Wilbekin growing up for Gators


Florida players, including Scottie Wilbekin, right, practice in Phoenix on Thursday for their Sweet 16 game against Marquette.

Matt stamey/Staff photographer
Published: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, March 22, 2012 at 12:03 a.m.

PHOENIX — Svend Wilbekin remembers the words that came out of his wife Katy's mouth when he first asked her about their son enrolling in school early at Florida.

“When I first said it to her, she said, ‘No way,' ” he said. “But she slept on it and the next morning she said, ‘OK, he can go to Florida.' Some other schools like Maryland and Temple were getting involved and she realized she'd rather have him leave high school early and stay in Gainesville than wait a year and have him go away.”

So began the journey that keeps on giving for the Florida guard. Most 18-year-olds are talking about spring break this time of year, not Marquette's guards.

Then again, most 18-year-olds don't have six games of NCAA Tournament experience under their belts. And most 18-year-olds aren't playing in the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.

For Scottie Wilbekin, this was the kind of ride he expected when he became a Gator. Now that he's on it, he realizes it's a ride that is easier to imagine than to accomplish.

“I'm thankful for it every day,” he said. “I knew because of Coach (Donovan) that it was possible. We had a great class coming in. So I knew it was a real possibility.

“But just being here makes you understand how hard it is.”

Wilbekin's role has grown from last year when he helped the Gators reach the Elite 8 and it has grown again since Will Yeguete went down with an injury. Florida coach Billy Donovan has played him at the power forward spot when he goes to a four-guard look.

And certainly, Wilbekin will be one of the keys to tonight's game against Marquette because of his defense.

But his offensive game has ramped up as well of late. Wilbekin, who has played almost 19 minutes a game over the last 12 games, has made 10 of his last 17 3-point attempts. And try to remember the last time he took a bad shot.

“He's a great defender, but his offense is getting better and better,” said junior Kenny Boynton.

You remember last year, when Wilbekin would let loose with that knuckleball shot of his and you'd cringe. Now, when he fires one up, you believe it can go in.

When Donovan brought Wilbekin in last year, it wasn't about the offense. He wanted a guy who could spell his guards without handing the ball over to the other team and could defend.

That sounds easy, eh? But we all know that when they're screaming at you in Starkville or Knoxville, it's difficult to do what you're supposed to be doing. And when you get to this level, the bigger the stage gets, the easier it is to fall off.

“I've always believed he could play because he'd always been playing up,” said Svend, who coached his son at The Rock. “I knew he could do what they needed him to do at that time. He has a great basketball IQ. Academically, I knew he'd be fine.

“But for the first time in my life, I was scared when he shot a free throw.”

It's a different world when you go from playing Oak Hall to playing Kentucky.

“He's a brave soldier,” said UF freshman Bradley Beal. “I don't know if I would have done that. Well, I probably would, but I'm glad I had my senior year of high school. He got a jump start and he's taking full advantage of it.”

Said Patric Young, “I can't imagine doing what he did. He's serious when it comes to basketball. Off the court, he's still a young guy.”

Tonight, Wilbekin will take the floor for the seventh time in an NCAA Tournament game. Some players never see the game from this view. But we've seen the sophomore show poise when it gets hottest. Wilbekin has only 20 turnovers all season and hasn't had more than one in a game since early December.

And against a Marquette team that thrives on turning people over, Wilbekin's ball-handling will be a big part of tonight's game.

Another night in the Big Dance.

“It's pretty cool,” he said. “When I was a freshman, I was kind of in awe about everything. Now I just focus on what I'm supposed to do.

“There are times when I think about how I missed my senior year in high school. But I'm never going to high school again.”

Wilbekin's parents will be watching the game in Gainesville tonight rather than make the pricey trip to Arizona.

“We talked about how if they cut the nets down we'll regret it,” Svend Wilbekin said. “But if they cut the nets down we'll get to see it on TV and then we're going to New Orleans.”

His son turns 19 a few days after the Final Four. The way his young life has been going, would anything surprise you?

Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at dooleyp@gvillesun.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.

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