Much has been written about the offseason suspension of senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, which lasted five games into the 2013-14 season, and the road laid out for him by head coach Billy Donovan to return to the Florida Gators.
During a Monday afternoon appearance on ESPN Radio‘s SVP & Russillo, Donovan provided additional insight into Wilbekin’s offseason struggles, explaining why he put so many obstacles in Wilbekin’s way while relating a story about how, with one gesture, his floor general went from outcast to full-fledged team member.
First, some background. Suspended indefinitely for a violation of team rules – his third infraction overall and second in a seven-month span – Wilbekin was told by Donovan that it would likely be best for him to transfer and start over elsewhere. If he did choose to stay with the Gators, the Gainesville, FL-native’s hometown team, earning his way back in the good graces of his coach and teammates would be a tall task that he may not have the necessary motivation or discipline to scale.
“Scottie Wilbekin’s situation was a unique one not only from the standpoint of a suspension, but I do think there were some guys on our team that were disappointed in him, there were some guys that had to regain trust, so to speak.. And he needed to be put into a situation – because he does have good leadership qualities – to be able to do that,” Donovan began.
“One of the things I felt like in looking at the whole thing is I was very disappointed, our team was very disappointed in some of the choices and decisions Scottie made. When he made the decision that he wanted to stay here and he wanted to battle and fight his way through, I do think there was a lot of guys on our team that were a little bit skeptical of how committed is he to us. How committed is he to this team? He’s making bad choices and in the past he’s not been committed [off the court].”
That is when Donovan decided he had no choice but to set forth a myriad of demands including Wilbekin moving back in with his family and dedicating himself 100 percent to his team and his craft, free from distractions and the bad scenarios he had placed himself in over the previous three seasons.
“I had to put him, I felt like as a coach, in a situation where he could restore his credibly and his trust inside the team. Although people may have looked at the suspension or his punishment as being really, really harsh, I’m not so sure – if I made it easy on him – if we as a team would’ve regained that trust,” Donovan continued.
“I think those guys saw what he went through. He was totally removed from our team for really all of preseason and the start of practice. Our guys would have 7 o’clock in the morning conditioning on Tuesdays and Thursdays; Scottie Wilbekin was in there at 5:30 in the morning doing his conditioning by himself. When our players were coming in, they saw him exhausted, full of sweat by himself. When our guys came out there for individual instruction as a group of fours, he’s coming off the floor by himself soaking wet. When our guys were walking into the weight room, they saw him in the weight room. I think they really appreciated [his effort].”
Donovan and the assistant coaches noticed that Wilbekin had begun fostering respect and accelerating forgiveness from his teammates, including three of his closest friends and classmates in seniors center Patric Young and forwards Casey Prather and Will Yeguete. However, it was not until a symbolic hand was extended by one of those three men that Wilbekin’s extended exile came to an end.
“I’ll tell you what really was a great, great visual for me,” Donovan began. “Our team was getting ready to go through conditioning. [Wilbekin] had just finished up. He was sitting on the side. He was exhausted, he was tired, by himself, against the wall.
“Our guys kind of huddled up to break, they were getting ready to start conditioning, and Patric Young called him over and said, ‘Come on in the huddle.’ Scottie [was] looking around [at] the coaches like, ‘Am I allowed to do that?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’
“It was amazing what had happened to him with our guys kind of pulling him back into the fray with our team. Scottie deserves all the credit because he’s the one that did it. He put the work in, he was committed. He really restored his relationship, his credibility. I just wanted to try and create an avenue for him, as a coach, for him to get back what he lost.”
One could argue that Florida would not be where it is right now – standing as the No. 1 overall seed in the country and preparing to compete in the Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA Tournament – had Donovan not demanded so much from Wilbekin in the offseason as the player attempted to work his way back onto the team.
The extra practice and conditioning undoubtedly helped Wilbekin, the 2014 SEC Player of the Year, get back on the team, but it also took his game to another level.
On a larger scale, his offseason efforts brought the Gators closer together than they had ever been before.
Florida dealt with and overcame perhaps its greatest challenges before the season even began. The result was a group of players more connected than any UF squad since the 2007 team that won the second of back-to-back national titles.
Through acceptance and forgiveness, the Gators have built respect, trust and a belief that they are better as a focused unit than an assembly of individual parts.
And it has been Donovan pulling the strings the entire time.
Photo Credit: Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel