Sometimes we forget that Scottie Wilbekin is just 20 years old and a good four months away from turning 21. Perhaps it’s because we’re in our fourth year of watching him play basketball for the Gators. After 114 games in a Florida uniform he just seems older even if he’s just eight months older than Kasey Hill, the freshman phenom who will step in and take Wilbekin’s place as the number one point guard next season.
Kasey Hill is learning the ropes the same way Scottie Wilbekin learned them from Erving Walker and Kenny Boynton. That’s the way it is at Florida. The seniors teach the young guys and when the young guys get older, they will pass down the knowledge they’ve gained.
The 20-year-old Wilbekin is a bold departure from the 17-year-old freshman who skipped his senior season at The Rock School in Gainesville to become part of a recruiting class that included Patric Young, Casey Prather and Will Yeguete. He’s still the kid of the group but he has matured into an indispensible part of a 16th-ranked Florida (8-2) team that has the capability of making a very deep run into the NCAA Tournament.
As a freshman, Wilbekin’s role was to give Walker and Boynton a breather while staying within his comfort zone, which was making good but not too creative passes and locking down defensively on the perimeter. Just ask Kentucky’s Brandon Knight, who Wilbekin embarrassed on three straight possessions in the SEC Basketball Tournament, if Wilbekin doesn’t play defense with a pit bull mentality.
While he has grown into a legitimate offensive threat and a fine distributor as a second-year starter at the point, the one thing that hasn’t change since Wilbekin has been at Florida is his ability to play lock down defense on the perimeter.
“Scottie Wilbekin is as good as there is a defender on the perimeter in the country,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said Thursday before the Gators practiced for Saturday’s Orange Bowl Classic game with Fresno State (6-5) at the BB&T Center in Sunrise (4:30 p.m., Fox Sports Network/Sun Sports).
Donovan understands that some people are just born basketball players. You don’t necessarily have to give them a position. Just put them on the floor and they’ll fit in wherever it’s necessary.
Wilbekin is that way, particularly on the defensive end. In the last three years, Donovan hasn’t hesitated to play Wilbekin on any of the three perimeter positions and there have been times he’s been an efficient defender in the post. On occasions last year when the Gators went very small — playing with either Yeguete or Prather as their only post in full or half court pressure situations — Wilbekin became the high post defender and didn’t seem to mind that he was giving away six or seven inches in height.
“Scottie is one of those guys you can just put out on the floor,” Donovan said. “He can play any position. He doesn’t care about it.”
He just wants to play. That’s why he has no problems sharing the ball with Hill now that the jet quick freshman from Montverde Academy is playing his way back into shape after missing four games with a high ankle sprain. If Wilbekin is at the point Donovan knows he has a penetrator who has the ability to get into the lane. If he wants to load up the floor with 3-point shooters, he puts Hill at the point, moves Wilbekin to the shooting guard and Michael Frazier to the small forward then adds Dorian-Finney Smith into the lineup.
“I think what it does do when we move Scottie to the two and we have Frazier at the three and we have Dorian Finney-Smith at the four it gives us some more shooting than maybe we’ve had in some lineups we’ve had in the past,” Donovan said.
Wilbekin has handled it all with remarkable ease. He’s Florida’s second leading scorer (12.6 points per game), leader in assists (5.2) and steals (2.8) and he’s the second leading 3-point shooter, hitting 50%.
MENTORING CHRIS WALKER
Wilbekin and his senior classmates have taken it upon themselves to mentor Chris Walker, the McDonald’s All-American who has been on campus just one week. Walker hasn’t been declared eligible to play yet by the NCAA, but he’s learning every day to prepare for his debut. Because he was barely 17 when he stepped on campus, Wilbekin, probably more than the others, understands what Walker is going through.
It’s a lot that he has to learn in a quick period but I think he has a lot of people helping him,” Wilbekin said. “We all want him to move along as fast as he can. I can’t really imagine, all I can do is think what he might be going through. It’s definitely tough but I think he can do it with all the help that he’s got.”
Wilbekin does see the vast potential of the 6-10, 220-pound Walker.
He has a lot of potential and he’s still a freshman so he has a lot of room to grow,” Wilbekin said. “He has a lot of potential. He can be really good and I think he’s really coachable and I think if he just stays focused on getting better and listening to Coach and listening to some of the older guys on the team that he’ll just continue to get better every game.”
CLOSE GAME FINISHERS
In games decided by eight or fewer points, the Gators were 0-6 last season. They are 4-2 this year and the two deserves an asterisk since the Gators weren’t playing with a full complement of players in either game.
Donovan likes the end of the game poise he’s seeing in his team.
I think our guys in these games have maybe shown better poise, have handled themselves better, have had a better understanding of what it means to be done in those situations, especially on the defensive end of the floor,” Donovan said.
This year’s team also seems to stay in the moment better. Last year’s team had problems stopping opponents when they got on a run. This year’s team seems to find ways to get a stop and get the energy re-focused on the offensive end.
I think the other part for us last, which I really disliked inside of our team, is we were a team that go into this thing where all of the sudden a run would happen we would get this glazed look over our eyes and we would be separated, no finger-pointing, but almost like guys into what they got to do instead of what we have to do collectively as a team,” Donovan said. “I think we’ve gotten better at staying connected and realizing when a team is on a run we have to stop the run collectively. It’s not someone being a hero. It’s not someone living in the past about the last play.”
PROBABLE STARTING LINEUPS
FRESNO STATE (6-5): Alex Davis (6-9, 205, JR); Paul Watson (6-7, 187, FR); Tyler Johnson (6-4, 186, SR); Cezar Guerrero (6-1, 190, RSO); Marvelle Harris (6-4, 212, SO)
FLORIDA (8-2): Will Yeguete (6-8, 230, SR); Casey Prather (6-6, 212, SR); Patric Young (6-9, 240, SR); Scottie Wilbekin (6-2, 176, SR); Michael Frazier (6-4, 199, SO)