College is supposed to be the best four years of your life. One day you wake up and realize that days have melted into weeks, weeks have turned into months, which have turned into years and you’re staring down the barrel of reality. Your time as a student is almost up. For at least one Gator basketball player, his senior year is surrounded by the same uncertainty as the first day he stepped foot onto campus four years ago.
That senior is guard and member of the 2013 All-SEC defensive team Scottie Wilbekin, who has been suspended since June 10 for violating team rules. The suspension wasn’t the first time the Gainesville product has run afoul with Donovan for violations of team rules. Wilbekin was suspended for the first three games last season as well. Despite having more than one issue, he is making strides to return to the Florida basketball team full-time for his final year in Gainesville.
“Scottie Wilbekin, right now and at least at the end of the week provided he can continue to do what he’s been doing, will start practicing on Friday with our team.” Billy Donovan told members of the media on Wednesday at Florida’s 2013 basketball media day.
Despite multiple suspensions in a one-year period, WIlbekin seems to have shown his coach real change in his decision making, personality and maturity. The relationship between a coach and a player doesn’t end on the court. The team and coaching staff spend so much time together that they turn into a family. Wilbekin’s actions have disappointed Donovan in the past but his new attitude has Donovan beaming like a proud father.
“I’m really proud of him and what he’s done and how he’s conducted himself.” Donovan said. “From the spring until now it’s been a long, long road for him, just being disconnected from our team and not working out and being around our team, then working his way back. He’s done everything that I could ask of as a player in terms of taking responsibility and growing, but he still has some things in front of him before he’s fully back with our team but he will practice.
The absence of Wilbekin coupled with the departure of three seniors (Erik Murphy, Kenny Boyton and Mike Rosario) has left the team starving and searching for leadership heading into the season.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in terms of our leadership moving forward.” Donovan said. “We’re anxious for Friday and to see how those guys can handle these situations.”
The ordeal is almost over for Wilbekin, though. He will rejoin the team at practice this Friday, although he is not fully reinstated. Since his suspension, Donovan has set certain goals and conditions before allowing Wilbekin to rejoin the team in a normal capacity. That Donovan has allowed him to return to practice shows that Wilbekin is obviously making those strides and taking steps to ensure it never happens again.
But Donovan says that Wilbekin still has a way to go.
“He has done everything that I could ask of him as a player in terms of taking responsibility and growing,” Donovan said. “He still has some things in front of him before he is fully back on our team, but we will give him the opportunity to practice.”
Teammates rally behind Wilbekin
Wilbekin was not made available to the media on Wednesday but he was on hand to take pictures with the team. It doesn’t take long to see just how close Wilbekin is with his teammates as you watch them laugh and joke while going through a day filled with media obligations.
Senior center Patric Young has spent the past three years with Wilbekin and can see the change in his friend and teammate.
“I think he’s doing a really good job of looking at himself and making some changes and realizing how he’s affected other people with his actions,” Young said. “You know we’re all tremendously proud of Scottie because he’s really taken this stuff head on and doing everything it takes to prove himself, that he made a mistake and he’s going to make up for it.”
Another senior, Casey Prather, echoed those same sentiments.
“He’s doing an unbelievable job getting back to the person he needs to be,” Prather said. “I’m just extremely proud of him.”
The question has never really been about what Wilbekin brings to the team on the court. He’s a tenacious defender and a capable point man who orchestrates Florida’s offense. The questions surrounding Scottie have been about his maturity off the court and his occasional inability to make the kind of choices that are expected of a student-athlete at the University of Florida.
However, having basketball taken away from him for the second time in less than a year has opened up his eyes and shown him how his actions off the court effect not only him but his teammates on the court. Throughout this process he has learned not only how to be a better teammate, but how to be a better person and a better man.
“It hasn’t been easy for him but I think he’s made some strides in the past few weeks, few months,” senior forward Will Yeguette said. “He’s doing so much better now, he’s become a better man and I’m really proud of him because he’s really trying to change.”
As a senior, Wilbekin’s time at Florida is dwindling and being forced to spend time away from the team has given him a new perspective of the little things that often get taken for granted.
“You can take this stuff that we do every day for granted,” Young said. “But it can be taken away from you just like that. I think now he really cherishes every time he’s on the court for sure.”
Replacing Wilbekin in the short term
With Wilbekin’s future still unknown, Donovan and his coaching staff will have to find a way to replace their starting point guard until Scottie can earn his way back on to the team.
As of now, that looks like the job will fall onto the shoulders of a freshman.
McDonald’s All-American Kasey Hill came to Florida with a lot of hype and expectations. With Wilbekin out the learning curve will have to be steep as Hill will be counted on to play a lot of minutes early on in his career. It’s a task that Hill may have not expected to be given when he committed to Florida but one that he is ready to embrace. He won’t have to go at it alone, having Wilbekin at practice will help Hill adjust to the pace and physicality of the college game.
“I take it a day at a time,” Hill said. “Scottie’s a great player, he’s a point guard here, he’s a good dude, he’s doing great and I can’t wait to get on the floor and to start practicing with him.”
Hill is most excited about the opportunity of being able to go up against such a tenacious defender in practice.
“It’s gonna be a great challenge,” Hill said of the matchup with Wilbekin. “He’s not one of the best defenders for no reason; he’s a really good defender so, if anything, it will be a lot better for me to go against him than anybody else in practice.”
Rutgers transfer Eli Carter will also be given the task to help replace Wilbekin when he returns from a broken right leg that ended his season prematurely last year. Carter received a special waiver from the NCAA that will allow him to play this season despite transferring this offseason.
While Carter is getting a new opportunity and a fresh start on his college career, Donovan acknowledged that Carter has an uphill climb ahead of him.
“I feel bad for Eli,” Donovan said. “Any time you transfer in and you start your career at a different school on an injured note and not able to go out there and prove yourself and play every day, I think that’s been difficult.”
If Wilbekin does miss game time, Carter and Hill will be asked to take on a heavier work load than they probably anticipated heading into the season but it’s an opportunity that Carter thinks both players are ready for.
“I won’t say there’s any pressure on Kasey or me,” Carter said. “We’ll just have to step up a little bit more. I think that’s something that we’re fit for. We’re fit for the task.”