When Florida has needed someone to step up during its current 12-0 march through the Southeastern Conference, SEC Player of the Week Scottie Wilbekin has been one of the players that has answered the call.
At Arkansas he made a clutch jumper with two seconds left to tie the game in regulation and send it to overtime, then hit six of eight free throws in the final 36 seconds and hauled in a rebound in the extra period. Last week in Knoxville he was sent to the line three times in the final minute draining six of seven from the charity stripe to keep Florida’s cushion intact in the waning seconds of a cathartic road victory in Thompson-Boling arena against Tennessee. Saturday night, Florida exorcised some more demons with a road win over Kentucky (the first time they’ve won on the bluegrass in Wilbekin’s career) in which the senior point guard’s 23 points was one shy of leading the team in scoring. More importantly, he also had zero turnovers (a feat he also accomplished against Tennessee).
But in the late stages of the 69-59 win, with 24,425 blue clad fans going bonkers it wasn’t a basket Wilbekin sunk, or a beautifully orchestrated offensive set executed where No. 5 showed how he could be counted upon. It was when he pulled his team together tight after a foul call and preached poise under pressure.
“Just stay the course,” Wilbekin said. “I tell them, we knew it was going to be tough. If we got a foul called that we didn’t like or didn’t think should be called, we’re on the road. This is an SEC environment. This is Kentucky. We knew it was going to be like this. We knew they would have their runs and make tough shots.”
As everything in life does, it took hard work to get Wilbekin to be the player and the leader he is today. At first, a defensive oriented point guard, late night shooting sessions rounded out his game by adding a dependable jump shot to his offensive skill set. A commitment to staying calm under pressure also had to be undertaken; he developed the confidence to do that by trusting the players around him.
As reliable as he’s become on the court, there was a time when he wasn’t off of it. Wilbekin was suspended three games in the 2012-13 season and then got hit with a five-game suspension by Billy Donovan to start this season. When confronting Wilbekin with the second offense, Donovan gave an ultimatum: shape up, or ship out.
“For our team to be better and for him to be better, he needed to change,” Donovan said. “Really, the point of me asking him to transfer if that’s what he wanted to do was really more under the umbrella of, ‘If you don’t want to change and you want to stay who you are and you want to be doing the things that you’ve been doing that are not going to work here, then you’re better off moving on.”
Call it tough love, or a hard-line in the sand, but Donovan (a point guard by trade himself) saw selfishness and a me-first attitude that needed to be corrected to lead a team as a senior especially in a position that by definition is distribution and unselfish first and foremost.
It’s times like these when Donovan can transcend the role of just being a basketball technician and become that of almost a life coach, someone with a profound impact on young men. Whatever message he’s preaching about whether on or off the court, Donovan’s message runs the risk of becoming lost on either bored or deaf ears, especially when they belong to a college student. Wilbekin says the team tries its best to always listen.
“It doesn’t get old,” Wilbekin said. “Sometimes when he’s getting onto us, we know like the reasons for it, and so we can look past getting annoyed because he’s pointing out something that we’re doing wrong. We look past that and realize that he’s doing it for the best and he wants what’s best for our team. It’s great.”
Another thing that doesn’t get old? Winning, and as Florida sits now tied for the school record with 17 victories in a row and an undefeated conference and home record, Wilbekin knows he’ll be relied more often as the stakes continue to get higher. But as long as his team is rolling, he’s having a good time.
“It’s a lot of fun to win,” Wilbekin said. “It’s way more fun than losing.”