. DeVon Walker played well in extended minutes off the bench hitting a couple of big three point shots which helped keep the Gators in the game finishing with 6 points, 1 rebound, and 2 assists.

They also did a great job on the free throw line particularly down the stretch, an area that has been sketchy for the Gators this season, finishing 23-28 (82.1%). The work they’ve put in to correct their poor shooting earlier in the season has paid off.

“These guys have worked hard, we’ve spent time, we’ve gotten better there,” Donovan said. “But we’ve got to keep getting better.”

Patric Young grabs a rebound versus Auburn. (TampaBay. com)

Patric Young grabs a rebound versus Auburn. (TampaBay. com)

Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin had another great game finishing with 15 points, 4 assists, with only one turnover. It was his first turnover in his last three games. The star of the game, however, was senior center Patric Young who came back from an almost non-existent first half with no points and only 1 rebound to take control of the game in the second half. He came out o halftime with grit and determination repeatedly making hustle plays including running the floor to block an Auburn transition lay up from behind. Young finished with a game high 17 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 blocks.

For sure, it was a battle throughout as the Gators opened the second half on an 11-3 run to tie the score at 41 and the teams traded baskets  and the lead changed hands a number of times the last ten minutes. Still the Gators were on upset alert with a minute left to play and the Gators down by two after Scottie Wilbekin missed a jump shot and the Tigers rebounded. A strong defensive possession resulted in a missed Auburn jump shot and a strong Patric Young rebound. The Gators came down and Wilbekin found an open Michael Frazier, who finished with 9 points, at the top of the key where he drained his third three point shot of the game to take a one point lead at 66-65.

Then the Tigers fell apart. Auburn’s Chris Denson missed the second of his two free throw attempts following a Will Yeguete foul and then Ashaun Dixon-Tatum quickly and head scratchingly fouled Patric Young immediately. Young drained both of his free throws to take a two point lead at 68-66 and then once again Auburn made a bone headed play. Allen Payne threw the inbounds pass to Harrell who wasn’t ready for it and the ball skipped into the Gators bench for a turnover which forced Auburn to quickly foul Scottie Wilbekin who hit both free throws for a four point Gator lead. Another missed Tiger three pointer and Gator rebound led to another free throw for the final 71-66 score.

The Gators played hard particularly at the end and took advantage of the Auburn mistakes but certainly the Tigers helped the Gators out in extending their home court win streak to 30 games a school record.

“We got some help from Auburn coming down the stretch,” Donovan said. “The score’s tied, they miss a free throw, and I was getting ready to call a timeout as the ball crossed half court and Dixon-Tatum fouls Patric Young. So that’s not really anything to do with us. Then Patric makes two free throws, then they throw the ball out of bounds, and then Scottie makes two free throws. So Frazier made a really, really big shot which was big in the game, to get the game back. And then I thought the other thing that was good was we made free throws. And then what we did do, the last three or four minutes of the game, we held them scoreless. So those things were good.”

Auburn for sure gave the Gators their best shot but it just wasn’t quite enough there at the end.

“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Donovan said. “I think when you talk about that, one of the things that I talk to our guys alot about is being undefeated in the league, ranking, all that stuff, no question you’re going to get everybody’s best shot. But I like to look at it the other way, are we going to give our best shot? That’s all well and good and we can know that but are we going to give our best shot? I didn’t think today we did that. And I think that Auburn had a lot more bounce, they were more lively. They played fearlessly, they attacked, they were aggressive, they were confident. They knew where the ball was going, what they were doing. And they made plays when they needed to make plays.”

Despite the tougher than expected victory and the many defensive lapses, it is encouraging that the Gators continue to find ways to win despite how well they play or how well the opponent plays. In the past the Gators have struggled in close games down the stretch as evidenced by all three of their Elite Eight losses the last three seasons.

“The one thing I would say that I have tried to get through our guys heads, and we’ve had some times with these guys when they were younger, that they have a tendency in years past to say ‘oh my gosh, the game,what is happening?’ Donovan said. “I think that the thing I’ve tried to get across to our guys is even though we’re not playing great, and I thought Auburn played phenomenal, we’re still in the game, so anything that has happened in the past is over. The next most important thing is the next possession and what we’re doing. It wasn’t like we were down by ten or fifteen points. It was a one possession game pretty much from about the three or four minute mark on. So it was still close, just trying to keep our guys engaged in the game, I think they’ve done a better job of staying engaged like that.”

The victory was the Gators 18th consecutive and set a school record. Donovan said the team will celebrate the victory despite how disappointing their play was and then get back to work correcting mistakes and learning from this game.

“I believe every time you win you celebrate after a game. I think you always celebrate a win. I think you always do that. Our guys worked hard to prepare, it was a hard fought game. Auburn’s a good team, we knew that. I can’t on one end say Auburn’s a good team to our guys, it’s going to be a battle and a war, and then win the game and walk off the floor and say I’m disappointed. So we’re going to enjoy the win, but we’re going to have to come back tomorrow and certainly make some corrections and get better.”

Next up for the Gators is a noon eastern matchup against Marshall Henderson and the Ole Miss Rebels in Oxford, Mississippi on Saturday. The game will be broadcast live on CBS.

Florida Gators Escape Auburn at Home, Win 18th in a Row 71-66

Patric Young dominated the second half helping the #2 Florida Gators escape the Auburn Tigers. (gatorcountry)

Patric Young dominated the second half helping the #2 Florida Gators escape the Auburn Tigers. (gatorcountry)

In a grinding effort typical of this team. the #2 Florida Gators used a dominant second half by Patric Young and some opportunistic play in the last minute to escape the Auburn Tigers in the O’Dome tonight. The victory was the Gators 18th consecutive victory and 30th straight at home both school records.

It was a gutsy game for the Tigers (12-12, 4-9 in the SEC) who came in as the worst three point shooting team in the conference but almost shot the O’Dome lights out from behind the arc. The Tigers shot 6-9 from three in the first half to stun the Gators home crowd and take a 38-30 halftime lead, the largest halftime deficit of the season for the Gators. Tiger freshman Tahj Shamshid-Deen led the way for Auburn finishing with 17 points on 5-8 shooting from behind the arc.

The Gators, conversely, didn’t shoot so well in the first half riding Casey Prather’s 10 points and DeVon Walker’s two three pointers off the bench  to stay within range of the Tigers. The second half, however, belonged to Patric Young. After being shut out in the first half, Young came out fired up in the second half hitting big shots, grabbing rebounds, and even hustling in transition to block an Auburn lay up which exemplified his strong effort. Young finished with 17 points and 7 rebounds all but one rebound in the second half. He also had three assists and two blocks.

Casey Prather had a monster game as well finishing with 16 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, and 2 steals. Both Young and Prather had back to back alley oops in one stretch of the second half which fired up the home crowd. Scottie Wilbekin was the only other Gator in double figures finishing with 15 points, 4 asssists and only one turnover.

The Gators struggled shooting from the field for much of the game but finished 20-50 (40%) and only 8-24 (33.3%) from three while Auburn shot 22-46 (47.8%) from the floor and 10-19 (52.6%) from three. It was, however,  Michael Frazier’s (3-9, 33.3%, 9 points)  third three point shot of the game with 42 seconds remaining that gave the Gators the lead at 66-65 that changed the momentum and threatened to blow the roof off the O’Dome. The Gators used great defense and solid free throw shooting down the stretch for the final margin.

With the victory the Gators moved to 24-2 tying the school record for best record to start the season (2006-07) and could possibly get them to a number one ranking after #1 Syracuse lost tonight to Boston College their first loss of the season. Of course, they have to take care of business on Saturday when they go on the road to take on the Ole Miss Rebels.

Florida Gators Move Up in the Rankings, Go Back Down to the Cellar

 “Are you prepared to go all the way back down to the cellar again and have to prepare and go back up?

Florida Gator head basketball coach Billy Donovan

The Florida Gators four senior starters have the opportunity to accomplish something great. (gatorzone.com)

The Florida Gators four senior starters have the opportunity to accomplish something great. (gatorzone.com)

The Florida Gators men’s basketball team had quite a week last week. After winning two tough road games against Tennessee and Kentucky, the Gators moved up to #2 in both the AP and USAToday coaches poll. They tied a school record with their 17th consecutive victory moving to 23-2 overall on the season and remaining undefeated in the SEC at 12-0. So Billy Donovan, where are you going now?

“Back down to the cellar.”

Back down to the cellar to do work. No resting on their laurels. No celebrating a rare win at Rupp Arena. No pats on the back for overcoming adversity in two of the toughest road venues in the nation. When you’re on top of the world there’s only one way to go… down… back down to the cellar.

Basketball is a grind. It’s all about surviving runs, overcoming adversity, staying the course. The Gators have excelled at this from game to game all season long. It starts with senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin and his on-court leadership.

‘”Just stay the course,'” Wilbekin said when asked what he tells teammates during intense in-game moments. “I tell them we know it’s going to be tough like if we got a foul called that we didn’t like or that we didn’t think should be called I’m just like, “We’re on the road, it’s an SEC environment, it’s Kentucky. We knew it was going to be like this. We knew they were going to make runs, we knew they were going to make tough shots but we just have to stick to the course and stick to the process.'”

Basketball season is a grind as well. From training camp, to the preconference schedule, to the long 18 game conference schedule. Then there’s a four day conference tournament and if you’re lucky the NCAA tournament which is two games in three days for three consecutive weekends in order to win a championship. If you want to win big you’ve got to grind hard, you’ve got to go back down to the cellar.

The hardest thing for players is to understand the extent of that grind. There’s no time to rest and whether you play well or play bad, win or lose you have to keep going back to the cellar, you’ve got to keep grinding. The toughest part of coaching is getting players to not only understand that but to buy into it.

“I think for any coach, that’s a constant battle in trying to deal with moving to the next thing,” Billy Donovan said. “I always say this, there’s always some kind of residual effect after a game, whether a player didn’t play well or he didn’t play enough or a guy played great and thinks he’s got it all figured out or he was in foul trouble – there’s some kind of effect your team deals with coming out of the game. I think the key is, are our guys willing and prepared today to start all over again in the process of getting ready to play on Wednesday night and be willing to not skip steps?”

And that’s where this team is at right now. Despite their huge week that answered a lot of the questions detractors had of the team and has them pushing not only for a number one NCAA tourney seed but possibly the number one overall seed, they’ve got to forget about all that and head back down to the cellar to prepare for the next game against Auburn.

 “We obviously had a week where we played two road games and it was two really good wins for our guys,” Donovan said. “But right now, they don’t mean anything as it relates to going into this next game against Auburn. So are we willing to take ourselves all the way down to the bottom and realize that we’re starting off at the bottom and now we’ve got to obviously prepare and build and get ready for this next game? And after the Auburn game, are you prepared to go all the way back down to the cellar again and have to prepare and go back up? And that is a tedious, grinding, fatiguing, hard process to go through, but it’s one you have to go through I think in order to be successful.”

And that is what has been key for this team. It explains how they’ve won 17 in a row, how they’ve come within 7 points of being undefeated. It explains how they’ve come this far with a team that has been through so much and started the season with so many questions and arguably without any superstars. If nothing else, this team has fully bought into the concepts Billy Donovan preaches. They’ve become the on-court personification of Donovan.

“I don’t know. I mean, I hope they do [believes in what he preaches],” Donovan said. “I think a lot of times, you can say a lot of different things and I always feel like if you say those things, you can back it up with your actions. So, hopefully our guys, if they’re saying those things, they’re trying to at least back them up. For the most part, these guys have been really, really good. They’ve been coachable, they’ve worked hard, they’ve been great kids and they’ve done what we’ve asked them to do. I still think we can get better. There’s another challenge in front of us here, obviously this week with Auburn. If they are repeating some of the things that I say, the biggest thing is, do they really believe in what they put into those things? Hopefully they do.”

Grinding is never easy and it hasn’t been easy for this team. They’re not perfect and haven’t always done it to Donovan’s satisfaction but they never stop going back down to the cellar.

“Yeah, there’s been plenty of times they don’t do it as well as I would like,” according to Donovan. “I’m anxious to see how well we do it here today. It’s always a challenge. There’s a certain expectation that we have in terms of going into the next game and trying to prepare for it and how do we handle that approach.”

You’ve got to fight and battle through the mental aspect. The body and mind want to rest and take it easy. But champions dig down and find the strength to fight back against human nature.

“The hardest thing right now with regards to that is we’re dealing with really good kids that are between 18 and 22 years old that are trying to figure their way in life and understand and have some great opportunities to learn and grow in a lot of different ways,” Donovan said. “But at the same point, they’re human, they’re not robots or machines. I think the challenge I always talk to them about is, ‘Are you prepared today to battle human nature?’ Human nature says, ‘Let’s take it easy, we just had two good wins, everything’s going to be fine, everything’s OK.’ You’ve got to constantly battle and fight that every single day and as a coach you try to educate them on that.”

He added, “And it’s no different for anybody else, there’s always things that we have to battle where we have to make those decisions, and our guys right now are going in there like, ‘Here we go again,’ and that’s a hard process. Are we perfect at it? No. Have there been times this year that we haven’t done a great job? Yes, they’re human, but we have to constantly bring it in front of them and have them address it and try to deal with it.”

The key to grinding and getting better, according to Donovan, is confrontation. Players have to be stressed in practice in order to improve and get better.

“I think there has to be confrontation in practice for those guys to grow,” Donovan said.” “If I go to practice every day and it’s just easy for them, there’s no adversity or confrontation, I think it’s hard to grow. They’ve got to be able to take on things. There are going to be challenges presented to them inside of practice and they’ve got to be able to handle those challenges and achieve what they need to achieve together. It requires, a lot of times, those guys working together, being on the same page, being connected and getting it done collectively as a group.”

And it comes down to mental toughness.

 “There is a mental approach that those guys have to have in terms of trying to get themselves ready to play,” according to Donovan. “I think we can all probably acknowledge that the most difficult times of all of our lives, although they’ve been hard and difficult, looking back on them, we’ve probably seen more growth in those difficult times and maybe even those times have gone great. I think the same thing can be said for our team. You go through those difficult times, where you try and prepare and get better as a team, you look back and say, ‘Wow, I’ve come a long way.’ But, during the process it’s challenging and difficult, but I do think there’s a reward in terms of seeing development and growth.”

And the reward is more than just wins, school record win streaks, and a possible undefeated conference season. The reward this year may just be the Gators third NCAA tourney championship. They’re definitely in the midst of a special season.

“Probably just the day-in, day-out process of how hard it is to be good,” Scottie Wilbekin said when asked what the biggest thing he’s learned from coach Donovan. “And I would say that we don’t know what that is yet. He knows, because he coached back-to-back national championship teams, but he keeps telling us and we keep striving to get to that place where we’re working as hard day-in and day-out to accomplish something great.”

Accomplish something great. This team certainly has the opportunity to do just that. Considering where they were when the season started, Wilbekin suspended and Damontre Harris booted off the team, what they went through early in the year with minimal depth and injuries and then how far they’ve come to a reach a #2 national ranking and become the odds on favorite to win it all, this team has a great opportunity to accomplish something great. But if they want to get to the top, they have to go back down. Back down to the cellar.

 

Florida Gator Basketball: Pursuit of a Legacy

The Florida Gators four senior starters are in pursuit of a legacy. (Gatorzone)

The Florida Gators four senior starters are in pursuit of a legacy. (Gatorzone)

Ladies and gentleman, these are your Florida Gators. And in case you hadn’t noticed, these guys are pretty good. How good? How about #2 in the nation, 23-2 overall, 12-0 in the SEC, and currently on a school record 17 game winning streak. The only other Gator basketball teams who won 17 straight won NCAA tournament championships. After dispatching Kentucky, the only other team with a legitimate claim to an SEC title this year, the Gators path to an undefeated conference season and a possible number one seed in the tourney appears very doable. But let’s not crown them just yet.

In an age of “one and done’s”, players leaving early for the NBA, and players transferring for more playing time, this team is an anachronism. A senior dominated lineup of players who, other than Patric Young, were mostly role players for much of their careers and waited patiently for their opportunity to start yet never wavered from the path head coach Billy Donovan set for them.

It’s not exactly an outhouse-to-the-penthouse story nor is it as dramatic a change as the ’04’s who went from rarely used bench players to national champs. Unlike those guys, this collection of players had made significant contributions previously in their careers but, other than Young, who has been the starting center for two years, these guys were never THE guy. They all had varying roles on OTHER teams, all three of which made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tourney. But now it’s THEIR time and they’re making the most of it.

Coming into the past week there were still a ton of detractors. Despite a 15 game winning streak and undefeated conference record, many questioned how good this team actually was, largely due to a scheduling quirk which had them playing the dregs of a weak SEC through much of the first half of their conference slate. And then there’s the fact that they were not very overwhelming against that weak schedule. Unlike last season when the Gators were blowing out their opponents in their victories, this year’s edition was struggling against weak competition going to overtime at Arkansas, being in a one point game with two minutes to play against Auburn, heading to halftime close in seemingly every game.

Sure they look good at home, in the friendly confines of the O’Dome and the loud and proud Rowdy Reptiles. The knock has been that they struggle away from home. But after taking the best shots of both Tennessee and Kentucky on the road in two of the tougher road venues in the conference and perhaps the nation, it’s safe to say this team has won over many of their detractors.

All Aboard! The Gator Bandwagon is leaving the station and it’s running out of room.

They are a throwback team for sure. Four seniors who have stuck it out for four years and matured both on and off the court playing team basketball the way it USED to be played. For sure there are no superstars, simply blue collar guys who have learned Billy Donovan’s complex offensive and defensive systems to a tee and found their role within it.

Patrick Young, the former McDonald’s All American center who up to this season never quite seemed to live up to the hype that goes with being a chiseled 6’10 post player. Casey Prather, the athletic wingman who can take most post players off the dribble and make athletic moves to the basket but has limited jump shooting abilities. Will Yeguete the defensive specialist who is active underneath the basket and on the press but has little in the way of offensive ability. And then there’s the guy who makes it all go, point guard Scottie Wilbekin. A low rated kid, and I do mean kid (he was 16 when he enrolled at Florida), coming out of high school who, coming into this season, was known more for his off the court problems than on court prowess.

Four seniors, all with questionable NBA draft stock, who have combined to do things only two other Gator teams have done. Much more talented Gator teams. This is certainly the unlikeliest of Donovan coached teams to make a charge at a number one seed in the NCAA tournament. For sure, Billy Donovan has fielded more talented teams. But only two have played as well together as this one does. And they both won championships. Could this be the year they hang another NCAA banner in the O’Dome?

“Someone asked me were there comparisons [with this Gator team and the championship teams],” Billy Donovan said after the victory over Kentucky. “And  I think because of some of the things the guys have done, and certainly our tradition is not like Kentucky’s so some of the milestones in our program get referenced back to that group. And that group had three top ten players. I think it was the first time in the history of the NBA draft that three players from one team went in the top nine. Then you had Chris Richard coming off the bench who was a second round draft pick and you had Mareese Speights who was a first round draft pick the next year. Our talent level on that team was at a totally different level than this team. But I did say the comparison I would make is the way those guys tried to play for each other, the way they cared about each other there are some similarities that way but this group does not have that same level of talent that the other group had.”

And therein may just lie the key to why this team plays so well together in spite of it’s many deficiencies. Chemistry. They play for each other, they care about each other.

“I think that they [Gator seniors] have very, very good chemistry, they’re very, very well connected,” Donovan added. “I think they care a great deal about each other, I think they play for each other.”

Unlike a lot of teams who go their separate ways after practice is over or after the game is over, these guys are friends on the court and off the court. Like the ’04’s, these guys came in together, they’ve grown together, played together, and will go out together.

“That’s something we talked about as freshmen,” Wilbekin said last week. “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.”

And that togetherness will help them come conference and NCAA tournament time. It will help them cement their legacy. Tournaments are all about grind. Teams play two games in three days and sometimes three in four days and the short turnaround time is something they don’t see a lot during the season. It’s a grind getting up to play after only a day of rest and with shortened practice time. Fortunately for the Gators, they have played Thursday-Saturday turnaround games a couple of times already this season. And oddly, some of their most dominant games have been in the turnaround game.

They also have the road trip to deal with. Being on the road for three to four days at a time can also be a grind. A mental grind. Not having a usual routine can be disruptive for players. Sleeping in motel rooms, playing in unfriendly confines, and shooting at baskets with a different depth perception can also be distracting. It helps to be a close knit group. Guys that hang together have a much easier time overcoming the distractions of the road. This team has that. While it may seem like they’ve struggled on the road this season, one could also argue that they’ve played well finding ways to grind out victories in the midst of constant adversity. That’s EXACTLY what is necessary to win a tournament which requires winning six games across three weekends all in venues they’ve likely never seen.

So despite the Gators many deficiencies, and they are many, this team of unlikely heroes sits as odds on favorite of winning it all. Think about that for a moment. Take your time. A team that started the season without it’s starting point guard who was suspended for five games and not allowed to practice with the team all summer, who dismissed a key post player in transfer Damontre Harris before the season began, who saw it’s top incoming freshman superstar miss all of the non-conference and half of the conference schedule, and who for most of the non-conference season could barely field a starting five and could not even operate a full scrimmage, is now the odds on favorite to win the whole kit and kaboodle.

This team is chasing more than wins and an undefeated conference schedule. More than an NCAA tournament number one seed and tourney championship. This team is chasing a legacy.

Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather Lead Gators to Rare Rupp Win

Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin led the #3 Gators over the #14 Kentucky Wildcats. (Foxsports)

Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin led the #3 Gators over the #14 Kentucky Wildcats. (Foxsports)

It’s been quite a week for the #3 Florida Gators men’s basketball team’s four senior starters. After finally winning in Knoxville on Tuesday night, a place at which they’ve struggled of late, they went to Rupp Arena on Saturday evening where they had never won before and took down the #14 Wildcats 69-59. With the rare Rupp victory, the Gators ended the Wildcats 22 game home win streak and tied a school record with their 17th consecutive victory. The last time the Gators won at in Lexington was 2007, the year they went on to win the Gators second consecutive NCAA tournament championship. Gator fans are hoping that it’s a sign of good things to come for these Gators. The seventeen game streak is shared with the 2005-06 team which won the first of the back to back titles.

The story lines for this one were as long as the lines to get into the ESPN Gameday top 20 match up. Age and experience versus youth and enthusiasm. The Gators unusual senior dominated lineup versus Kentucky’s diaper dandies. A team four years in the making versus a team built overnight.

Kentucky showcased their talented freshman lineup full of future NBA stars in front of a packed home crowd and they gave the Gators everything they could muster. It wasn’t quite enough, however, as seniors Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather, Patric Young, and Will Yeguete withstood every challenge and made a late charge to overcome and hold off the scrappy Wildcats.

It wasn’t easy for the Gators as the Wildcats used a hot shooting touch to take an early 7-2 lead and maintained that hot shooting throughout the evening. The Gators, conversely, started cold and had difficulties throughout getting shots to fall.

“One of the things that happens when you’re playing on the road, there’s going to be some peaks and valleys,” head coach Billy Donovan said after the game. “Obviously we didn’t get off to a great start, I think the score was 7-2. Frazier got a pretty good look. We really struggled shooting the ball. I thought we had good looks in the first half, we didn’t shoot a high percentage at all. I actually thought we played fairly decent defense. They’ve got really, really good shot making ability. When they get in the lane they can make very, very difficult challenge shots.

They did, however, recover from the early deficit to take a small lead and the two teams traded shots at the lead for most of the first half until Kentucky used an 8-1 run to take a 7 point lead with two minutes remaining in the first half. The Gators closed the half strong, though, closing the deficit to 3 points, 31-28, going into halftime.

The second half was more of the same with both teams making small runs keeping the score close. Kentucky maintained the lead for much of the second half with the Gators just trying to keep pace. It wasn’t until five minutes were left in the game when the Gators were able to make their final run and take the lead for good. The Gators closed out the victory on a 14-6 run by isolating Scottie Wilbekin with some pick and roll action and crashing the offensive boards. The Gators hit clutch foul shots down the stretch to hold off the Wildcats for the final score.

The Gators had problems all night getting shots to fall. The final shooting percentage of 44% (22-50) belies the problems the Gators were having with their outside shooting as they were only 3-13 (23.1%) from beyond the three point arc. Despite the shooting woes, the Gators hung tough by crashing the boards against the bigger Kentucky lineup (the Gators finished with 10 offensive rebounds) and playing tough defense limiting the Wildcats shot opportunities and forcing them to turn the ball over. The Gators forced 13 turnovers in the game while only giving it away a season low 5 times themselves.

The Gators struggled most of the night against the 1-3-1 zone defense that Kentucky opened with and utilized for most of the night, a rarity for a team that plays man to man a league high 96% of their defensive possessions. It was successful for the most part against Florida, however, as they struggled to get into an offensive rhythm with their pick and roll and settled for jump shots far too often.

The big turning point for the Gators, though, was when Billy Donovan called an animated timeout with just over three minutes to go and the Gators clinging to a 3 point lead at 60-57. Donovan was upset with the Gators lack of ball movement and energy offensively. When the Gators returned to the floor it was a different team altogether. Rather than settling for outside shots, they kept the ball in Scottie Wilbekin’s hands using ball screens to free him up for drives to the basket which got them to the free throw line and allowed the Gators to crash the offensive boards. The Gators were able to hit most of their free throws down the stretch to hold on for the victory.

“Like I told our guys if they’re going to come and try to block shots when we go to the rim, you got just two responsibilities,” Donovan said. “One, you got to get it up on the glass because it’s going to give us a chance to go offensive rebound. Or, two, you’ve got to pass the ball out and make the extra pass.  They obviously blocked three shots which wasn’t a lot for what they normally do. And we did,in the game, get ten offensive rebounds which helped us as well. I just thought the important part for us offensively was when we did drive it and did get down the lane was not to get it blocked where now all of the sudden they’ve got numbers coming at our backcourt players.”

It was a grind for the Gators throughout fighting through their shooting woes, compounded by Kentucky’s hot shooting, and dealing with the loud, raucous Rupp Arena crowd, but they never faltered in the face of adversity. They continued to fight and battle taking advantage of every opportunity and finding ways to manufacture points even when Kentucky took their biggest lead of seven points 45-38 with just over 11 minutes remaining in the game.

“We started the second half with the possession,” Donovan said. “We missed the shot then they came down and got two consecutive offensive rebounds, I think they got up as many as seven. It’s just going to be one of those things where you’ve got to kind of stay the course. It’s a forty minute game and there’s going to be those kind of things. With a team as talented and as good as these guys are you’re not going to walk in here [and dominate]. And we haven’t done that at all against anybody on the road where we’ve just dominated from start to finish. It’s always a grind when you’re playing on the road.”

Casey Prather dunks on Kentucky and finished with a game high 24 points. (Getty Images)

Casey Prather dunks on Kentucky and finished with a game high 24 points. (Getty Images)

Casey Prather, who’s been battling a high ankle sprain for the last month played very well and paced the Gators with 24 points, four rebounds including three offensive rebounds, and four steals. His quickness and athleticsim gave the bigger Kentucky lineup fits throughout and he dominated the individual match up between him and Julius Randle the talented freshman and former McDonald’s All American. Of his 24 points, 14 were in the paint while Randle finished with only 13 points only 6 of which were scored in the paint. Prather also pulled down a huge offensive rebound late in the game between four taller Wildcat players that may have been the play of the game and personified the difference between the two teams. While it only led to one made free throw by Prather which stretched the Gators lead to six at 65-59, more importantly it stunned the home crowd and seemingly took the life out of the flat footed Wildcat team.

“I thought the rebound there at the end of the game was big,” Donovan said. “I think Scottie missed a baseline jumper over Stein, and he came down with the rebound and they fouled us and we came up with two points out of that possession.He did some very, very good things for us. “

It was obvious very early that the Gators game plan offensively was to try to battle the Wildcats in the paint by isolating Wilbekin in the pick and roll trying to get him in the lane for easy baskets or dishes to open shooters. For much of the game, however, the Wildcats did a great job shutting him down in the lane and the Gators couldn’t knock down shots. Scottie persevered though and was able to start getting better penetration as the game progressed.

“I thought we found a little bit better of an offensive rhythm there in the second half,” Donovan said. “We kind of weathered that first half offensively and found a little bit of a rhythm.”

The middle of the defense opened up late in the game as the Wildcats bigger line up wore down which allowed Scottie to get to the line and hit some clutch free throws down the stretch. He finished with a career high 23 points, 3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal.

“He (Wilbekin) did a really, really good job I thought … when we ran a lot of different actions. It was really no different than what John (Calipari) was doing with the Harrisons putting them in high pick and roll and letting those guys create and try to make some plays, we were kind of trying to do the same thing with Scottie. He was able to draw some fouls, he was able to get to the free throw line. That was important. He made a couple shots, he got the ball to some guys that made some plays. Then I thought coming down the stretch where it was a five or six point game, we got a couple of stops there that opened the game up for us. But Scottie being a point guard, certainly controlled and did a really, really good job.”

Coming in the Gators were very wary of the Wildcats ability to hit the offensive glass and get second chance points as they lead the league at 14.6 per game. That was the main focus defensively for the Gators and they did a fantastic job holding them to only 9 offensive rebounds and very few second chance points.

“I’ve got a lot of respect for our team and I’ve got a lot of respect for Kentucky,” Donovan said. “And you just don’t walk in here and just win because you get lucky. You have to play well and you’ve got to do some things in the game. And I thought some things that we did in the game, one, was we didn’t give up an enormous amount of offensive rebounds. They get about forty three percent of their misses back. That was really important. I thought that we did a really good job of shrinking the floor defensively and we made them take some long possessions defensively.”

It was an amazing rare road win at Rupp for the Gators. Not only has it been hard for the Gators but almost everyone to leave Rupp with a win. It is one of the toughest road venues in all of college basketball and the Gators have had their struggles there including last year when the Gators went without a field goal the last seven minutes of regulation before losing to the Wildcats.

“I think that even if you go back, Kentucky’s home record has been really astronomical,” Donovan said. “I think that the job that John has done here, what they’ve done here at home [has been great]. Being in the league as long as I’ve been in the league and even being here for five years, there’s no question this is maybe the hardest place in the country to play game in and game out. I think John certainly coming in here has been able to really, really build on a lot of that tradition there and he’s done an amazing job in terms of how well they’ve played here at home.”

It’s been impossible for this group of seniors who were o-3 at Rupp before last night’s victory. Being their last game in the arena made it all the more special for them as they continue to cement their legacy at Florida and are starting to be mentioned in the same breath as the ’04’s, as the back to back NCAA tourney winning teams were known. The significance wasn’t lost on Billy Donovan who congratulated his players but also warned not to take too much out of the victory.

“I was happy for those guys. The biggest thing is they never get a chance to come back here and play again so that was it for them. A lot of people don’t come in here and get wins but at the end of the day and the reality of this thing is it only counts as one win.”

Adding, “it’s one game, and how we move forward from this will be important. We obviously had two very challenging road games this week having to go into Tennessee and then obviously come here to Rupp. So, again, I’m happy for those guys because they won’t have an opportunity to play in a venue like this again.”

With 6 conference games remaining these Gators are gaining a lot of comparisons to the championship teams and have a legitimate shot to do something those teams could not-go undefeated in the SEC. Donovan for his part is downplaying both those comparisons.

“Someone asked me were there comparisons [with this team and the championship teams}  and  I think because of some of the things the guys have done, and certainly our tradition is not like Kentucky’s so some of the milestones in our program get referenced back to that group. And that group had three top ten players. Our talent level on that team was at a totally different level than this team. But I did say the comparison I would make is the way those guys tried to play for each other, the way they cared about each other there are some similarities that way but this group does not have that same level of talent that the other group had.”

He’s also downplaying the prospects of an easy ride the rest of the way towards an SEC title. He cautions that while a big victory is nice it has it’s own pitfalls in terms of expectations.

“I always say this every time you come out of a win or a loss there’s always residual effect that you’ve got to deal with,” Donovan said. “So for us coming off a week with two road games at Tennessee and here in Lexington, how do our guys respond from this going into next week. Having to go play against Auburn and then having to go on the road and play Mississippi. Where are we at right now? I like the direction we’re moving but I also am very, very guarded that a lot of times that stuff can change and different things can happen inside your team to kind of break that flow. So right now we’re moving in the right direction but we’ve got to keep moving in that direction.”]

The Gators do legitimately have a shot at an undefeated conference record and a top seed in the NCAA tourney but still have a tough match up with Ole Miss and a tough road game at Vanderbilt. For now, however, they have answered all the critics questions about a soft conference schedule with two consecutive tough road victories. Where they go from here remains to be seen but I like this teams fight, tenacity, resolve, and their prospects for the future. They are legitimate Final Four and NCAA tourney champions if they continue to get better each week as they have for the last two month.

With the victory, the Gators move to 23-2 tied for best start in Gator history with the 2006-07 team which opened 24-2. The Gators are 12-0 in the SEC with six conference games remaining. The Gators head home to the O’Dome to take on the Auburn Tigers on Wednesday. Tip off is scheduled for 7 pm eastern and will be broadcast by Sun Sports.

Florida vs Kentucky: A Study in Contrast

Billy Donovan has built one of college basketball's top programs. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Billy Donovan has built one of college basketball’s top programs. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Destiny arrives on Saturday in Lexington, KY. The SEC battle of the heavy weights. The under card fights are all done, now it’s time for the main event. Ali vs Frazier for SEC supremacy. [insert cliches here]. This may not be just a one versus two battle in the SEC, it may be a changing of the guard ceremony.

Kentucky, long one of college basketball blue blood programs going back to the days of legendary coach Adolph Rupp for whom the arena they’ll play in on Saturday is named, is now more of a TEAM that is simply a repository of young talent on their way to the NBA draft. Florida, once an afterthought on the college basketball landscape which wasn’t even a decent diversion between recruiting and football season, is now one of the top PROGRAMS in college basketball. Notice the emphasis on team versus program. It is not accidental.

On Saturday what you’ll see isn’t just a battle of top teams, you’ll see the difference in what the two programs have become. Kentucky is a team full of “one and done’s”. Because of an NBA draft rule which requires draft entrants to be at least one full year removed from high school, top draft choices head to college for a year before entering the draft. Kentucky, under head coach John Calipari, has become the main destination for those players. As such, they feature a lineup of top individual talent which changes from year to year.

Florida's (4) senior laden team is a rarity these days in college basketball. (Gatorzone)

Florida’s (4) senior laden team is a rarity these days in college basketball. (Gatorzone)

Conversely, Florida is a throwback program. Having only two “one and done’s” in their history, Bradly Beal and Donnell Harvey, the Gators under head coach Billy Donovan have recruited a more stable rotation of players. His players, absent transfers, tend to stick around for the duration of their careers. Gator fans are able to learn their player’s names, connect with them, watch them grow up. This year’s team with four senior starters is a rarity these days in college basketball. For Gator fans, it’s a courtship. For Wildcat fans it’s speed dating.

To contrast, the guys that Kentucky recruited in 2010, the same class as these Gator seniors. are a distant memory to Wildcat fans. If they remember them at all. They’ve been through four different lineups in the time that these Gator seniors have played out their careers. If you blink, you miss them. Wildcat players are barely in Lexington long enough for paint to dry.

While Calipari is a coddling caretaker of NBA caliber talent, Billy Donovan is a prodding, poking mentor and sensei who coaches his players up to become NBA talent. Donovan doesn’t cater to personality, while Calipari has to stroke egos. When players come to Gainesville to play for Billy Donovan it’s like going to boot camp. Your identity is stripped and it’s no longer about “you” it’s about team. At Kentucky, it’s like backstage on a Disney channel set.

At Florida, players learn quickly they will sit until they learn the advanced offensive and defensive concepts that the Gators employ and fit within the system. Talent alone won’t help you get on the court for Billy Donovan, hard work and good listening skills are more important. At Kentucky, you’re expected to start and perform right from the start. You’re not going to be there long enough to do it any other way.

The Gators are a team forged in iron, built on a solid foundation, which has taken years to build by a master craftsman. Kentucky? Prefab, thrown up in days, loosely held together. The Gators are like skilled rifleman who’ve spent years perfecting their craft, while Kentucky are drive by shooters.

Billy Donovan is a father figure molding raw young men into skilled basketball players and even more importantly solid adult citizens ready to take on the challenges of life beyond the basketball court. Calipari? He’s a babysitter. Watching the kids for a short time, but never long enough to build more than a fleeting relationship. Billy Donovan’s doghouse is notorious. Ask Scottie Wilbekin or Mike Rosario. The doghouse is Billy’s way of training his players about working hard and living right. He’s teaching them as much about life lessons as he is about being better basketball players. At Kentucky there’s no time for a doghouse. These players are here today, gone tomorrow. If you sit them, they quit on you. And then they’re gone. What would be the point?

Tonight the #3 Gators take on the #14 Wildcats. The Wildcats have all the big names and likely the largest collection of future NBA talent in the NCAA, while the Gators have a well oiled machine that has taken four years to perfect. Neither team will look anywhere near next year what it looks like this year but for entirely different reasons. And both have taken entirely different routes to get where they are now. The contrast is striking. Age and experience versus youth and enthusiasm. Long term versus short term.

The Gators have built one of the top programs in college basketball. Kentucky has built the top NBA farm system.

Florida Gators’ Scottie Wilbekin: His Team, His Time

Scottie Wilbekin has been the unquestioned leader of the #3 Florida Gator mens' basketball team. (staugustine.com)

Scottie Wilbekin has been the unquestioned leader of the #3 Florida Gator mens’ basketball team. (staugustine.com)

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?

Scottie Wilbekin shoots over Jordan McRae. (florida today)

Scottie Wilbekin shoots over Jordan McRae. (florida today)

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,

“Wilbekin”.

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.