Gators' tournament success hinges on Wilbekin
Published: Wednesday, March 27, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 26, 2013 at 8:29 p.m.
ARLINGTON, Texas — As wins have been stacked up like dishes in a student's sink, we in the media have spent time trying to figure something out. Who is the head of the snake for this Florida basketball team?
Who is the one guy who has to play well for the Gators to play well?
And we pointed to Erik Murphy, and we were sure it was Patric Young, and we swore it was Will Yeguete's knee.
But the truth is that this team only plays as well as the kid from Gainesville plays.
It should have been obvious. The point guard is always the head of the snake. Cut it off and a team dies. Teams without good ones are sitting at home eating cheeseburgers.
It has become evident this postseason that Scottie Wilbekin is the most important player on a team full of good ones.
In the games where he has played well, Florida is 4-0. In the games where he has not, Florida is 0-1.
Wilbekin went dribble-crazy and looked flustered in Florida's loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament final. Maybe it was the matchup with Marshall Henderson's massive and misguided ego that caused the Gator guard to lose his poise.
But on Sunday, we saw the Wilbekin that Florida has to have to be effective.
“He was pretty smart finding guys open,” said Tubby Smith, who was still the Minnesota coach when I asked him about Wilbekin. “He's a guy who really does a good job of orchestrating our team.”
In that game, Wilbekin had 12 points and six assists. He also had a number of hockey assists, where he passed the ball to the right guy who found the right guy, and Florida had an open look.
But the play of the game and the play of the tournament for UF was, to me anyway, the 3-pointer he hit from the corner with the game in the balance. That was a gutty, pressure-filled shot. Minnesota was down only seven, had erased much of a 21-point halftime lead and all of the momentum was on the side of the Gophers.
“He played well,” said Billy Donovan. “We have gotten into those situations — whether it's been Missouri or Kentucky — when we have had kind of a lead and then for whatever reason we go dry for a long period of time. Scottie stepped up, and you need someone to make a shot.”
It's not as if Wilbekin is the blame for every epic fail and should be given credit for every success. But the point guard has to be efficient when the spotlight gets hotter and brighter.
“It helps to have been in those situations before,” Wilbekin said. “We know what it's like to lose and obviously we don't want our season to come to an end in a game like that when we're up 20.
“They were doing a great job putting pressure on us, so we had to stay focused and stay locked in.”
That's the key for any player but especially for a player who is running the show and is often asked to guard the opponent's best player.
It's a long season and focus can tend to wane. And let's not forget how this long season began.
Wilbekin was suspended for the first three games of the season. He didn't make the trip to play what turned out to be a historic half of a game on the USS Bataan.
“Sometimes all of a sudden life hits you in the face and you realize how fortunate and blessed you are,” Donovan said. “I'll never forget this — when I had to tell him, ‘We're not taking you on the trip.' The bus is leaving, and he's got his book bag over his shoulder and he's got to walk past our facility to go back to his dorm room and he's crying.
“Those kind of events change you. They force you to look at life a little differently.”
Wilbekin's father Svend saw the change in his son after the suspension. It wasn't that Scottie changed as a person, “he added a layer of maturity.
“It was very difficult for him. Watching him go through that was humbling,” Svend Wilbekin said. “But he responded well to the situation. I think he really matured. It ended up being good for him.”
Sometimes you have to have the thing you love taken away from you to really appreciate it.
For Scottie Wilbekin, playing on this team — one that he was so anxious to join he skipped his senior year of high school — means so much. And he, in turn, means so much to this basketball team.
The most important player on this Florida team? It's the only starter not averaging in double figures in scoring.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.