Wilbekin: “This is a great opportunity”

TAMPA — By the time a team named D-Quad finally gets on the scoreboard, Nike Team Florida has scored 21 points and Scottie Wilbekin is on the bench watching as teammates have their way with this overmatched team that somehow is in a 17-and-under AAU Tournament event though their roster is made up of ninth and tenth graders. By the time the fourth quarter arrives, Nike Team Florida coach Tom Topping has his team practicing a delay game and doing their best not to score.

Wilbekin (6-2, 180, Gainesville, FL The Rock School), who is suddenly the center of intense scrutiny as he waits clearance from the NCAA to forego his senior year at The Rock School in Gainesville to play for the Florida Gators, doesn’t seem to mind watching. He likes competitive games. This one is somewhat of a joke.

“Whatever we do, I hope we don’t ever have to play these guys again,” Wilbekin says after playing six minutes in a 77-26 win that could have been much, much worse if Topping hadn’t done everything he could to keep the score down so not to further embarrass the D-Quad kids.

In the last couple of weeks, Wilbekin’s star has been on the rise, first because he blew up at the Nike tournament in Hampton, Virginia while helping Nike Team Florida to a surprising 4-1 record, and second because of a decision to forego his senior season. In Hampton, when Wilbekin lit up Southern Cal commit Gelaun Wheelwright for 25 points and 10 assists (8-8 from the field including 4-4 from the three-point line and 4-4 from the foul line), recruiting gurus took notice but Wilbekin was already on some big time radars. Florida already knew about him and there was already discussion of early entry. Tennessee and Maryland both have joined a growing list of offers.

The decision to attend Florida has been made according to his dad but Scotty says he can’t say much right now. He’s still waiting for NCAA paperwork that will reclassify him as a 2010 recruit (should be in any day now) and the SAT (first weekend in May).

“It’s all happening kind of fast,” Wilbekin said. “We’re still working everything out. I’ve got to get okayed by the NCAA and I’ve got to get an SAT score so I really can’t say anything much for now.”

The idea of skipping the senior year isn’t novel. Last summer, Andre Dawkins of Chesapeake, Virginia elected to enroll early at Duke rather than spend his senior year playing like a man among boys at Atlantic Shores Christian School. Austin Rivers (6-4, 193, Winter Park, FL #2 ESPNU Super 60) toyed with the idea of reclassifying for 2010 before making the decision to return to Winter Park for his senior year.

Although the level of play in the Southeastern Conference is a whole new level, Wilbekin isn’t fazed by the idea. He played varsity basketball at The Rock as an eighth grader (brother Mitchell started as an eighth grader along with Scottie this season). Following his eighth grade year at The Rock, he played for Nike Team Florida’s 16-and-under team rather than spend a year in his own age division.

Last summer, Wilbekin’s third in the Nike Team Florida program, he played with the 17-and-under team even though he was barely 16.

“Going to college is a big step up, but I’ve played against older guys all my life,” Wilbekin said. “I’ll have to step up my game and get better at everything but that’s what I’ve always had to do.”

Wilbekin has grown up a Gator fan and he’s been attending Billy Donovan’s camps ever since he can remember. Playing basketball for Donovan is a good part of the lure of an early enrollment at Florida.

“I like him as a person and a coach,” Wilbekin said. “He’s a really good man. He’s a Christian and that’s very important to me. As a coach, I really like the style of play and the way he coaches his team. I like him a lot.”

He also knows all the Florida players from pickup games. He’s been more than holding his own against them ever since he started playing with them last summer. Ever since the high school and college seasons ended, there are daily pickup games and Wilbekin has been a regular.

“I played with these guys all last summer in open gym and I’ve been doing it the last few weeks,” he said. “I really like playing with them. I love being on the court with Vernon Macklin. He always surprises me with some crazy dunks and I love playing with Chandler Parsons, too. They’re great players and they’re really good guys, too.”

Wilbekin knows that he will have to earn playing time with the Gators but he says he doesn’t mind that as long as he can contribute to winning. Florida returns its starting backcourt next season in Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton, who started every game in the 2009-10 season. Walker averaged 12.6 points and 4.9 assists per game while making second team All-SEC. Boynton led the Gators in scoring at 14.0 and made the All-SEC freshman team. Wilbekin and signee Casey Prather (6-6, 198, Jackson, TN Northside #35 ESPNU 100) will provide the depth.

Florida’s front court will return starters Macklin and Parsons (starter Alex Tyus has entered the NBA Draft and could be playing professionally next year). Experienced depth returns in Kenny Kadji (sophomore after medical redshirt in 2009-10), Erik Murphy and possibly Adam Allen (sat out last two years with knee injuries). The front court will be bolstered by the addition of signees Patric Young (6-10, 237, Jacksonville, FL Providence #13 ESPNU 100), Will Yeguete (6-7-1/2, 225, Paris, France/Melbourne, FL Florida Air Academy) and Cody Larson (6-9, 225, Sioux Falls, SD Roosevelt).

The new signees and the return of Kadji and Allen will give the Gators 12 scholarship players and potentially the deepest bench Donovan has had in years. The Gators made the NCAA Tournament with an eight-man bench and new starters at three of the five spots on the court last season, so they are expected to be even more improved next year.

Wilbekin thinks it’s a very good situation for a first year player.

“It’s definitely a good situation to be in when you’re just a freshman,” he said. “I’ll miss high school. Your senior year in high school is a great time, I know, but this is a great opportunity and it’s hard to pass this up. Besides, my high school is only 15 minutes away.”

Previous articleFlorida women meet Tennessee for SEC tourney title
Next articleGymnasts earn individual awards
Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.