Through the weekend, OnlyGators.com will take a look at each of the four seniors that will be honored on Saturday afternoon when the men’s basketball program celebrates Senior Day at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.
Imagine being 17 years old again. The biggest concerns in your life are taking the SATs, Friday-night plans, getting invited to the big party on Saturday and finding out whether your crush will show up and hang out with you.
Now imagine being that age and taking college classes, going through a major strength and conditioning program and playing basketball against teams with rosters that include players that are up to five years your senior.
Scottie Wilbekin was not at the University of Florida as a 17-year-old freshman because he was at another level academically (though he certainly did well enough in high school to graduate early) or mature beyond his years but rather because the Florida Gators desperately needed a point guard and had a spot open for the local Gainesville, FL product in 2010 that had to be filled and was unlikely to exist a year later.
The interest was more than mutual.
When Gators head coach Billy Donovan began recruiting Wilbekin, he did so with four incoming freshman scholarships filled and only a preferred walk on offer in his hand.
Wilbekin had heard from Boston College, Central Florida, Georgia, Tech, Maryland, Nevada and Virginia but always wanted to play for his hometown team.
His father, Svend Wilbekin, trusted Donovan back then in April 2010 to look out for his son’s best interests. The two knew each other for about a decade as both of their sons played on the same AAU team as eight-year-olds.
So when Donovan told the father that he wanted his son to join the team, he and then-assistant coach Rob Lanier sat down to figure out how to get his son in school a year early so he could take advantage of the unique opportunity he had been presented.
Wilbekin took the SATs and registered a score high enough for admission, signing the scholarship offer that eventually came through in May. After the NCAA Clearinghouse passed him with relative ease, Wilbekin became the fifth member of a recruiting class headlined by a star-studded frontcourt including five-star center Patric Young (the “next Dwight Howard”) and a four-star forward Casey Prather (the “next Corey Brewer”).
Four years later, Wilbekin is arguably the standout player from his class, a favorite for first-team all-conference awards and the SEC Player of the Year honor. It took him a while to get to this point, which makes sense when you consider where he started.
While Wilbekin always looked beyond his years on the court, off it he still behaved like someone his actual age, caring more about himself in the moment and less about how his actions would affect his future and, more importantly, his team’s potential success.
After seeing an average of 16 minutes per game in a reserve role during his first two seasons, Wilbekin took over the starting job his junior year.
But first, he had to deal with a suspension for a violation of team rules that kept him on the sideline for Florida’s hyped-up season-opener against Georgetown on the deck of the USS Bataan in Jacksonville, FL.
Wilbekin was ready to board the Gators bus to take the short trip to Jacksonville but was stopped short, told to turn around and head back to his dorm because he would not be playing in the game.
He was devastated.
“It was my decision this morning to do that after finding out some information on some things. I made a decision,” said Donovan. “We were leaving at 8:30 this morning. I made a decision about 8:00 or 8:15 this morning when I got the information. Like all these guys are in college, they’re all growing and maturing and trying to make decisions and get better and find out and discover who they want to be as people. I think Scottie will learn from this; he’ll grow from this. I think he’ll be better from it.”
Wilbekin was said to be “very, very remorseful” for his mistake. When he was reinstated, he vowed to have learned his lesson and not let anything like that happen again. He averaged career-highs of 9.1 points and 5.0 assists in a team-most 31.9 minutes per game that season and looked primed to be “the man” for Florida as a senior.
Then, for the second time in a seven-month span, Wilbekin’s actions forced Donovan to discipline him once again. He was handed an indefinite suspension for another violation of team rules.
Actually his third strike, Wilbekin was presented with three options – transfer, leave the team, or work his ass off in a program designed primarily to help him mature off the court in order to get out of Donovan’s doghouse. Deciding to carry on at Florida was Wilbekin’s first positive step, but he made a number of others over the course of the next few months that kept him in the fold at UF.
He worked hard in the gym, disassociated from certain people and – at Donovan’s demand – moved back in with his parents. Wilbekin was held to an incredibly high standard because he needed to be and living up to that standard was his sole charge over those summer months.
When he was allowed to rejoin the team for practice in October, Wilbekin’s play opened eyes. Coupling his extra training time with a renewed focus and more mature mindset helped Wilbekin play the best basketball of his career even as no one was able to watch it in person or on television.
“He has really stayed on course since last spring,” Donovan said. “To his credit, he’s done everything that’s been asked of him. He’s shown an incredible commitment to get back on the team and to do the right things and more so than anything else to really prove to his teammates that he’s committed to the team.”
Gators fans got their first glimpse of the new Wilbekin when he returned after a six-game suspension (including the exhibition opener). He scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting, hit both his threes and turned in seven assists with five rebounds.
Florida is 24-1 since he came back on Nov. 25 with its sole loss coming by a single point on the road at UConn on Dec. 2, a game in which Wilbekin was sidelined for the final three minutes with an ankle injury.
The player Wilbekin had guarded all game, Shabazz Napier, scored five-straight points for the hosts all within the final 34 seconds. His last basket was a buzzer-beating jumper made after he first missed a similar shot and then grabbed his own rebound because no one boxed him out. Had Wilbekin been in the game guarding him, chances are the Gators would never have lost that game.
More dedicated to his craft than ever, Wilbekin is averaging nearly four more points per game and getting line about five times per contest, more in close games when he makes a concerted effort to get fouled late in the second half.
He has regained the respect of his teammates, which in turn has helped him become a more effective leader. It is no wonder that Florida is playing its best basketball since 2006-07 and has put together the best regular season in program history.
“I think when a guy makes some mistakes or bad choices or doesn’t take care of his responsibility, what ends up happening is there’s a respect level that gets lost within your team,” Donovan said upon reinstating Wilbekin. “To Scottie’s credit, he has earned back all that trust and respect by the way he’s practiced every day, by his attitude, by what kind of teammate he’s been, by taking care of his responsibilities.”
Poor choices and bad decisions behind him, Wilbekin said he learned “the value of everything in life and especially the value of being here at a school like [Florida].”
It is a similar sentiment he expressed after he got in trouble during his junior season but there is no reason to question his sincerity this time.
The Gators are rolling, and Wilbekin is their leader. The role undoubtedly provides added pressure bit is now one to be cherished, a chance to make up for past mistakes and be a catalyst for future accomplishments.
That opportunity presents itself again on Saturday when he will be honored on Senior Day before No. 1 Florida (28-2, 17-0 SEC) hosts No. 25 Kentucky in the regular-season finale. It will continue into the SEC Tournament and eventually the NCAA Tournament over the next few weeks.
“I want to end it the right way, just playing hard and giving it our all for this last home game,” Wilbekin said Friday.
If he keeps it up for another month, April 5 may not just be the date of his 21st birthday, a day that is seen as a symbolic transition from unfinished teenager to mature adult.
It could also be the day that Florida participates in a Final Four game for the first time in seven years.
Photo Credits: Kim Klement/USA Today, Phil Sandlin/Associated Press