Scottie Wilbekin didn’t want to get his hopes up. Besides, he’s so team-oriented that he would have been just as happy for one as his teammates as he was for himself when he learned of his selection as Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
“I had heard people saying it throughout the last couple weeks, but I honestly didn’t think I would get it for whatever reason,” Wilbekin said Tuesday afternoon before the #1-ranked Florida Gators (29-2, 18-0 SEC) began practice in preparation for their first game in the SEC Tournament in Atlanta on Friday afternoon. In addition to his selection as SEC Player of the Year, Wilbekin made first team All-SEC and was selected to the All-SEC Defensive team.
Wilbekin wasn’t the only Gator honored. Patric Young was selected SEC Defensive Player of the Year, SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year for the third time, and made second team All-SEC. Casey Prather made first team All-SEC. Dorian Finney-Smith was chosen SEC Sixth Man of the Year and head coach Billy Donovan was named SEC Coach of the Year for the third time in his Florida career.
Wilbekin was pleased with the individual honors, but felt they were more of a reflection on what the team has accomplished.
“I’m just more happy for our team to see all the other people who got awards on our team,” Wilbekin said. “I think it’s a reflection of how good this team is and how good we played during the regular season to see this many of us get awards. And obviously Coach D winning Coach of the Year, it’s just a reflection of what he’s done with all of us this year and keeping us all focused on our goals.”
Since those back-to-back road wins against Tennessee and Kentucky in the middle of February where he scored 44 points while knocking down 21-24 free throws and handing out eight assists without turning the ball over, Wilbekin picked up Player of the Year momentum. Heading into the SEC Tournament, he averages 12.9 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. He leads the Gators with 38 steals.
Wilbekin’s numbers aren’t the best in the SEC in any category, but he is the complete player, much like Chandler Parsons, the SEC Player of the Year in 2011 and the only other Gator to claim the award. Monday, Wilbekin was also selected third team All-America by Sporting News.
That he’s in position to claim these honors says much about Wilbekin, who skipped his senior year at The Rock School in Gainesville to play for the Gators back in 2010. That 2010 class included a couple of McDonald’s All-Americans in Rutgers transfer Mike Rosario (graduated in 2013) and Young, runner-up for Tennessee Player of the Year in Prather, and two-time All-State selection from Florida Air Academy Will Yeguete.
Wilbekin made all-county.
And then there was the suspension that kept him out of the first five games of the season. It was serious enough that Billy Donovan had the release papers signed and encouraged Wilbekin to transfer out unless he was willing to make an about face in his life.
Wilbekin chose the about face, turned his life around and now has the top award given by the SEC to show for it. Wilbekin was quick to show his thanks for everyone who continued to believe in him during his ordeal and for a team that set records this year including being the first in SEC history to run the table in an 18-game league season.
“It feels good,” Wilbekin said. “I definitely couldn’t have done it without my teammates, Coach D believing in me and (Florida athletic director) Jeremy Foley giving me a second chance. All of my teammates had faith in me, and obviously as doing as well as we did in the SEC being 18-0.”
Wilbekin was always a tough defender. As a freshman at the SEC Tournament, he came off the bench to strip Kentucky All-American Brandon Knight on consecutive possessions and turn the steals into layups. He made All-SEC Defensive team last season, his first as a starter. This season, however, his offensive game came into the spotlight as he provided balance to the floor so that teams couldn’t load up their defense to stop 3-ball specialist Michael Frazier. Wilbekin is hitting a very respectable 37.9% from the 3-point line and he’s turned into a clutch free throw shooter, hitting 75.4 percent from the line. He is also the guy the Gators turn to late in the shot clock or late in the game to make the tough shots.
But still, it’s the defense that gets everybody’s attention.
“Different games, different people are going to score points,” Wilbekin said. “But every game, everybody plays defense, so whoever scores the points is just a byproduct.”
Donovan calls Wilbekin the best perimeter defender in the nation. He’s a lock down guy who always takes on the opponents’ best perimeter scorer even if it means giving up size. Against Tennessee Wilbekin frustrated first team All-SEC guard Jordan McRae, who is 6-6, into a 1-15 shooting night. He shut down Marshall Henderson in the second half at Ole Miss, holding last year’s leading scorer in the SEC scoreless the final 20 minutes.
Florida is the #1 defensive team in the SEC and ranked #5 nationally against scoring. The Gators have allowed only 58.5 points per game this season. Only Arkansas broke the 80-point barrier while Memphis and Ole Miss are the only teams that scored as many as 70.
That’s fairly remarkable considering the Gators rank 13th in the SEC in blocked shots and just fifth in steals. Young is the leading shot blocker and he averages less than one per game. Wilbekin is seventh in the league in steals at 1.5 per game.
So how do the Gators do it?
“I think that’s because we force tough shots,” Wilbekin said. “Some games we’ll force a lot of turnovers, but for the most part we try to make teams shoot bad shots. Even though we don’t have an outstanding shot-blocker or leader in steals, I think we just do a good job of grinding down teams and trying to wear them down with our depth and just how hard we work.”