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Photo: Bill Pearce

Tuesday November 26, 2013Feel the Flow: Wilbekin's Return Keys Big Offensive Night in Win at JU

Photo: Bill Pearce

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry Senior Writer

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Two words. That was all the instruction sophomore marksman Michael Frazier needed to hear from his senior point guard.

“Get open,” Scottie Wilbekin told him.

Three times during Monday night’s first half, Wilbekin ran the UF offense and ended a possession by finding Frazier open from beyond 3-point line. All three times, Frazier buried the shot.

“That’s just a little joke I have with him,” Wilbekin said. “I tell him that every time he’s open I’m going to pass it to him and get an assist -- because it’s a guaranteed bucket.”

The Gators were thrilled their playmaker back just as much he was.

Reinstated by Coach Billy Donovan late last week after missing the first five games due to a second suspension since last November, Wilbekin scored 12 points, grabbed five rebounds, dished seven assists and turned the ball over just twice in his season debut, an 86-60 win over Jacksonville before a pro-UF crowd of 5,625 at the Veteran’s Memorial Arena.

“I was a little nervous before the game, just because it had been so long,” Wilbekin said. “Once the ball got tipped and we started moving up and down, I was back into it.”

So were the Gators (5-1). Senior forward Casey Prather scored 27 points on 10-for-12 shooting from the floor. Sophomore forward Dorian Finney-Smith netted the first double-double of UF career with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Frazier threw in 17 points in going 5-for-6 from the arc, making his first five attempts.

It was the best the UF offense has looked during this young season.

Wilbekin’s return came a week after the Gators lost Kasey Hill to an ankle sprain. Hill, the lightning-bolt freshman, was handed the reigns of the offense the first day of practice, what with Wilbekin relegated to the practice scout team for five weeks. UF flailed about somewhat in their last outing, minus any point guard, before finding some rhythm without a true ball-handler to run the show.

But now Florida's front man has returned to the backcourt.

“It never felt like he and I were on any different page,” Donovan said. “He’s been in practice everyday. He knows what I expect, what I want. He can get us in and out of offense.”

That’s what 109 games and 31 starts over the previous three years can do for a guy.

Example: In UF’s first five games, the Gators carded 11, 7, 16, 15 and 10 assists, respectively.

Against the Dolphins (2-4), UF made eight of its first 10 field goals, with assists on all but one of those baskets. Of the Gators' 17 first-half field goals, 13 of them were assisted.

They finished with a season-high 19 dimes.

“He was hyped up to play, but I think he did a great job of settling his emotions then going out and doing what he needed to do,” Frazier said. “And he settled us.”

The half-court flow was better. The open court run was faster, more efficient.

“It just felt comfortable with him out there,” said center Patric Young said after posting 12 points and five rebounds in his hometown. “He has that experience. I know I can completely trust he’s going to get us into what we need to get into and we’re going to get a good shot every time.”

That statement was not an indictment of Hill, who was performing splendidly (11 points, 4.2 assists per game) given his circumstances. In fact, Donovan can’t wait to see what the Gators can do -- and the speed at which they can play -- with both Wilbekin and Hill in the game at the same time, pending the rookie’s return, possibly in a couple weeks.

But there’s no substitute for experience.

The Gators shot 65.4 percent in the first half and made five of their six attemps from distance to lead 48-29 at the break. They did, however, lose shooting guard DeVon Walker, who started his sixth straight game, to a foot injury just two minutes after the tip.

With Hill and Walker out, five players logged at least 25 minutes, led by Wilbekin’s 34. They were game-processing, Dolphin-dissecting minutes.

“You have to have somebody out there who can shift you out of things,” Donovan said. “[Jacksonville] pressed, went 2-1-1, then 1-2-2, a 3-2 matchup zone, a 2-3 zone, played man. We probably saw five different defenses. It’s hard for me to yell, ‘They’re in this! Run this!’ You have to have somebody in there to make those decisions. Scottie did a pretty good job of shifting us in and out of of our offense and that helped our flow.”

The floor was spaced, shooters got clean looks from the perimeter, and the lane looked much clearer for Prather, Finney-Smith and the UF bigs to venture.

“You can run more and you know he’ll find you,” Prather said. “You can cut more, slash more. It was just great to have him back.”

On both ends. Wilbekin double as the team's best on-ball defender and chipped in seven of the UF's seven steals. Florida limited JU to 37.7 percent shooting from the floor, while building a lead that swelled to as many as 32 midway into the second half.

"There are just so many intangibles he brings to the team," Prather said.

The Gators have their leader back. And with a murderers’s row of games coming up -- home against Florida State on Friday, followed by a trip to Connecticut, a home date against Kansas and neutral-site showdown in New York against Memphis -- his teammates certainly are thankful.

Almost as much as Wilbekin, who by all accounts returned to the team in October a changed young man.

“I'm just glad to put that stuff behind me," he said. "It was great to be out there playing, back with my teammates. I'm just looking forward to moving past the suspension. I'm not looking back. I think I've really matured a lot as a person and I've grown. And in some ways, this suspension was probably the best thing that could ever happen to me.”

What a coincidence. His return is the best thing that’s happened to the Gators.


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