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Sunday November 24, 2013Wilbekin Ready to Rejoin Gators for Jacksonville Game After Long Road Back

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

“I’m sorry for what I did to my family, my teammates and my church family over at the Rock School for putting them through a situation and embarrassing them like this. I’m a product of them, so it hurt that I would put them through all that and let so many people I care about down.” -- Scottie Wilbekin on Nov. 16, 2012. 


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- All the contrition, all the regret, all the emotional heartbreak in the world wasn’t going to help Scottie Wilbekin last June as he sat in Billy Donovan’s office, flanked by his parents. 


The Florida coach was furious and a certain word kept popping up: “transfer.” 


That’s what Donovan had in mind for Wilbekin, his homegrown playmaker and respected locker room leader, after suspending him for a second time in seventh months for violation of team rules. The UF coach bluntly stated that Wilbekin could make life a lot easier on himself by just walking away from the Gators and playing basketball somewhere else. 


It was that or do everything -- without an iota of a slip-up -- over a grueling six months to prove not only he belonged back on the team, but was worthy of being trusted by his coaches and teammates. 


“When we had that conversation, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen,” Wilbekin told on Sunday. “Once he told me the plan, I didn’t think of transferring at all.”


A lot of folks are happy about that now. 


Wilbekin, the 6-foot-2 senior playmaker and UF’s best on-ball defender, was officially reinstated to the team late last week and will be in uniform -- maybe even start -- when the 16th-ranked Gators (4-1) take on Jacksonville (2-3) Monday night at Veterans Memorial Arena. 


Nearly a year to the day of being reinstated from his first suspension, Wilbekin is convinced he is a better person, better teammate and better basketball player because of the hurdles he had to clear and hoops Donovan made him jump through. 


“The lessons I’ve learned are lessons in maturity,” said Wilbekin, who averaged 9.1 points and 4.9 assists per game last season. “I have a greater appreciation for the things that really matter in life; and realizing the value of what you have in something as far as basketball and the opportunity to play here. Growing up, really. I’ve grown up a lot.” 

These lessons were supposed to be learned last year when Wilbekin was hit with a three-game the day before the start of the regular season. They weren’t.

But Wilbekin, through his actions, has convinced Donovan that this time is different. 

“For whatever reason, that experience, those first three games last year, did not register with him at all at the level I wanted it to,” Donovan said Sunday in announcing Wilbekin’s reinstatement. “The biggest thing I’ve noticed is a total change in his attitude.

Nearly 150 days of arriving for dawn-breaking workouts with strength and conditioning coach Preston Greene, individual instruction sessions with managers and lengthy periods without contact with teammates and coaches earned Wilbekin the right to rejoin his team for the official start of practice Oct. 11. 

His work between the lines and meeting Donovan’s strict guidelines over the last five weeks -- all while being banned from the O’Connell Center while his team played four of its first five games there -- bought back Wilbekin's place with the ball in his hands. And with no strings attached. 


Look for Wilbekin to play a ton against the Dolphins.


“He’s served his time and his punishment, and to his credit he’s done everything that’s been asked of him,” Donovan said. “He’s shown an incredible commitment to get back on the team and to do the right things and, more so than anything else, really prove to his teammates that he’s committed to the team.”


What does the return mean to Wilbekin? 


“It’s all I wanted from the moment I was out; the only goal I was focused on,” Wilbekin said. “It means everything.”: 


What does it mean to the Gators? 


“He’s our only point guard now,” sophomore guard Michael Frazier said. “He’s a senior, a veteran guy and we really need him.” 

Wilbekin’s arrival comes two games after the Gators lost their starting point guard, freshman Kasey Hill, to a high ankle sprain in last Monday’s defeat of Southern. UF looked discombobulated in a half of basketball without any point guard Thursday night against Middle Tennessee before putting things together for a lively second half and 20-point win. 

Now the Gators can inject Wilbekin, who has been sensational in practice, back into the rotation and start running their pick-and-roll offense, get the ball into the post and look to find some rhythm from the 3-point line. 

Wilbekin can’t wait. Neither can his teammates. 

“With his disposition, being his senior year, what he’s gone through, he’s just very excited and very hungry to come out and prove he’s fully invested and committed to this team,” senior center Patric Young said. “Teams are going to be dealing with a different animal when they have to go up against this guy.” 


Some similar remarks were made by Young and some other Gators last year; much like the ones Wilbekin made upon the return from that first suspension. And yet don’t think Wilbekin has anything to prove to his teammates this time around. 


He already has. 


“You would have to ask them if they trust me, but if I had to guess I’d say what they saw me go through and the strides that I’ve made as a person and get to this point where I’m playing has made them believers,” Wilbekin said. “The attitude I did it with, a positive attitude and never complaining, showed them how much I cared about them, how much I wanted to get back, all while knowing how much I let them down by getting suspended again.” 


Now he gets to demonstrate all the above where it matters most. 


On the court. In a real game. 


“It’ll be emotional, but some of those emotions you probably think I’d feel actually came back when I finally got to practice with the team,” Wilbekin said. “I love these guys so much and it was hard being away from them all that time. Now, it’s all behind me.” 




No. 16 Florida at Jacksonville 


When: Monday, 7 p.m. 

Where: Veterans Memorial Arena, Jacksonville, Fla. 

Records: Florida 4-1; Jacksonville 2-3

TV: FOX Sports Florida (w/Larry Vettel and Bill Koss) 

Radio: Gator IMG Sports Network (w/Mick Hubert and Mark Wise) -- Click here for affiliates) / Sirius 134/XM 199

Game notes: Florida notes




History: UF and JU will play for the 35th time, with the Gators holding a 34-5 advantage in the series, including 10-1 under Coach Billy Donovan. The two programs last met two seasons ago, a 107-62 home Florida win behind 22 points from Kenny Boynton and 21 from Erving Walker on Nov. 25, 2011. The last time the Dolphins beat the Gators was Dec. 20, 2010, a 71-68 overtime win in Gainesville. 


Pre-game storyline: Senior PG Scottie Wilbekin was reinstated last week after serving a six-game suspension for violating team rules, his second such suspension since last November. With freshman PG Kasey Hill (ankle) sidelined, Wilbekin gets the ball and will be charged to get UF flowing in the halfcourt and racing up the floor in transition. 


The players: Senior F Casey Prather (17.6 ppg, 6.2 rpg) averaged 22.3 points through UF”s first three games, but scored just 21 during the last two. He got in early foul trouble Thursday against Middle Tennessee State, going scoreless in 4 first-half minutes, but still went 4-for-5 in the second and finished with 11 points and 4 rebounds. ... Senior C Patric Young is coming off his best game, scoring 16 points, grabbing 6 rebounds, also hitting his last 6 free throws, and playing his normally outstanding defense. ... Sophomore F Dorian Finney-Smith, since his reinstatement after missing the regular season’s first two games, has emerged as UF’s top rebounder (7.3 ppg), but also has averaged 13 points despite missing some shots in close and not shooting the ball overly well (42.3 percent).


The opponent: JU’s three losses are a 24-point defeat at Florida State, a 9-pointer at Gardner Webb and 7-pointer at Wake Forest. The Dolphins defeated Florida College, a junior college in Temple Terrace, Fla., and Saturday beat Florida A&M by 4. ... Jacksonville is led by the backcourt of 6-4 Jarvis Haywood (15.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg) and 6-2 PG Vince Martin (10.8 ppg, 4.8 apg). F RJ Slawson (9.2 ppg, 5 rpg) played at South Carolina last season. He transferred to JU in the offseason and did not have to sit out because he is a graduate student. ... G Keith McDougald led the Dolphins in scoring last year (13.1 ppg), but has missed the last two games for personal reasons. 


Key numbers: 


* Minus-2.5 -- Rebounding margin for the Gators through their first two games of the season.


* Plus-7.7 -- Rebounding margin for the Gators through their last three games. 


* 10 -- Assists by UF in Thursday’s game against MTSU, but 8 of them came in the second half. 


* 73.2 -- Team free-throw percentage for the Gators this season. 


* 75.8 -- Free-throw percentage by F Casey Prather, who’s taken a team-high 33. 


Watch for it: With Wilbekin in the lineup, the Gators low-post players -- Young, Finney-Smith and Will Yeguete figure to benefit by getting the ball in better position on the block. Wilbekin is also pretty good at tossing the lob pass, something that’s been missing from UF’s pick-and-roll action thus far, with Young a popular target and Finney-Smith a very likely one. 



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