Wilbekin comes up big in first game back

JACKSONVILLE – There is something to be said about familiarity. Michael Frazier, who hit his first five three-pointers against Jacksonville University Monday night at the Veterans Memorial Arena, kept hearing Scottie Wilbekin say, “Just get open, man!” He knew exactly what that means.

“You find your spot on the floor and you know if you’re open, he’ll get you the ball,” Frazier said hitting five three-pointers and scoring 17 points as 13th-ranked Florida (5-1) disposed of Jacksonville University, 86-60, in the Gators’ first game of the season with Wilbekin on the floor and running the point.

It certainly didn’t seem like it was the first game back for Wilbekin, who missed Florida’s exhibition game and first five regular season games while serving a suspension for an undisclosed violation of team rules. The senior from Gainesville filled up the box score with a stat line that read 12 points, five rebounds, seven assists and three steals while playing 34 minutes.  Wilbekin went 5-9 from the field and hit both his three-point attempts. He also protected the basketball, tuning it over only twice.

Wilbekin was a first team All-SEC defensive player last year and was expected to be one of the anchors of a team that has very high post season expectations this year. When his personal troubles began in late spring, Wilbekin was given a chance to transfer to another school by Florida coach Billy Donovan, but transferring apparently never crossed his mind. The only thing he wanted to do was serve out the suspension and get back to playing with his teammates.

“I love this program; I love my teammates,” Wilbekin said. “Coach D is a great coach and I think I have a good relationship with him. I couldn’t see myself playing for anybody else.”

The terms of the suspension were harsh and Donovan had a checklist on which there was no margin for error. Wilbekin knew one slip-up and he was gone.

Getting suspended was embarrassing, particularly since it was the second time Wilbekin had been forced to sit (three games last year to start the season) but this time was different.

“In some ways this suspension was probably the best thing that could have ever happened to me because I learned a lot over the summer,” Wilbekin said. “Through Coach D (and some work that I did I really think I progressed a lot as a person. I’m glad it’s behind me and I’m looking forward to moving on the rest of the season with my teammates.”

His teammates were certainly happy to have him back. Roommate Casey Prather, who scored a game-high 27 points, said it just felt better playing with Wilbekin on the floor again.

“He does a great job of getting us in and out of our offensive sets and he is our defensive anchor,” Prather said.

Jacksonville did its best to disrupt Wilbekin but nothing the Dolphins drew up seemed to faze him. The Dolphins ran five different presses but Wilbekin handled each one without turning the ball over. The Dolphins started the game in a straight up zone, but when the Gators raced out to a 21-7 lead in the first seven minutes, the Dolphins went to full court pressure. Whatever they threw at Wilbekin, he seemed prepared.

And certainly, Wilbekin never lost track of where Frazier was on the floor.

“It’s a little joke I have with Frazier,” Wilbekin said. “I tell him every time he’s open I’m going to pass it to him so I can get an assist. That’s a guaranteed bucket.”

Gators were helped by JU’s willingness to run up and down the floor with the Gators. There was no slowdown on the part of the Dolphins, who were led by Jarvis Haywood with 16 points.

Donovan said it was Wilbekin’s ability to recognize what the Dolphins were doing that made playing in transition easy for the Gators, who led 48-29 at the half and stretched it out to  32 (69-37) with 13:12 to go in the game.

“Scottie’s got a lot of minutes and a lot of games under his belt. You’ve got to have somebody back there who can shift you in and out of things because they went 2-2-1, 1-2-2, they played a 3-2 matchup, they played a 2-3 zone and they played man so we probably saw five different defenses,” Donovan said. “It’s hard for me yell on the sidelines they’re in this so run this. You’ve got to have somebody back there who can make those decisions and I thought Scottie did a very, very good job shifting us in and out of offense based on what we were seeing and I think that really helped our flow.”

Wilbekin spent the first few minutes of the game asserting himself defensively and getting the Gators into a good offensive flow. The Gators finished the first half shooting a sizzling 65.4% but the Gators were 8-9 to start out.

Donovan credited the defensive intensity with the positive carry over onto the offensive end of the floor.

“We had some good defensive stances in the first five or six minutes of the game,” Donovan said. “We handled ourselves well in the zone. We didn’t get caught taking a lot of three-point shots although Frazier made his first five, but he stretched the zone for us a little bit so we were able to the middle of the floor to the baseline, get out in transition and I think we made eight of our first nine shots. I think any time offensively you can get off to that kind of start and you can stop somebody you can create some space.”

For the game, the Gators shot 59.6% from the field and 8-13 from the three-point line, their best shooting performances of the season. Additionally, the Gators had 19 assists on their 31 made baskets, another season high.

Prather, Frazier and Wilbekin were joined in double figures by Dorian Finney-Smith, who backed up his 14 points with a game-high 11 rebounds, and Patric Young, who scored 13, his fourth straight game in double figures.

WALKER INJURED: DeVon Walker started the game for the Gators but injured his foot within the first seven minutes and never returned. Donovan said that while it doesn’t seem the injury is a high ankle sprain, it’s significant enough that it will be X-rayed Tuesday.

“I don’t know how it happened,” Donovan said. “It appears to be some kind of ligament on the bottom of his foot or on the side of his foot. I think the trainer is concerned enough to X-ray him right now. He couldn’t go back in. Don’t know when he’ll be back. We’ll probably find out a lot more tomorrow. It does not look like a high ankle sprain. It could be a sprained ligament in his foot.”

GAME NOTES: Prather has scored in double figures all six games this season. He has scored 115 points in six games, more than he scored (95) in his freshman and sophomore seasons combined … Florida held Jacksonville to 23-61 from the field (37.7%) and 5-14 (35.7%) from the three-point line … The Gators outrebounded the Dolphins, 37-33 … Next up for the Gators is Florida State Friday night at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

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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.