|No. 7/8 FLORIDA GATORS||GEORGIA BULLDOGS|
|Head Coach: Billy Donovan||Head Coach: Mark Fox|
|Record: 14-2 (4-0 SEC)||Record: 7-10 (1-3 SEC)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Southeastern|
Location: Stegeman Coliseum – Athens, GA [Capacity: 10,523]
Time: 8:00 p.m. EST
TV: SEC Network (Dave Neal, Barry Booker) [Affiliates]
SiriusXM: 134/199 | Radio: Gator Radio Network [Affiliates]
Online Video: ESPN3.com | Mobile Video: WatchESPN app
Live Updates: @OnlyGators on Twitter and SportsYapper app
Odds: Florida -15.5 | O/U (OFF)
The Florida Gators basketball roster is filled with McDonald’s All-Americans, highly-rated recruits and big-name players, but it is junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin – an underrated local product (and project) out of Gainesville, FL who joined the team after his junior season of high school – who is having a huge impact on the team.
On a team with a pair of big-time scorers in the backcourt, much of the dirty work is left to Wilbekin. Senior guard Kenny Boynton plays fantastic defense and redshirt senior Mike Rosario is improving in that area, but Wilbekin has been shutting down his man game-in and game-out all while leading Florida with 4.9 assists per game.
Over the last two contests, Wilbekin held Texas A&M’s Elston Turner to four points on 1-of-10 shooting just one game after Turner scored 40 points against Kentucky and dominated Missouri’s Phil Pressey, who committed a career-high 10 turnovers while going 1-for-7 from the field for two points.
In fact, Wilbekin is on his way to climbing the ranks of some of the best on-ball defenders in the history of the program as he draws comparisons to hard-working guys like Justin Hamilton and Corey Brewer.
“I think he’s definitely in that category,” head coach Billy Donovan said on Monday. “The one thing with Scottie that is really good is Scottie does not really pay much attention at all to points, what position he’s playing, how many shots he’s getting. … He’s got that mentality that he really takes on challenges to defend.
“He’s made our defense a lot better because he’s got really good feet and he can move his feet and keep people in front. He’s a physical guard where he’s a hard guy to screen and if he does get screened, he’s got a real good ability to get around off-contact and get back on the ball. He is totally, even when he first got here as a freshman, that’s been something he’s really invested into himself.
“A lot of times players hang their hat on something they’re good at [like scoring],” Donovan continued. “He’s always hung his hat on being a great defender. That’s always been important to him. … He’s been a guy that, it’s important to him personally, defense. I don’t need to motivate him to play defense. It’s important to him.”
To think Wilbekin’s teammates do not notice his effort and impact would be blatantly incorrect. Rosario mentioned this week that he feeds off of Wilbekin’s intensity, and senior forward Erik Murphy maintained on Monday that he has never seen a player defend like Wilbekin.
“It’s unbelievable. Guy just comes out and guards, just relentless,” Murphy said. “I don’t think I’ve ever played with a guy that can guard on-the-ball like that at any level – high school, AAU, college. I’ve never played with a guy like him defensively on-the-ball. … We see him and then we want to give that same effort for him.”
While defense is certainly important, Wilbekin serving as an effective offensive general has also worked wonders for the Gators. His ability to penetrate and dish is something that Florida has lacked for the last four years, and he has even worked at becoming a more consistent shooter.
Wilbekin is hitting 44.9 percent of his shots from the field and 36.4 percent from downtown while playing 30.9 minutes per game, just a few seconds behind Boynton’s team-high 31.4 minutes. Though those are not eye-popping numbers, his coach is equally impressed with how Wilbekin has been able to impact the team offensively.
“He’s been good in terms of getting in the lane and making good decisions,” Donovan said. “His offense continues to grow. I think he takes good shots. He takes open ones. He’s a good finisher at the basket. When he gets down the lane, it kind of opens up things for us. It opens up the perimeter and the low post. He’s done a really good job because he’s strong and he’s physical. … He’s really made some nice improvements on the offensive end of the floor.”
Perhaps most impressive is that Wilbekin has made these great strides after beginning the season in Donovan’s doghouse for violating an unspecified team rule. He was suspended for the first few games of the season and lost his role as a starter, one which he regained due to injury (and talent) and has not yet relinquished.
“In life we all make mistakes, and I put myself in that category with Scottie as a person,” Donovan said. “Sometimes your greatest growth and development as a person comes through when you have some adversity or setbacks or make mistakes. Because of that, I think it’s made him a better player. It’s maybe forced him to look at life, his basketball career, playing here at Florida, being here in Gainesville, maybe a little bit differently than it ever has before.
“None of us are ever going to go through life being perfect without making mistakes … but it doesn’t mean that it needs to define us as a person. If we put our energy into what we can learn from those situations and use those situations as really great opportunities to grow, we’re going to end up being a lot better than we were when that situation took place.”
The Gators are certainly much better with Wilbekin on the floor, and their opponents – especially opposing backcourt stars – have a much more difficult time scoring on Florida with him pestering them during games. As the season continues to roll on, Wilbekin’s shut-down defense and unselfishness on offense will be of paramount importance to the team succeeding in reaching its goals.