Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan does not like disciplining his players. He does not find a level of enjoyment when he makes an example out of someone. Yet the tough-love approach he recently took on junior point guard Scottie Wilbekin worked as well as he could have possibly envisioned.
Wilbekin has made his mark at Florida by playing lock-down defense, taking care of the ball and remaining more concerned about helping his teammates get good shots than scoring the ball himself. However, over consecutive games against Ole Miss and Arkansas (the latter contest a big loss for UF), Wilbekin shot the ball 30 times, went just 3-of-12 from downtown and was moving away from the characteristics of his game that made him so invaluable to the Gators.
Donovan thought it was time for a wakeup call and subsequently removed him from the starting lineup on Saturday against Mississippi State.
“Scottie is having an unbelievable year. He’s played really, really well and he’s done a lot of really good things for our team. I felt like, coming out of the Arkansas game, he needed to understand there were things that he needed to do for our team,” Donovan explained on Saturday. “He had 15 shots in the game, his assists were down a little bit, he missed some plays. I kind of was on him about just making some better decisions and getting us in and out of offense in a difficult place, on the road, especially in the first half when I couldn’t help him.”
The coach made it clear that his player was not benched for an off-the-court issue or for any other purpose but also said he was not pleased with what he saw from Wilbekin in practice after he spoke to him earlier in the week.
“When I make a decision sometimes I think sometimes I always worry about how people, for Scottie’s sake, how they view it,” he said. “[It was] not even an attitude issue at all. Just Thursday [he] did not respond well at all in practice – no energy, no enthusiasm. Tried to talk to him, didn’t get much of a response. Again, it wasn’t a bad attitude. It wasn’t like he wasn’t trying or it wasn’t like he quit; it was nothing like that. He was not his normal Scottie Wilbekin self in practice, and it continued on Friday.
“I just told him, I said, ‘Listen, we’re coming off of a tough loss against Arkansas. We need energy and passion, and if you’re not going to play with passion, we’re going to start somebody else.’ … It’s more me making that decision because I hold Scottie Wilbekin in such high regard as it relates to those kinds of things. … His energy level and his passion wasn’t where it needs to be, and he has a great impact on our team. When it’s not there, I need to confront it and deal with it. When he doesn’t respond, then I have to make a decision, and the decision was to start [Michael] Frazier over him.”
Wilbekin responded Saturday by playing within himself as Florida won in a 25-point rout. He played 33 minutes off the bench and went 2-for-4 from the field for five points with seven assists and three rebounds. Wilbekin then joined practice on Sunday with the exact same mindset, which is exactly what his coach was hoping to see.
“I thought he played really, really well in the game. He played 33 minutes, and I thought he really played the right way. I thought he was really focused. I thought he made really good decisions with the basketball. I thought he got it where it needed to go,” Donovan said on Monday.
“My biggest thing with Scottie is… I have such a high opinion and a high regard for him as a player and how he can impact and affect our team that, as a coach, I think it is my responsibility to hold him to that standard. And I think Scottie is a guy that is very, very tough on himself. He’s very demanding of himself, and I think he has an expectation of himself for how he needs to play and what he needs to do. When you get into those situations where you’re not meeting your own individual standard or playing at the level you need to play at, that happens all the time to every single player. That’s not new. But how you respond to it, to me, is much, much more important.”
To his credit, Wilbekin understood the benching and – rather than take it as a smack in the face – used it for its intended purpose as a slap in his behind.
“It was just a wakeup call for him to let me know how I needed to play and how hard I needed to play every day and just to play like I do when I’m at my best,” he said. “It got kind of carried away being down by 20 [at Arkansas]. It made you feel like you had to do something. I probably forced plays that weren’t there.”
Now that the road is smooth between player and coach, both can be focused on beating Kentucky, something Wilbekin said Monday is certainly on his mind.
“They beat us three times last year and that’s really embarrassing to lose to a team three times in one year. We want to come this year with a focused effort, ready to play our best basketball,” he said.
NOTES AND QUOTES
» Redshirt senior guard Mike Rosario on taking down UK: “We feel like we got to take on that challenge and that challenge is protecting our home court. Nothing gets more better than beating a Kentucky team. Preparation-wise, we got to make sure we know everything on the scouting report and make sure we’re in the right spots on the defensive end. And just moving the basketball, that’s what makes the best out of our team. We’re going to focus on those things and get prepared for those guys.”
» Donovan on Kentucky’s length in the frontcourt: “It’s something we’re going to have to deal with. They’ve got really good length across the front line. They’ve got a lot of different lineups they can play. … Our hand is what it is in terms of our frontcourt. We collectively got to do a good job as a group. I’ve always been a big believer that it’s not one guy’s responsibility to take care of another guy; we got to do it and have done it this year. And we’ll have to continue to do a good job as a team.”
» Donovan on the Wildcats program as a whole: “They’ve kind of set the bar, so-to-speak, their program in this league for a long time. I think every team in this conference looks at Kentucky as being the program to try to become. Obviously it’s hard to do because they’ve done it for so long and for such a long period of time, not just here recently. I think it’s great having them in our league. I think that has been terrific because it certainly draws a lot of attention to our league.”
» Donovan on if there is any update about junior forward Will Yeguete (knee): “I don’t think we’re going to probably find anything out in terms of how quickly he will be able to return probably for at least another week. He’s still on crutches right now. They take the stitches out, I think, in about a week to 10 days. Right now it’s just more of resting and it’s more of probably him doing leg-strengthening exercises. I don’t think, at this point in time with the surgery being on Friday, there’s any idea of how he’s progressing and how soon he will be back. Right now, my expectation is probably not to address or even think about it until at least the end of the regular season.”
» Donovan on stopping John Calipari’s 1-7 record against him since joining UK: “I don’t know if I necessarily look at it that way. Clearly last year they were the best team in the country. I think they lost maybe two games the whole year. It was not even necessarily against us, it was against everybody. More importantly for me, the game right now, in the midst of what we’re in, we’re playing for a league championship. That’s really what’s most important right now. … I really never ever get wrapped up in that kind of stuff. Clearly they’ve had, the last three or four years, just an incredible talent [base] and some incredible pieces. They’ve been very gifted, and they’ve been a very, very hard team to beat. And I think John has done a terrific job with his team.”
» Donovan on the challenge of going up against Nerlens Noel: “I think he’s just as good as Anthony Davis as a shot blocker. I don’t think there’s any question about that. He’s got unbelievable length. He’s got unbelievable timing. He’s very gifted at it, and he’s very skilled at it. He keeps himself out of foul trouble. He can alter shots from a lot of different directions and areas of the floor. But we’ve got to play. I think we have to have a level of intelligence. Driving in there and trying to shoot over top of him is probably not a wise choice, but I still think that we’re a team that needs to attack.”
Photo Credit: John Bazemore/Associated Press