Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Scottie Wilbekin has patiently, quietly waited his turn.
He graduated from high school a year early to sign with the Florida Gators and for two seasons played whatever niche role the team asked of him. Two guard. Small forward. Instant energy guy in the press. Defensive stopper, arguably what he does best. Even started one game -- against Kentucky, no less -- at the power forward spot last season.
Wilbekin, though, came to UF to play point guard and for the last two seasons that position was locked down by Erving Walker, who went on to become the No. 4 all-time scorer and No. 1 assist man in Gators history.
The day UF’s 2011-12 season ended with that maddening Elite Eight loss against Louisville, Wilbekin became the heir apparent at the point. But the opportunity came with a built-in caveat that Coach Billy Donovan not-so-subtly reminded Wilbekin of several times during the offseason.
“You gotta deal with me now,” Donovan said.
The bar Donovan sets for his playmaker is high, but Wilbekin, out of The Rock School in Gainesville, came in ready to shoulder the responsibility and knowing he would be challenged like never before.
“I’ve already experienced some of it,” Wilbekin said of the Donovan deal. “I was ready for it.”
What Wilbekin and the rest of the 10th-ranked Gators are ready for now is a game against another team, which they’ll get Thursday night in facing Nebraska-Kearney in an exhibition game at the O’Connell Center.
For the first time since 2009, someone other than 5-foot-8, offensive-minded Walker will be the starting UF point guard. That it’s the 6-foot-2, 176-pound Wilbekin, a more measured and system-oriented playmaker, means this version of the Gators figures to look a little -- maybe a lot -- different than the Walker teams that went to three straight NCAA tournaments.
“I want to get everybody involved,” Wilbekin said.
That’s his game.
“Scottie is a pass-first point guard, not a scoring guard, but that’s not to say he can’t score. He can,” senior guard Mike Rosario said. “Erv came down the floor looking to score. Scott will take good shots when they’re there, but he knows this team needs a guy who can run the offense and distributes shots. And we need his defense.”
They need his leadership and, maybe more than anything else, they need his head in the game at all times.
In an intra-squad scrimmage two weekends ago, Wilbekin did not play well. Donovan, in fact, was pleased to see it happen because it showed him how his floor general was capable of acting amid adversity.
That day, not good.
“He pouted,” Donovan said.
It was addressed at the time publicly and later privately.
The message was clear.
“I can’t do that because it affects my defense and how I lead the team,” Wilbekin said. “I have to keep a level head, even if I’m not playing well because the team is looking to me.”
This very issue was a constant source of frustration for Donovan during Walker’s career, as productive as it was. The coaching staff even dealt with it in the NCAA Tournament last season; in victory, no less.
If Wilbekin can learn to curb frustrations with his own play early in the process -- and accept that it’s all about the next possession -- he’ll be way ahead of the game.
“He has to understand that regardless of how it’s going for him on the court, you have to have an awareness for the other four guys on the floor,” Donovan said. “If you get so introspective of yourself and how you’re doing, and you’re team sees that you’re down and frustrated, that generally bleeds into everybody. He has to be able to push through that, persevere past it. Guys are depending on him. You’ve got to stay focused on what you’re supposed to be doing.”
For his career, Wilbekin has averaged 2.5 points per game, with his freshman and sophomore statistics remarkably similar. Except for one. He made 13 of 46 shots (28.3 percent) from 3-point range as a freshman, but improved to make 21 of 46 (a team-best 45.7 percent) as a sophomore.
Wilbekin not only is a better shooter now, but he’s learned to be more creative in getting into the lane; and not necessarily to get a shot off for himself, but maybe to find a better one for a teammate.
“He’s crafty in there, especially with how he uses ball screens,” Rosario said. “He’ll surprise you at times, but he’s always looking to get guys good shots.”
Senior guard Kenny Boynton is 502 points from becoming the school’s all-time scoring leader and 27 long bombs from the No. 1 all-time 3-point shooter. Erik Murphy may be the best 6-10 shooter (42.1 percent from 3-point range) in the nation and is a nightmare matchup in the frontcourt. Rosario scored more than 1,000 points in two seasons at Rutgers before transferring to UF and is needed to fill the scoring void left by the exits of Walker and Bradley Beal, the No. 3 pick in the NBA draft. He’s creative with the ball and has the ability to score in bunches.
The Gators have players who can fill up the rim.
“Some guys are gone, but Billy is still going to want us to get the ball and go,” Boynton said. “That’s not going to change. We’re going to be a running team and a 3-point shooting team.”
Now they need a steady hand to facilitate it all.
“I think we’re going to still do things similarly to what we did last year, but I also think Scottie has to play the way he’s capable of playing,” Donovan said. “I want him to be himself. I wanted Erving to be Erving. I need Scottie to be Scottie.”
Exactly what that is, everyone will know soon enough.
But it’s his time.
“It’s a good feeling,” Wilbekin said. “A little different, but I’m super excited.”
GATORS EXHIBITION GAMEBOX
Florida vs. Nebraska-Kearney
Tip-off: 7 p.m. (O’Connell Center)
TV: GatorVision (streamed on GatorZone.com)
Radio: WRUF-AM Gainesville (w/Steve Russell and Mark Wise)
Need to know: The 2012-13 Gators make their public debut with a preseason exhibition against Division II Nebraska-Kearney, a member of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. ... Coach Billy Donovan is entering his 17th season as coach, armed with a record of 386-158 at the school, including four Southeastern Conference titles and two national championships. ... UF returns three starters, plus four players who were key reserves from last season’s squad that finished 26-11 and reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year. ... The team figures to be led by a duo of seniors in G Kenny Boynton (15.9 ppg, 2.7 apg) and F Erik Murphy (10.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg), plus junior C Patric Young (10.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Two prominent backups from last year, junior PG Scottie Wilbekin (2.6 ppg, 1.6 apg) and senior G Mike Rosario (6.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg), will round out the starting lineup. ... Reserve F Will Yeguete (4.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg) is back after suffering a season-ending broken foot in the 27th game of the season. ... Junior F Casey Prather will play a much bigger role this season, but will sit out the game due to concussion suffered in a scrimmage last weekend. ... A quartet of perimeter-playing freshmen will get their first taste of collegiate action, with Gs Michael Frazier (Tampa) and Dillon Graham (Orlando) having earned the right to come off the bench first with promising preseason practices. G/F DeVon Walker (Winter Haven) and G Braxton Ogbueze (Charlotte; pronounced “o-BOY-see) are next in line. ... UN-K’s nickname is the Antelopes, but they go by the Lopers. They went 16-12 last season. ... The team actually has co-head coaches in Tom Kropp and Kevin Lofton. ... The athletic director at UN-K is Jon McBride, who served as UF’s assistant athletic director for external affairs from 1990-2002.