Location: Stephen C. O’Connell Center – Gainesville, FL [Capacity: 11,548]
Time: 7:00 p.m. EST
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|(2) FLORIDA GATORS||AUBURN TIGERS|
|Head Coach: Billy Donovan||Head Coach: Tony Barbee|
|Record: 23-2 (12-0 SEC)||Record: 12-11 (4-8 SEC)|
|Conference: Southeastern||Conference: Southeastern|
|Roster | Schedule||Roster | Schedule|
Odds: Florida -17.5 | O/U: OFF
This is what it takes to get Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan off your back for a second: 44 points, eight assists, six rebounds and most importantly, zero turnovers, combined in a two-game road stretch in two of the toughest places to play in the Southeastern Conference.
Senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin achieved just that last week, and his reward was Donovan sticking purely with praise – rather than adding his customary remark about improvement – when asked about his rising floor general’s ball control during two huge wins against Tennessee and Kentucky.
“I trust him with the ball in his hands,” Donovan said on Monday. “I think as time goes on and we run things on offense, everyone gets more comfortable. Everyone starts to fit into roles. But that is a tribute to him taking care of the basketball and making good decisions.”
A special effort is required to get Donovan to praise a player without offering some form of suggestion for how he can improve. Yet Donovan chose to ignore that Wilbekin made some careless drives and took some rushed shots last Tuesday in Knoxville, TN, plays that are not technically turnovers but nevertheless resulted in wasted possessions.
Perhaps that, more than anything else, speaks to how he feels about a player who was subjected to a rigorous offseason regimen just to be allowed to practice with the team and subsequently missed the first five games of the 2013-14 season while serving a suspension.
“Obviously he went through a lot,” Donovan noted, “and I think it was the best thing for him in terms of helping him grow all the way around. Off the court and on the court there are correlations, in my opinion, for how you play.”
Wilbekin’s steady climb to the top of the candidate list for SEC Player of the Year has been fueled by his play but there should be no question that his renewed focus has played a major part in his emergence.
Though his exploits have not been well-documented – Wilbekin has been twice suspended for vague violations of team rules – his punishments have been public knowledge. Donovan discussed his increased offseason responsibilities, OnlyGators.com noted via Twitter that Wilbekin had returned home to live with his parents (in Gainesville, FL) while getting back in the team’s good graces, and his teammates often commented how hard he was working in practice.
Wilbekin previously claimed that Donovan’s punishments made him more mature. Then he got suspended again. This time, he says, he means it because has learned “the value of everything in life and especially the value of being here at a school like this.”
He also thinks the lessons he learned have helped him improve as a leader and provided him with a better perspective both on life and the game of basketball. Donovan has taught him the “day-in, day-out process of how hard it is to be good” and constantly reinforces that being great does not happen naturally.
What Donovan has not yet been able to get across to Wilbekin is how to handle being the featured player on a team, a role he suddenly finds himself in despite not being Florida’s leading scorer (that’s senior forward Casey Prather at 15.7 points per game). That, he says, will be a work in progress over the next few weeks.
“Every game he’s going to be guarded differently. He’s got to figure that out as the game goes on. I think that’s a challenging piece,” Donovan explained. “People are going to do different things against him, and then you got to recognize and have an awareness of how to go about attacking it. Him being balanced of when to shoot, when to pass, when to drive, is important.”
Already pulling a tough defensive assignment each game – almost always placed on the opponent’s most talented scorer – Wilbekin has a lot on his plate these days.
He claims that he has learned to remain calm in games – evidenced by his clutch free throw shooting late in the second half most of the season – and hopes that resolve is being shared by his teammates.
“I just have so much confidence in this team that there’s no reason to get rattled because we’ve been in every situation we can be in,” Wilbekin said.
But neither Wilbekin nor the rest of the Gators have dealt with much losing this season, at least not since he returned to the lineup after getting injured in the last few minutes of a buzzer-beater loss on the road at UConn.
Florida has won 17-straight games dating back to that Dec. 2, 2013 defeat and is on the verge of setting a program record if it can increase its winning streak to 18 games by taking down Auburn at home on Wednesday night.
“[Winning],” Wilbekin said, “is a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun to win. It’s way more fun than losing.”
No doubt also that being in Donovan’s penthouse is way more fun being in his doghouse.
HISTORY / STREAKS / STATS
» Auburn actually leads Florida 87-74 in the all-time series, but the Gators boast a 19-4 record under Donovan. UF has won six-straight against AU, 16 of the last 17 in the head-to-head series and eight in a row at home.
» The two teams will square off in a home-and-home series this season for the first time since 1991. Florida defeated Auburn 68-61 on Jan. 18 in Auburn, AL.
» The Gators are currently riding a school-record 29-game home winning streak (second-longest in the nation). Florida extended a program record last Saturday by recording its 15th consecutive home win against league opponents.
» UF has opened league play with a 12-0 record for just the first time under Donovan, setting a school record for best SEC start in program history.
» Florida on Saturday matched a program record by winning its 17th consecutive game. A victory Wednesday would give the Gators an 18-game winning streak, the longest in school history. UF has also won 22 of its last 23 games dating back to Dec. 2, 2013.
» The Gators are 75-9 since the beginning of the 2011-12 season when holding an opponent under 71 points in a game.
» UF has started 23-2 through 25 games for the second time in school history. The first time the Gators achieved that mark, they won the national title (24-2, 2006-07). In 2005-06, UF opened the season 20-2.
» Florida is 10-2 this season in single-digit decisions after going 0-6 in such contests during the 2012-13 campaign. UF is also 1-0 in overtime games.
» The Gators defeated top-15 teams in consecutive games for the fourth time in program history and first time ever in non-conference regular season play.
» Florida is 3-2 against ranked opponents this season with both losses coming in true road games by a combined total of seven points.