Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan on Sunday officially reinstated senior point guard Scottie Wilbekin, concluding the starter’s indefinite suspension at six games (including the exhibition opener).
Wilbekin will participate in his first contest of the season Monday on the road at Jacksonville as Florida looks to improve on its 4-1 record.
OnlyGators.com, citing multiple sources close to the team and player, first reported Wilbekin’s suspension length over the summer.
“He’s playing. He’s going to play [Monday],” Donovan said. “He’s done everything. I’m really proud of him.
“As I have mentioned before, he has really stayed on course since last spring. He was obviously injected back into our team full time as it relates to practice, but with all that he’s done up to this point in time, he’s going to be available to play [Monday].”
Donovan added: “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. So I’m not going to hold him back at all.”
According to Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com, Wilbekin was the Gators’ most impressive player during their secret scrimmage against Georgia Tech before the season.
Sources close to the team that have watched Wilbekin in practice have shared similar sentiments with OnlyGators.com over the last few months.
“I think he’s all caught up in terms of what we’re doing. I’ve really designated him these first five games a lot on the scout team, utilizing him to get our team prepared for whoever we’re playing against, so he knows what we’re doing,” Donovan explained. “He’s a senior, a bright kid. I think he’s anxious and excited to be back playing.”
“He’s played very, very well in practice. He’s been really, really good,” Donovan later noted. “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. 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.”
Wilbekin’s return is not tied to the injury to freshman PG Kasey Hill, who suffered a high-ankle sprain last Monday that is expected to keep him out 2-3 more weeks.
“It’s good to have another body. It gives us more depth in the backcourt than we had in the Middle [Tennessee State] game,” Donovan said. “It gives us a pure point guard who can kind of run our team.”
Despite Donovan’s statements to the contrary, Nov. 25 had been pinpointed as Wilbekin’s return date all offseason as the length of his suspension was pre-determined. It could have been extended if Wilbekin did not right his ways.
UF played its last game, a 79-59 victory over Middle Tennessee State on Thursday, without a true point guard. Wilbekin’s return is welcome albeit coincidental news.
“Certainly the Middle game was a unique situation because it was the first time I can remember as a coach not ever having a game where we just didn’t have a pure point guard, the whole entire game. That’s really never happened,” Donovan noted. “There’s always been somebody back there that we can utilize, whether it be just one guy or a backup. But I’ve never had both point guards out.”
Wilbekin, who spent his first two years at Florida as a reserve but averaged 9.1 points and a team-high 5.0 assists in a team-most 31.9 minutes per game as the Gators’ starting point guard last season, missed the first three contests of the 2012-13 campaign after Donovan handed down a suspension 24 hours before the season opener.
This time, Donovan said he presented Wilbekin the option to transfer rather than accept his punishment. To his delight, Wilbekin did not consider the former and instead decided to work as hard as he could to rejoin the team.
“I think he’s grown up in a lot of ways,” said Donovan. “I think that he obviously made some poor choices last year and you would hope that situation would’ve been an eye opener for him with his level of accountability and responsibility to himself and to his team. For whatever reason, that experience, those first three games last year, did not register with him at all at the level I wanted it to.
“I think with the situation we put him in the spring as it related to him having to work his way back on the team, not doing anything Summer B or Summer A with our team, going through the whole entire conditioning in the months of August and September away from our team, slowly getting him back. … I’ve noticed is a total change in his attitude.
“Scottie was never ever a bad kid. It was of kind of like a warrior mentality. Like, ‘I’ll take anything on. I can deal with it.’ And I think he’s gotten a lot more humble. I think he has a much, much better understanding of how his actions and things that he does impact not only himselfbut other people. I really have seen a great growth in him. And I think more than anything else, when you’re a person that just comes and watches our team play, we’re evaluated and judged of our performance and how we play.
“Sometimes, people don’t get a chance to see the interworkings of being with a kid every single day and seeing the growth that he has made. I couldn’t be any prouder of him.”