When they were freshman – none of them starters – Scottie Wilbekin, Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete talked about what they would do when they were seniors and it was their chance to lead.
“That’s something we talked about as freshmen, saying that one day it would be our team and our time would come,” Wilbekin said Monday before the 3rd-ranked Gators (21-2, 10-0 SEC) departed for Knoxville where they will face the Tennessee Vols (15-8, 6-4 SEC) Tuesday night. “It’s funny that it’s here and now.”
In Florida’s here and now, the leadership begins at the top. The Gators are a rarity at the highest levels of Division I in that they are blessed with four seniors. That experience translates to productivity on the floor – Prather, Wilbekin and Young are all averaging in double figures while Yeguete’s role, per head coach Billy Donovan, cannot be measured statistically – and to the kind of leadership that keeps the Gators steady as they enter the toughest stretch of the Southeastern Conference portion of their schedule.
Both of Florida’s games this week are on the road. In Tennessee, the Gators will be facing a team that has very little room for error down the stretch if it intends to make the NCAA Tournament in March. Saturday, the Gators will travel to Lexington to face 14th-ranked Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 SEC), which sits in second place in the SEC, two games behind Florida. Of Florida’s remaining eight-game SEC schedule, five will be road trips including three of the next four.
The Gators have a leg up in the SEC race and they are currently on track for a number one or two seed in the NCAA Tournament that begins in March. Winning the SEC and getting that high seed will be a collective effort, but it starts with seniors who understand what leadership is all about and where it begins.
“I think one of the thing that young people struggle with – and our guys are pretty good with this – before you can lead, you’ve got to be responsible for yourself and accountable to yourself,” Donovan said. “If you’ve got guys that are making excuses, not doing their job, it becomes very, very difficult to lead because you lose respect inside the locker room.
“That’s not to say that everybody’s going to be perfect and not make mistakes. But I do think each and every day you have an opportunity as a player to show a level of unselfishness in terms of where your focus is and with the understanding that you are going to make mistake, you’re not going to be perfect, but your heart is that of trying to do on a continual basis what’s best for your team.”
Because Wilbekin, Young, Prather and Yeguete all started their Florida careers on the bench and worked their way into their current roles, there is an understanding of what it takes to succeed as well as an appreciation for the process. Young became a starter as a sophomore. Wilbekin became a starter as a junior. Yeguete and Prather both became starters as seniors.
Since nothing was given to them and they’ve had to earn everything they’ve gotten since they’ve been at Florida, the four seniors fully understand Donovan’s demands for unselfish play and team chemistry.
Asked if having to work his way up through the ranks to become a starter, Wilbekin said, “Yeah, I think it has and it definitely makes you more hungry when you get to this position. It gives you more of an appreciation. We’ve been in the position of maybe some of the younger guys, so we can talk to them and let them know that their time is going to come one day.”
Donovan was quick to point out a couple of factors in the leadership equation on Monday.
Factor one: followers. All the leadership in the world won’t work if nobody will follow the leaders.
“There is no leadership unless you have good followers,” he noted. “Part of having a good leader is you’ve got to have guys that can follow, too.”
Factor two: good leadership. The only thing worse than no leadership is bad leadership.
“Problem comes in when you’ve got guys that are following bad leadership and your team gets taken off a cliff,” Donovan said. “That’s not good, either. But if you’ve got good guys that are about the right things and they’re talking to young people about helping them, those guys have got to be responsible for wanting to be led.”
Since the end of the fall semester, Donovan has been able to see leadership at its best when it comes to freshman Chris Walker. Academically ineligible the fall semester, Walker arrived on campus the day after fall semester finals and then had to sit 12 games while waiting for the NCAA to declare him eligible.
Since he joined the team, the seniors have become Walker’s big brothers. Their leadership along with Walker’s willingness to follow has turned a potentially disruptive situation into a positive for the Gators. Instead of fears that a talented, tall (Walker is 6-10) McDonald’s All-American would take precious playing time away, the seniors have embraced Walker for adding another piece to an already very strong team. Without Walker the Gators had Final Four potential. With him, their chances of making it past the Elite Eight game, where their season has stalled out the last three year, are greatly enhanced.
Walker has made steady progress in practice and has shown flashes of what he can do in the two games in which he has played.
“Chris Walker has been very, very open to listen to Patric, to Yeguete, to Prather, to Wilbekin, to have those guys help him,” Donovan said. “He’s been a very, very good listener. He doesn’t come across like he has all the answers and solutions and knows everything. Chris has been patient listening to those guys, and those guys have been patient trying to help Chris. So you know, it’s a whole thing. There’s times where Patric Young needs to be led, Wilbekin needs to be led, but when you’re in a role like that, you have to have guys who follow and good followers, too, and good followers to the right message.”
Wilbekin, Young, Prather and Yeguete were once good followers who learned their lessons well as they worked their way up through the ranks. Their time spent as followers prepared them for their current role as the leaders of a team that has a chance to win championships this season.