Men's Basketball Headline
GatorZone.com Senior Writer
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- The defense was called “12 High.” It was full-court pressure and Scottie Wilbekin’s AAU team overwhelmed opponents with it.
“We pressed and pressed and pressed,” Wilbekin recalled this week. “I got all kinds of steals and layups. It made me love playing defense.”
He was 9 years old.
Now 19, Wilbekin’s passion for defense not only has intensified over the last decade, but his reputation to play it exceeded him long ago. Since the day he arrived as a freshman guard at the University of Florida, he’s been the most tenacious defender in a Gators uniform. Now a junior, it’s just understood -- not even debated, really -- that Wilbekin will be matched against the other team’s best perimeter offensive weapon.
Like Texas A&M’s Elston Turner, for example.
Turner, the 6-foot-5 guard, bombed Kentucky for 40 points last weekend in the Aggies’ 83-71 upset win at Rupp Arena, becoming just the 11th player in to hang at least 40 on the Wildcats in Lexington. The win not only was the program’s first Southeastern Conference road victory, but provide a huge jolt of momentum for A&M (12-3, 2-0), with the 10th-ranked Gators 12-2, 2-0) due Thursday night at Reed Arena.
Scottie, meet Elston.
“I saw the highlights,” the 6-foot-2, 176-pound Wilbekin said. “He’s really good.”
So was Brandon Knight. Scotty Hopson, too. And Michael Snaer, Jimmer Fredette, Rotnei Clark and John Jenkins. Wilbekin got a look at all the really good ones up close as a freshman and they’re just kept coming.
He loves it like that.
“There’s just something he’s had inside him his whole life. He’s always taken pride in being a good defender,” Coach Billy Donovan said of Wilbekin, who last week put the clamps on Georgia guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (11 points, 0-for-3 from the arc), the league’s No. 4 scorer and projected NBA first-round pick. “Scottie’s never gotten a lot of notoriety as a scorer, even though he is a good scorer. But he loves the challenge on defense -- and he’ll have another challenge Thursday.”
Turner went 14-for-19 from the floor at UK, hitting six of 10 from 3-point range, to become the first player since LSU’s Chris Jackson in 1990 to rain for 40 in hallowed Rupp Arena. He did it off pick and rolls, catch-and-shoots and from the free-throw line, where he was 6-for-6.
Yes, Wilbekin will have a challenge.
But so will Turner.
The Aggies swingman will need to work really, really hard to get the shots he wants because of Wilbekin’s relentless ability to keep his man close and fight through screens. He’ll get some, sure, but the game within the game could be on which end of the 17.1 points Turner averages and 47 percent makes that he ends up.
“It’s Scottie’s will,” said UF assistant Rashon Burno, who was an outstanding defensive point guard at DePaul. “He has an unbelievable desire to stop whoever he is guarding and that’s where it starts, really. You’ve got to want to do it. You have to have that in you.”
The itch to defend may be rooted in “12 High,” but it waxed as Wilbekin got older, the players around him got better and the challenges became greater.
As he climbed through the club ranks, Wilbekin wanted the other team’s top offensive threat.
By the time he was 15 and 16 -- when players had developed reputations and the college coaches were showing up for spring and summer tournaments -- that’s when Wilbekin’s thirst for defense needed most to be quenched.
Like the time his Nike Team Florida played a squad from New Jersey.
And Kyrie Irving.
“That was kind of difficult,” Wilbekin said.
But he never backed down.
That mindset stayed with Wilbekin throughout his career at The Rock School in Gainesville, where he left after graduating in three years, and brought the in-your-jersey defensive mentality with him to UF as a 17-year-old freshman.
Senior center Vernon Macklin didn’t need to play with Wilbekin much before he hanging a label on the rookie, especially after seeing him stay with lightning-fast point guard Erving Walker in pick-up games.
“Defensive guy,” Macklin declared. “That’s you.”
As a freshman, Wilbekin played in all 37 games for the SEC regular-season champion that advanced to the Elite Eight. As a sophomore, he played in 37 more on another NCAA region finalist and quietly improved an understated offensive game, making 21 of 46 shots from 3-point range (a team-best 45.7 percent). His assist-to-turnover ratio those first two seasons was better than 2-to-1.
Now a junior, Wilbekin is doing everything better.
After missing the season’s first three games for violating team rules, Wilbekin is averaging 8.1 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists, while shouldering (gladly) the responsibilities of being the Gators’ floor general on offense and primary stopper on defense.
“He’s got a lot going on, but I think it narrows his focus,” Donovan said. “He can just get lost in just playing the game.”
For Wilbekin, the defensive end is just as glamorous as the other end.
“Oh man, his lateral quickness is amazing,” said UF freshman guard Michael Frazier, who has to face Wilbekin daily. “He’s able to cut you off everywhere you go and his ball pressure is great.”
That’s not all.
“He does a good job of getting all the other guy’s nerves, and not by talking or anything like that,” junior center Patric Young said. “He just really annoys guys with how hard he plays. It takes them out of their comfort zone.”
All the while remaining in his. The harder, the better.
Here comes another.
“When I know he’s their best player and known for being a scorer, I just lock in,” Wilbekin said. “I love it. I really do, and I can’t wait to see what happens.”
GATORS GAME BOX
No. 10 Florida at Texas A&M
Tip-off: Thursday, 7 p.m. (Reed Arena)
Records: Florida 12-2, 2-0 (SEC); LSU 12-3, 2-0 (SEC)
TV: ESPN2 (w/Rece Davis and Bob Knight)
Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199
Need to know: The Gators have won four straight, including home and road openers in the Southeastern Conference against Georgia and LSU, respectively, by a combined 55 points. This one figures to be different, though, as league newbie Texas A&M welcomes its first top-10 ranked SEC opponent to campus. The Aggies opened their inaugural conference campaign with an 18-point home win against Arkansas and 12-point road upset of reigning national champion Kentucky. ... UF and A&M have played three times, with the Gators holding a 2-1 edge in the series, including an 84-64 win Dec. 17, 2011 in the Orange Bowl Classic at Sunrise, Fla. ... The Gators will be without junior F Casey Prather, who went from key reserve to starter the previous two games and was averaging 8.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and shooting 69.5 percent over previous four games. Also, backup F Will Yeguete (6.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg) has been limited in practice with a sore knee, so how much he plays could be determined during the game. ... UF, though, gets back senior G Mike Rosario (12.3 ppg) back from the sprained ankled that sidelined him at Baton Rouge. ... UF is led by senior G Kenny Boynton (13.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg), who last week passed both Erving Walker and Udonis Haslem to become the No. 3 all-time scorer in Florida history with 1,782 points. Boynton, despite two blistering performances from 3-point range (and one poor one) the last three games, is still trying to find some consistency from long distance (35.5 percent for the season). ... F Erik Murphy (12 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and C Patric Young (11.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg), plus PG Scottie Wilbekin (8.1 ppg, 4.7 apg) figure to round out the starting lineup (with Boynton and Rosario), though look for increased minutes from freshman G Michael Frazier II, who pitched in for seven rebounds, three assists and a career-best 31 minutes at LSU. ... Florida tops the SEC in scoring margin (plus-21.6), along with scoring defense (52 ppg), but will be challenged by an A&M squad with four players averaging in double figures, led by 6-5 G/F Elston Turner (17.1 ppg, 3.8), who ripped Kentucky for 40 last weekend. ... Up front, the Aggies boast 6-9, 230-pound Ray Turner (11.4 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and 6-9/235 Kourtney Robertson (6.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg), two big reasons why A&M leads the SEC in rebounding margin at plus-15 and outmuscled UK for 19 offensive boards in their game. ... A&M ranks third in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing just 59.4 points a game. UF averages 73.6 per game, so look for a battle of wills when it comes to tempo, although the Gators may opt to scale back their pressing ways due to depth issues. ... As well as the Aggies are playing now, they’ve had their lulls this season, including a home loss to Southern when they scored just 51 points. They also lost neutral-site games against Oklahoma and St. Louis, scoring only 49 points in the latter and made just eight of 18 free throws.